Taking Time to Lean Back


“Lean In”, the latest book from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, is racing up the charts and has lit up the blogosphere. Her premise is simple and stark – for 30 years now, 50% of our college graduates have been women, and yet they are dramatically underrepresented in senior management positions (in fact women fill only 14% of the Fortune 500’s executive-level jobs). To remedy this, Sandberg goads women to ‘lean in’ at the workplace; to give up on having it all (work and home), become more involved and assertive, and in short to become more like men.

Or at least that’s the interpretation that many pundits and critics have taken away from “Lean In” (here’s where I admit that I haven’t read Sandberg’s book). Whether that’s her case or not, it’s ill-advised. Because as Arianna Huffington points out (The Wall Street Journal, March 11th, 2013), the traditional (male) model of career success is failing.  In fact, it’s killing us.

We are stressed in epidemic proportions. One in 4 of us is highly or severely stressed. More than half of us acknowledge that we’re so stressed it’s making us sick. And every day, 1 million Americans are absent from work because of stress. Rather than ‘leaning in’, we should be exhorting our women and our men, as Arianna does, to take the time to lean back. The problem is, 4 million years of evolution is working against us.

Several years ago I met with a salesperson in my company who was underperforming. In a pool of tears she told me of the pressure she felt to make money – not to keep a roof over her kids’ heads or food on their table, but to keep up with the Joneses. Her next-door neighbors just got new living room furniture and now she had to. The people two doors down got a new car and now she and her husband must too. She didn’t want to be on the treadmill, but every fiber in her body kept her on it. That’s when I realized this drive for material possessions and status was hardwired.

This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Those of our forebears who established the highest status, accumulated the most resources, and sidestepped predators attracted the fittest partners, could afford the most offspring, and lived to raise them. So over millennia, we became a species of uber-consuming, status-seeking, pessimists. Today it manifests in our drive for career success for the material wealth and esteem it provides, even if it costs us our family, our sanity, and our health. It manifests today in our inability to logoff, check out, spend time and live fully in the positive emotions that regenerate us and shield us against stress. How ironic that what once led us to survive is now killing us?

The good news is that evolution also gifted us with an enormous frontal cortex, bestowing on us the ability to control our primeval motives and drives. Do we continue to lean in and in and in? Or do we take a moment, hit reset on our priorities, and take the time to lean back. The choice is ours.