Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Leaning In...And the Fear of Failing to Keep It Together

I just read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In in three hours.

The last time I read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting (not counting plays, which operate under different rules), was when I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince after picking it up at one of the midnight Barnes and Noble parties.  It was far from my favorite book in the series; while The Order of the Phoenix was downright daring in its messages about government bureaucracy in education, Half-Blood Prince seemed to turn Hogwarts into The O.C.  I think part of my haste in finishing the book was my anxiousness to see whether it would tackle some of my burning concerns from the end of book five.

The speed with which I devoured Lean In may have been motivated by a similar urgency (it's also possible I needed some brain food after grading expos essays all day).  For those not familiar, Lean In is a part memoir, part career advice book written by the CEO of Facebook about how in order to achieve true equality in the world place, women need to not only fight to remove obstacles holding them back on a societal level, but also remove internal and psychological barriers that make them stifle their own ambition.

I definitely came into Lean In with an agenda
:  as a proud feminist with a passion for history, I am always concerned with the kind of narratives society is spinning about expectations of gender.  Of particular interest over the last few months has been the young, high-profile women actively distancing from the word "feminist," as if it has become outdated, unlikeable, and embarrassing.  This has largely been the result of the rise of the "straw feminist" in pop culture, or an outrageously extreme example of a feminist woman whose passion meant for ridicule.  Anita Sarkeesian does an excellent job of deconstructing this trope on her Feminist Frequency web series.  At the same time, there have been also been many critics of writers like Sandberg who say by writing from her relative position of privilege as a white woman of means, Sandberg telling women it's partially their own fault for not succeeding is ignoring the very real obstacles of women dealing with poverty and racial discrimination.  Similar concerns were voiced when Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! banned working from home.  Sometimes it's difficult to know where to direct my leftist outrage!

But then Katha Pollitt, one of my favorite feminists who never lets anyone off the hook, wrote this eloquent column in support of Sandberg.  And then Arianna Huffington gave an interview about it that made me want to cry.  So this morning, when I saw a copy on the "New Arrivals"shelf at the Sunnyside Library, I took it as a sign from the gods.

Reading the book was an emotional experience.

The idea of women holding themselves back from their ambitions was hardly a surprising idea--the chapter subtitled "What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" could basically sum up my weekly sessions with my therapist.  Sandberg writes of the different fears that keep women from getting ahead, which include "Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged.  Fear of failure.  And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter" (24).  On that level at least, Sandberg's got me pegged.  Part of the reason I've retreated from leadership roles is the pit in my stomach I experience when I feel someone is mad because of something I've said or did.  I was teased a lot as a kid, and the idea that I could make anyone else feel small is deeply unsettling to me.  But I also acknowledge it's not just a gender thing.  On my father's side I come from a family of peacemakers, who have been more than willing to compromise for the sake of stability rather than fight one's own position.  My grandpa Max used to say of arguments with my grandma Ruth that "she always lets me have the last word.  I apologize."  So I always had this idea that somehow it was my responsibility to have the wisdom of a cool head.  And so any times when I have been in leadership and I've lost my cool--whether running a crew as a canvasser, teaching writing, or directing a scene for acting class--even if my concern was justified I would still shame myself for weeks on end if I thought I crossed a line of likeability.  It's only after four semesters of teaching Expository Writing at Rutgers that I feel I had the wherewithal a few weeks to call out a class for acting disrespectfully during my lecture (though I felt horrible afterward, I was happy to report to my therapist the next week that after my little outburst the kids acted like angels from then on).

But if Sandberg's diagnosis of the basic problems rang true, reading about her solutions added a new level of stress.  In a chapter entitled "Are You My Mentor?" Sandberg cautions young women against being too dependent on the permission of others to achieve our goals or treating mentors like therapists.  "Few mentors have time for excessive hand-holding " (71),  Sandberg writes.  I swear this woman is inside my head--last week I was telling my therapist about how much I miss having an academic advisor who I felt was on my team and would go to bat for me.  Sandberg goes on to warn against "complaining excessively to a mentor" because "[using] a mentor's time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it's better to focus on specific problems with real solutions" (71).  This was particularly painful to read, as it hit a chord from my my parents who, aware I was an over-sharer, continually warn me that if I give people a reason to doubt me or dump my problems on others, I will be thought of as unprofessional. When last spring I almost didn't get hired back again at Rutgers due to low student evaluations, I instantly regretted an emotional breakdown in front of the Douglass Writing Center director last November when the physical exhaustion of street canvassing and grading paper 4 was too much to bear. Earlier in the book she advocates my Dad's "fake it till you feel it"(35) mantra as a way of projecting confidence, and I felt totally sunk.  Though I have finally found someone whose job it is to listen to my EMOTIONS for an hour once a week, I'm not sure if I'll ever have the capacity to be "on" at all of the appropriate times.

The next chapter things got even more ominous "Seek and Speak Your Truth," began on a similarly overwhelming note. The first part of the chapter is all about brutal honesty and opening oneself up to constructive criticism and listening to another's concerns: "The ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak"(80) she writes.  Again, I another mantra from my parents and I immediately start shaming myself for being a self-centered crybaby and this is why no one likes me and why can't I just get myself together.  So not only did I have to maintain professional and personal boundaries, I also had to be cheery and employ a "sense of humor" while someone ripped me apart.  ::Crawling into a hole now::

But then she gave us all permission to cry at work.

She recounts a day when she became overwhelmed telling her boss Mark Zuckerberg about false comments a fellow employee was spreading about her.  After assuring her the rumors were untrue, Zuckerberg asked, "Do you want a hug?" (qtd in Sandberg 88).  Rather than weaken her position, Sandberg describes the incident as "a breakthrough moment"(88) in the relationship between herself and Zuckerberg.  She later cites work of researchers in leadership studies, who advocate an emotionally authentic approach to the workplace:

Their research suggests that presenting leaderhship as a list of carefully definted longer holds.  Instead, true leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and imperfectly expressed.  They believe leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.  This shift is good news for women, who often feel obliged to suppress their emotions in the workplace in an attempt to come across as more stereotypically male. (Sandberg 91)

Now my mind was reeling again:  so now it's okay to bring our problems to work, Sandberg?  Didn't you say earlier that professionals didn't want to hear about my problems?  Or is a mentor somehow in a different category from a boss?  I thought back to my experience with the writing program director again.  While yes, it was terribly embarrassing to show my boss I couldn't handle my shit, I also believe that showing that bit of emotion made it clear I was clearly stressed out and concerned about my inability to get my grading done rather than simply blowing off my work.  Because I made it clear that my weak performance was not the result of a lack of passion, they gave me another chance that I'm not sure I would have received otherwise.

In returning to Rutgers in the fall, I unconsciously worked to incorporate the lessons of Lean In's next chapter, "Don't Leave Before You Leave."  In it, Sandberg writes about the importance of tailoring your work life to fit your emotional needs instead of pushing yourself beyond your capacity.  She mainly focuses on the pressures of women to leave the workforce after having children, and the guilt that they face for not maintaining the appropriate work-life balance.  Sandberg describes the ways in which she had to modify her own schedule after having children, cutting back her hours to keep herself sane.  I did much the same thing last semester with my job at Trader Joe's, where I work for my health insurance.  While I knew it was preferable from their perspective to have employees with open availability, I knew that working until after midnight the night before teaching would open me up to the same kinds of stresses that got me into trouble last year.  So I adjusted my schedule so I wouldn't be working later than 6pm the nights before I taught.  This not only allowed me to catch up on last minute work, but occasionally allowed me to make theatre plans.  Sure, I know super-people who work four jobs on top of working till 1am at Trader Joe's, but I knew personally doing that would not make me feel like a human being.  With a saner schedule I was able to concentrate more on improving my teaching and I ended the semester with stellar evals.  And when the semester ended and I wasn't sure I was coming back in the spring, I decided to block out Monday as the one consistent day off each week.  I intend to do something similar in June.

So maybe I've got more going for me than I think.  In an earlier chapter, Sandberg encourages women to "Sit at the Table" rather than let self-doubt stop them from seeking positions for which they may not feel directly qualified. This "imposter sydrome" causes women to see themselves as far less capable than they actually are, always in danger of being "found out"(Sandberg 28-29).  I know this is something I tend to do to protect myself from failure, and with the help of my therapist and other supportive people in my life, I am working to correct it.  But I deeply appreciate Sandberg's honesty and her acknowledgment that unpacking these coded messages is not an easy task.

My brain is starting to fade--more thoughts to come.

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