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Should Women Embrace a ‘Good Enough’ Life?

Sheryl-Sandberg

What could be wrong with Sheryl Sandberg’s message to women not to sell themselves short professionally? The Washington Post’s Elsa Walsh explains why she’s ambivalent about Lean In.

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

Here on Women 2.0 we’ve had a lively discussion of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, with women in tech weighing in on their reaction to the book and how they’re putting its lessons to use.

But while many of the nuts and bolts tips on how to navigate the choppy waters of other people’s stereotypes in negotiations or use your body language to convey confidence generate pretty much universal approval for empowering women to reach their professional potential, not everyone is such a huge fan of the exhortation to strive ever higher that’s at the heart of the book.

In a lengthy op-ed for the Washington Post recently, reporter Elsa Walsh tells her personal story, conveying how she once had a Sandberg-like steely devotion to her career and chronicling how she ended up surprising herself by taking a step back rather than leaning in once she became a mother. Why did she move in the opposite direction to Sandberg?

In not selling yourself short as a professional, you can very easily sell yourself short as a human being, she explains, draining your life of joy, particularly the joys of family. Walsh writes of coming to the end of Sandberg’s book:

I felt deeply ambivalent, particularly on three points. First, Sandberg does not seem to get just how hard it is to have a demanding job and a meaningful family life if you cannot afford child care and other help….  Second, I suspect that she would probably have written a completely different book if her children were older and she were facing their imminent departure, rather than worrying about their bedtime. (With my daughter poised to leave for college, all I want is to have more time with her, not less.)

And third, I have to wonder if Sandberg does not realize that she is going to die someday. There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work. Even sex is framed as something that men will get more of if they pitch in and help their working wives.

Success, particularly the kind Sandberg calls for, requires ever more time at the office, ever more travel. It requires always being available, always a click away. Sandberg is almost giddy when she describes getting up at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails before her children wake up and getting back on her computer once they are asleep…

Imagine what that life looks like to a child. Imagine what it looks like to yourself when you are 80.

Of course, pleasure, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; one woman’s chocolate fudge sundae is another’s 5am email. Some women no doubt do truly derive life-affirming joy from a schedule packed with meetings and dotted with work successes, but perhaps Walsh’s caution that you should think very carefully about whether you’re one of these women and what you’re trading away for all that leaning in are worth bearing in mind. There are many ways to define success and plenty of them don’t involve professional accolades.

It’s a message, she writes, that she’ll pass along to her daughter: “Search for work you love that allows flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them when you’re older, after you’ve reached that point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while… For a woman to say she is searching for a ‘good enough’ life is not failure — it is maturity and self-knowledge.”

Women 2.0 readers: Do you, like Walsh, find Sandberg’s vision of perpetual professional striving at all joyless?

Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.