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Tired of Leaning In? Maybe It’s Time To Recline.

February 26, 2014

Photo via Planet Blue Blog

For the record, I am not a Lean In-hater. I actually even read half of it (and liked some of it) before I got tired of Sheryl Sandberg’s unconvincing attempts at self-deprecation. But even though I think she made a number of valid points about the current State of the Working Woman, she didn’t convince me to want to Lean In. In fact, I felt exhausted just reading her book, let alone considering following its advice.

So when I came across Rosa Brooks’s article in Foreign Policy entitled “Recline!”, I was ready to read on. And being of the leisurely persuasion, I was inclined to agree with whatever she said.

Then of course, she opened the piece with this paragraph:

I had an epiphany the other day. I was in the middle of marking up a memo on U.S. drone policy while simultaneously ordering a custom-decorated cake for my daughter’s sixth grade musical cast party and planning my remarks for a roundtable on women in national security.

And I thought, “Great. Another hyper-achiever lecturing us on how to succeed—just with a subtle twist.” And indeed, Brooks does lead with the implication that she has pretty much done everything right. But if you can get past that fact, she makes some interesting points. She writes:

Then I read Lean In and realized that I was self-sabotaging slacker. I resolved to do better… Just as Sandberg promised, the rewards of leaning in quickly became evident. My confident, assertive yet non-threatening feminine charm helped me rapidly expand both my business and social networks.

But then she argues:

Soon, the rewards of leaning in doubled. Then they quadrupled. Then they began to increase exponentially… And I realized that I hated Sheryl Sandberg. Because, of course, I was miserable.

Brooks goes on to make the case that unbridled “leaning in” is the quickest path to burnout. Not only does it suck up all of your time, but it ultimately dilutes your power in all areas of your life. And if you’re a woman who is trying to achieve some combination of earning a living, having a family, maintaining a social life, and enjoying any outside-of-work creative pursuits—leaning in all the time is tantamount to selling your soul.

In a passage that resonated with me, Brooks cites Virginia Woolf’s 1929 work A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf writes, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Brooks argues:

Other forms of creativity are no different. If we want to do more than just go through the motions, both love and work require a protected space in which creativity can flourish. Today, most women can make money on their own and acquire rooms of their own — but they still get too little psychic space and too little time for the kind of unstructured, creative thinking so critical to any kind of success.

This made me wonder, when was the last time I was really mentally in a room of my own? There have been phases in my life where I would actually sit in cafes reading and writing nonsensical thoughts in my journal. At the time, I neither questioned nor felt guilty about this behavior. It felt like an important part of my weekly rhythm and mental “cycling.” In retrospect, it seems so indulgent. It also seems reasonable and necessary, an important element of my happiness and sanity.

But while Sandbergian ambition might seem a bit extreme, is the answer really “reclining”? There must be a midpoint point between the endless lean-in and Brooks’s suggestion to leap into the nearest La-Z-Boy. And when it comes down to it, I don’t think Sandberg and Brooks are actually really at odds. They both seem to argue for freedom: for a woman’s right to dive in or opt out if and when she sees fit, depending on the larger circumstances of her life at any given moment.

As I see it, it’s not about full-speed ahead or slamming on the brakes. Perhaps work and life and all the rest of it should be approached like an epic road trip: Keep moving, but pull over frequently to fuel up, acquire suitable snacks, get some sleep, and take in the view. Don’t worry about the speed of the other cars. Wherever you’re going, you’ll get there when you get there.

Image via Keeping in Touch

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Tory Hoen is the author of the novel The Arc. She spent five years as the Creative Director of Brand at M.M.LaFleur (where she founded The M Dash!) and has written for New York Magazine, Vogue Fortune, Bon Appétit, and Condé Nast Traveler. Read more of Tory's posts.

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