Afraid to Ask

We all like heroes and we love them even more when they show their imperfections and admit to them in public. Not only did I know this intuitively, I also read it in an article once, about how to create unforgettable characters in fiction. That was at least 15 years ago and I have no idea where the magazine went or even who the author was. What brought it to mind and how true the observation had been, as valid one decade and a half ago as much as today, was Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, Lean In (Deckle Edge, 2013).

I confess I began reading her book for a project at work and did not have high expectations. I am in my fiction-only phase; reading any other genre feels like too strong an effort to make – a sacrifice. I also tend to find books about how top executives lead their lives, men or women, repetitive; variations on the same theme. But I downloaded it into my Kindle two weeks or so ago and read it with genuine interest from page one on.

(After a full decade in this country, I still am faced – more often than I’d like to admit – with phrases and idioms that puzzle me at first sight. Lean in was one of those. I had to ask someone what exactly the phrase meant. Of course it makes total sense in the context of the book, now that I have been enlightened off my initial ignorance.)

Once I solved the title enigma, another question popped. What kind of book is Lean In? I found very difficult to determine the book’s category. Is it a self-help guide? Should it be under the sign Business in a book store? It does not feel like a memoir and it’s obviously not fiction. It’s not a feminist manifesto, neither is it a glorification of business people in America or the thrills and perils of working for two of the most popular companies; two that are a constant presence in most people’s daily lives around the world: Google and Facebook. Actually, there is much more hard work than glory in the way Sheryl Sandberg describes her career. It’s a tale of little victories earned step by step and the long way that still lies ahead if we are honest about fostering a fair society.

Sheryl is obviously a savvy business woman, one of the 50 most powerful in the world according to Fortune Magazine, which did not prevent her from gaining 70 pounds during her first troublesome pregnancy; did not make her immune to gossip and deceit, nor did it make her so strong that she would not dissolve in tears in front of her boss in a particularly delicate moment of her career (her boss being no other than Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg). Did not spare her moments of deep embarrassment at important events either (how about finding out your young daughter has lice and cannot stop scratching her head while you’re flying a private jet with a bunch of Silicon Valley top names?). That brings me to how I opened this post: We love when our heroes have an under-dog moment, not because of schadenfreude but because we enjoy seeing how they bounce back; how they recover, dust themselves off, and move on; just like we would like to be able to do if faced with the same kind of adversity.

More impressive than Sheryl’s stellar resume was to me her clear insight on how women make it hard on themselves to thrive in these two equally important spheres, family and work. Sheryl relies on statistics and psychology research to show how women are far more reluctant than men to embrace success and then ask for more.

For starters, we all suffer from what she calls the impostor syndrome. Feeling like a fraud, fearing someone will soon discover we are not as smart, prepared or strong as the world thinks we are. Each new achievement only reinforces our self-imposed panic that the end is near; that our moment of glory will last only until someone finds out the expiration date stamped on the palms of our hands and marches on to uncover what impostors we are.

Many years ago I saw evidence of this behavior in a major Hollywood movie. Harrison Ford is in serious trouble after having an affair with his colleague – both lawyers – and is now accused of murdering her. Presumed Innocent was a blockbuster in the early 1990’s. Curiously enough, what left a lasting mark on me was not the trial scenes or the surprising ending and the flawless acting. I clearly remember Ford’s character asking his wife (actress Bonnie Bedelia), in a rare moment of quiet domestic normalcy, how her interview for a new job had gone. Her first job interview in quite some time, after the kids were old enough for her to leave the house. Sheepishly then, almost embarrassed, she reveals she got the job. “I fooled them all”, she adds. In her mind, she did not get the job because of her value as a professional, intelligence and experience– she had tricked them into hiring her!

Adding to their agony, women are often reluctant to reach for new opportunities at work because they are not sure they are ready to take on challenges and then learn by doing. Men almost never feel like that. And since women ask less and not as often as men, well, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-perpetuating. Don’t ask and you shan’t receive.

When it rains it pours and not only women tend to feel like a fraud, fearful of asserting themselves at work (Am I too bossy? Am I abandoning my family?), we also feel like we don’t deserve that much attention and glory. Sandberg herself is living proof of this female trait when she describes her behavior after the Fortune Magazine nomination. She responded apologetically and tried to play it down whenever people congratulated her on the achievement until one close coworker just couldn’t take it anymore, pulled her aside and plainly told her to stop justifying herself and instead say thanks to those who praised her.

Our heads and hearts together are the perfect storm. To make absolute hell inside our minds, we are perfectionists by nature. Done is better than perfect, is the antidote Sandberg prescribes, quoting one of her favorite posters on the walls of Facebook’s offices. She goes on, offering more personal examples, now in the context of her own family: Dave, her husband, was always proud of the time he spent with their kids; whereas she constantly worried about taking too much time away from their kids… Leave it to a woman to worry about things she cannot control and them feel guilty for it. Men seem to suffer much less of such maladies.

All through the book the author struggles with the label feminist. To the point we readers start questioning ourselves. I turned the last page of the book uncertain of the answer; am I or am I not a feminist? Took me a couple of days to come up with my own verdict.

I am for all people Sandberg describes in her book; the mom who invests time in her career because she loves her work as much as the woman who decided not to have kids; for the one who left the work force for her children or elderly parents, and the dads out there who face discrimination, open or covert, because they decided to become stay-home fathers.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Freedom, equality, brotherhood was the French Revolution’s popular motto before the movement turned into a blood bath; proof that these words are only good if they carry in them real meaning instead of a representation of the ideal reality. I abhor class divisions, racial and gender discrimination, nepotism, favoritism, privilege based on blind and unfair tradition instead of merit. Injustice ruins a day for me, if not several, and turns my stomach. If that makes me a feminist, the label itself feels a bit too restricting and incomplete. So far this was the only answer with which I could come up…

Feminist or not, I enjoyed reading Lean In, the book by Facebook’s (a $200 billion company) Chief Operating Officer. As I was nearing the last page, I Googled (another Sandberg’s company. She was Google’s VP of Global Online Sales and Operations before joining Facebook) the author to see if there was any record of upcoming books by her, and instead sadly found that her husband, Dave Goldberg, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, passed in May, at the age of 47. Sheryl and their two children live in California

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