This spring, when I heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s best selling “Lean In,” I knew I had to read it. As an educated woman who left her career to help her high-earning, long-hours-working husband do even less housework, I was part of the target audience. As someone who can feel superior while relishing a deep inferiority complex, I really had no choice.
I was prepared to hate this book, figuring it would be pompous, lacking insight, and just as stupid as the “biz speak” title suggests it will be. “Lean in?” (I quote my mother) “lean into what?” Exactly. That stupid jargon-y title that, nevertheless, had me thinking about all the ways I should have “leaned” and where I should be “leaning” had me expecting the worst.
That is not what I found. The book was well written and sucked me in immediately. The psychological/sociological research she cites is compelling (assuming that the studies are sound and actually stand for the propositions they claim to stand for…tbd…) As I was reading it I was thinking, “Man, she wrote this? She is a much better writer that I would have thought for an HBS person.” Her message was not new, I guess, “Women need to try more.” But the way she described how they stop trying was compelling as were her proffered theories (supported by the psych studies) as to why women are motivated to “lean back.” The book was interesting, and spoke to me.
Except for this part where she said she “felt like a fraud.” That I did not identify with at all. Maybe I was never successful enough to feel like I ever got somewhere where I did not deserve to be. My “success” always seemed appropriate. To be sure, I have had my lucky moments (like the time I won the free game of mini-golf at Putt-Putt Glenwood Springs by dropping a pencil into a tube, and the time my dad happened to notice I had cancer as an infant because I was crawling through a patch of sunlight in a certain way as he happened to look down at me). Furthermore, I have a strong sense that whether things work out (or not) is largely out of our control. But I have never felt like a fraud.
Even at Harvard Law School, when I felt like I did not belong there, and jokingly (but seriously) lamented that I would not be able to prevail in an action against the admissions department for intentional infliction of emotional distress, I did not feel like a fraud. I just did my time. Tried to do well. Figured out how to get around the legal writing requirement by writing a fictionalized account of a criminal trial and graduated.
But I have heard about this fraud feeling a lot.
Supposedly, according to the book, Tina Fey has claimed that she feels like a fraud. I don’t believe this. Maybe she said it. But there is no way she can feel like a fraud in the same way Sheryl Sandberg does.
When I read the chapter about feeling like a fraud, I just moved through it, took Sandberg at her word and continued to feel like a failure because I was unable to compel my spouse to do more around the house. That Sandberg and her husband have a 50/50 division of labor is what impresses me most, as this goal to me seems much more difficult to accomplish than landing a top management position at Google or Facebook.
Some of her message seemed a bit unfair. She stops short of mocking young women who, having heard Sandberg’s own exhortations to young professionals regarding the importance of mentorship, have approached Sandberg and asked, “could you mentor me?” But she makes it clear that the mythical, wonderful mentorship relationship is not something you can seek out, it is bequeathed on the worthy. This sort of undermines her claim that all women should be leaning in. Really it is just the good, special ones. Who feel like frauds.
I got close to the end of the book when I decided to read the acknowledgements section.
There, I learned for the first time, that Sandberg had a writing “partner,” Nell Scovell, who, among other things, wrote for the Letterman show and has an extremely successful writing/producing career from which she “took a break” for 18 months so that Sandberg (who continued working full time) could “write” Lean In. Sandberg goes on to name a head researcher (who presumably tracked down and distilled the psychological studies whose findings had so impressed me) and dozens of others whose contributions were “indispensable.”
It isn’t “wrong” that Lean In was inspired by the career of Sheryl Sandberg and written by a team of people. But it is strange that Nell Scovell (who, let’s be honest, must be responsible for the high quality of the writing) did not get an author’s credit. In the back of the book we got a blurb “About the Author” (Sheryl Sandberg) and “About the Typeface” but Nell just gets an effusive shout out from Sandberg in the acknowledgements as a writing “partner.” The copyright is owned by the “Lean In” organization, to which, supposedly all profits from the book will be donated. But I wonder, how did the team of people get paid? Did this whole group of people donate their time, take a break from their careers, to support Sheryl Sandberg? Surely, not. That’s what a wife would do! They must have gotten paid.
Taking credit for what is a community effort is part of being a great “Leader.” But maybe this is why Sandberg feels like a fraud. Somewhere deep down she knows she is getting too much for her efforts.
I was disappointed to see how this book was presented as the work of one person, when so clearly it was not. And even in the generous acknowledgements section, she forgot to thank the person who scrubbed her toilet and maintained her household.
Obviously, Sheryl Sandberg is an impressive person. Intelligent, organized, ambitious and probably someone who would I would appreciate as a friend (and not just because she could buy me fancy birthday presents.). It seems though, that the main reason the public is so interested in Sandberg and so convinced of her specialness, is not because of her intelligence, ambition, or her ability to be a good friend but because of her ability to make a lot of money, for herself. A conversation about Sheryl Sandberg begins and ends with, she’s worth a billion dollars!
Let’s not forget, Sandberg is not Mark Zuckerberg. (and she definitely is not Tina Fey!) who are “creators” of something. Sandberg is an organizer. An impressive, compelling organizer. But she is not creating anything but a brand.
My real problem with “Lean In” is not so much its message, but that we live in a world that values the work of Sheryl Sandberg, so disproportionately above of others. Why was she able to make all that money? She “leaned in” to be sure. More importantly, she took advantage of a system that values her particular skills above those of philosophers, neurosurgeons, artists, teachers, and police officers.
Furthermore, as the book itself demonstrates (if not directly but by a real analysis of who actually created it), leaders and figure heads like Sandberg, only exist when they have a team of people helping them, adoring them, and following them, all while agreeing to take a lesser share of the spoils. We all can’t be Sheryl Sandberg.
What’s more, we all shouldn’t be like her. There is a value to leaning back. It isn’t measured in money, and one certainly pays a “price” for it. (I was at a networking function with my employed husband last week and most people were much more interested in staring at the air behind my shoulder than they were in talking to little old stay-at-home me.)
I am grateful for having had the chance to stop being paid to work.It gives me time to appreciate the billions of people who aren’t the COO of a social networking site–teachers, architects, orthopedic surgeons–who have the same level of intelligence as Sandberg but who chose careers that aren’t compensated at the same level. And I am grateful for all of the “unskilled” workers who make my life possible and pleasant because they are willing to do jobs that I don’t have the patience or the “skills” to do.
Here is where I feel a little like a fraud. I am busy doing all this “appreciating” at little or no cost to me. I am not leading a the rally to implement a fair minimum wage. I am not figuring out how to reduce economic inequality, or taking in foster children who deserve a better life that I could provide. But I do take my “leaning back” seriously. I do pick up my neighbor’s kids when the mom is stuck at work and can’t get official childcare. I do receive packages (not containing contraband of course) for my sister who lives in NYC and can’t be home to receive them herself. A few weeks ago I made an emergency tampon run to Duane Reade for a friend who was stuck in her apartment with a sick baby and a two-year-old who needed to be home for a speech therapy appointment. Though I do not participate in the PTA to the extent that I should, I do try to be that extra person who fills in the gaps when siblings and grand parents aren’t available. Finally, other than when I am on route 4, trying to parallel park, or begging my son to put on his socks, I am seldom “stressed out.” And as a result, I can listen when other people need to talk and I am almost always in a very good mood.
The world would not work if everyone tried to be like Sheryl Sandberg: exploiting their talents to the fullest extent in order to make the most money possible. But if everyone were more like me? Taking time to relax and enjoy life but still exerting a lot of energy everyday to run my own (and at times other people’s) household for free? Well that wouldn’t work either I guess.
How would there ever be enough coffee to go around?