‘Leaning In’ to a New Career

By Elizabeth Bowling

We have a guest blogger this week at “Psychology at Work.”  She is a recent honors graduate from Duke University and is preparing to move to Manhattan to start a new life and career. I asked her whether Sheryl Sandburg’s  well-received book Lean In offers anything useful to a woman just entering the workplace, and here are her thoughts. By the way, she is my daughter.  – Dan Bowling

In the generation of Twitter, where new information is delivered in 140 characters rather than essays or journal articles, the idea of reading an entire book such as Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In to learn how to succeed seems archaic. Instead, the road to success for many young women, including myself, consists of adding a pin to our “Dream Job” Pinterest board titled “How to Dress for Success,” which is composed of a few photographs of women in pant suits and a one-sentence caption explaining why wearing black to an interview is better than wearing canary yellow. I admit I have found myself forwarding my friends the Buzzfeed article, “The 10 Most Awesome Cover Letters on the Internet,” which includes a candidate with “cat-like reflexes” who “once killed a hawk with a ninja star.” I, of course, counted the time I spent reading this particular article as productive job searching, though I’m not sure if my cover letter reflected my efforts.

These days, people in their early 20s are impatient. It’s the truth. We want to get all the answers with the least amount of effort, and when it comes to our future, we want to pin a “Guide to Getting Ahead” to our “how to” board and have all of our problems be solved. While this book – the ultimate “how-to” – seems like a fantasy, I have to say that Sandburg, the woman who helped build the foundation of our technology-driven generation through her time at Google and Facebook, got pretty darn close.

I have never considered myself a feminist. In fact, although many women my age reap the benefits of the courageous feminists who came before us, most of us shy away from the title, fearing the radical connotation that it implies. Thus, I tread softly when beginning Lean In, which Sandburg dubbed a “sort of feminist manifesto.” I anticipated being affronted by a woman accusing corrupt businesses and misogynistic men of intentionally holding women back. Instead, I found a humble, relatable and successful businesswoman and mother who addresses the issue of gender equality in a way that does not cast blame, but provides well-articulated advice in an easy-to-read format.

While Sandburg addresses the social norms and institutional setbacks that must be overcome to reach true gender equality, she chooses to use her book to approach the problem from the inside, explaining that women cannot just be placed on the same playing field as men, but that we must put ourselves there.

It is remarkable that, through writing, a 43 year-old mother of two was somehow able to tap into a 21 year-old college graduate’s brain and access all of her worries and doubts about the future. While Sandburg explains that her book is meant to inspire men and women in all stages of life, I can’t help but feel that this book was written for the woman that I am right now, waiting in the limbo between college graduation and the start of my first job.

I am a recent graduate of Duke University heading off to New York City to begin my career at an fascinating, fast-growing company. I have not even begun my adult life, but already I feel as if I am running out of time. I am haunted by the question that so many women face: family or career, children or corner office? Since I already know that I want to have a family one day, I feel as if my time in the workforce is limited and I must make decisions with that in mind.

Sandberg addresses this anxiety head on. I felt like she took me aside and sternly told me “Elizabeth, stop thinking like a crazy person and slow down.” Women who are pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or even women like me who are not yet married and very far removed from having children, often tend to hold themselves back because of imagined limitations. It is natural to worry about the future, but why stop building the house because one day there may be a leak in the ceiling? To me, this small piece of advice, alone, was worth reading the book. It was exactly what I needed to look forward optimistically to my new career.

This book is not the ultimate guide to a perfect life, nor the solution to the gender gap in business. However, if you are like me, uncertain of the future and naive about what it takes to get to the top, it’s not a bad place to start. Sandburg understands our generation and writes like it. Lean In gave me hope that I can have it all, and it put my anxiety about my future in perspective. There are so many more possibilities for women than ever before, but to fulfill those possibilities we have understand that at times, we are our own worst enemy.