Does “Leaning In” Make Sense?

If you’ve been reading the news lately, you’ve probably been unable to avoid mention of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a book by the Facebook COO that encourages professional women to “lean in” in some areas of their life and “lean out” of others, abandoning the idea of “having it all” (here’s an example of CNN’s coverage) and instead achieving balance by matching up your “lean in” areas and your “lean out” areas. The whole idea got its start with Sandberg’s 2010 TED talk on why we have too few female leaders. Here’s that talk:

While Sandberg’s focus is on women – particularly mothers – balancing personal and professional demands, I think the point she’s making about “leaning in” and “leaning out” makes valuable sense for everyone, but perhaps not in the specific way that Sandberg is talking about.

I’ll use my wife Sarah as an example here. While she’s very dedicated to the work that she does, she’s made the personal decision to “lean out” in some aspects of career advancement so that she could “lean in” in other areas, particularly motherhood. It’s something she values and something she chose. I had nothing to do with that decision other than talking through it with her regularly and working through logistics of any such choices, as she does with me when I’m deciding what areas to focus on.

The core idea that Sandberg is sharing here – that people need to consciously “lean out” in other areas in order to really succeed in the areas they choose to “lean in” on – really applies to almost everyone. Her specific focus, that of working mothers who have to make a difficult choice between “leaning in” on a career or on motherhood (or figuring out some other balance), is simply an incredibly good example of a very useful idea (she’s also using that application to make some interesting observations about career paths and gender).

In any case, the core idea of “leaning in” and “leaning out” deserves some attention in everyone’s life. Every adult in America has to make some choices about what’s important in their lives, and if they “lean in” on too many things, they get out of whack and fail in some key area, often with disastrous consequences.

Quite often, people do this without even thinking about it. Unconsciously, they choose to “lean in” in some areas and “lean out” in others.

The basis for that choice is often urgency, particularly in the lives of the vast majority of Americans who don’t have an emormously strong financial net to catch them. The shouting and threatening boss gets the attention, or the crying baby gets the attention because they’re the urgent demands.

In some situations, people are essentially forced to “lean in” in some areas due to the responsibilities they have compared to the resources they have. If your child has special needs, it’s often going to be up to the parent to “lean in” hard to get that child the support he or she needs, for example. Another example: if you don’t have much money to begin with, you’re often forced to “lean in” at work because, without your steady paycheck, you’re going to find it difficult to take care of the people in your life.

I think the real valuable point to take away from Sandberg’s book and speech is that there is tremendous value in stopping for a while and really thinking about where you want to be “leaning in” and where you want to be “leaning out.” Where do you want to be investing your time, your energy, your money, and your talent?

Do you want a great career? You can have it, but you’ll have to balance it by “leaning out” in other areas.

Do you want to be a great parent? Do you want to have a thriving and varied social circle? Do you want to make a large positive social difference? For each of those things you want, you’re going to have to back down in other areas to give yourself the space to achieve it.

It’s often hard to choose between these areas because we feel conflicting demands. I know I do. I know Sarah does, based on the many conversations we’ve had about these topics.

The trick is to realize that some of those demands simply have to trump other ones. If you don’t accept that and try to take care of all of them, you’ll have to settle for doing things in a mediocre way instead of in a great way. A person who is dividing up their energy and focus and time and talent among several different things will have an incredibly difficult time competing against someone who sticks to one big thing and holds the other ones back.

This is a difficult problem, but breaking through it, figuring out what areas to “lean in” on and “lean out” on, and knowing how to revisit them and maybe change your leanings a little is an invaluable key to getting your money, your career, your time, your personal needs, and your energy in balance. It requires some real soul-searching, but if you give it that soul-searching, you’ll get the rewards you need.

For me, the most valuable resource I’ve read for digging through these issues is David Allen’s Making It All Work, which I’ve written about extensively in the past. It has been invaluable in terms of helping me figure out where to “lean in” and where to “lean out” in my own life.

Where are you “leaning in” more than you should? Where are you “leaning out” too much? Figuring out those questions will help you immensely in your career, your finances, and your life.

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