Elsa Walsh, a former Washington Post reporter, writes in the Post that at age 55, she has learned a few things about being a professionally ambitious woman — and this wisdom runs counter to what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says in her best-selling book Lean In. Here’s Walsh, on Sandberg’s book:
But with other passages, I found myself shaking my head. By the time I reached the end, 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. (She criticizes the lack of family-friendly policies in the workplace and recognizes that some women may find more meaning in staying home, but those small sections read like afterthoughts, or as if someone advised her to include them.)
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.
“Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”
Imagine what that life looks like to a child. Imagine what it looks like to yourself when you are 80.
That is not how I want my daughter to live, and it is not how I want to live.
Making compromises is a healthy approach to living.
For a woman to say she is searching for a “good enough” life is not failure — it is maturity and self-knowledge.
I’d also tell her, if she marries, to work hard on her relationship. It’s not only much easier than getting divorced, it’s more rewarding and more fun. Love. Full stop. That’s what matters.
Go, Elsa Walsh, go! And you know what? This is every bit as true for men as for women.
Dreher has come to see the virtue of constraints. Reflecting on what he went through when Ruthie was sick, he told me that the secret to the good life is “setting limits and being grateful for what you have. That was what Ruthie did, which is why I think she was so happy, even to the end.”
Meanwhile, many of his East Coast friends, who chased after money and good jobs, certainly achieved success, but felt otherwise empty and alone. As Dreher was writing his book, one told him, “Everything I’ve done has been for career advancement … And we have done well. But we are alone in the world.” He added: “Almost everybody we know is like that.”
I can’t avoid the conclusion that Lean In is a book that will mislead so many women (and men, if they read it) about what makes for a good life. Ruthie was a working mom who found a great deal of satisfaction as a schoolteacher — but she received even more satisfaction from her family life, and time spent on the weekends fishing and going to the creek with her kids and friends. Since I returned home after Ruthie’s death, I’ve learned that her superiors in the local school system saw Ruthie’s potential to be a top-notch administrator, and encouraged her to study for a master’s degree so she could run the school one day. She told them she was flattered by the request, and would like to consider it, but would wait until her girls had gone through school before doing anything like that. She didn’t want to put career advancement over spending as much time as she could with her children.
And now she’s gone, dead from cancer at age 42. I am certain that she died without regrets over the time spent with her kids that she might have spent working on her career.
That woman, Ruthie Leming, died rich. She knew the secret of a good life, and lived it. So, it seems, does Elsa Walsh.
Note well: this is a lesson not only for women, but for men too.
UPDATE: Heard an interview on NPR this morning with economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett that made me want to scream, “Noooo! Nobody listen to this crazy person! She will ruin your life!” Here it is paraphrased in story form, from the NPR website:
Hewlett says that what American women need most is a change in the narrative. “I remember very clearly going to a Wall Street Journal conference, and Andrea Jung, the then-CEO of Avon, was speaking. She’s an incredibly impressive person,” Hewlett says. And yet, instead of talking about the joys of her success, “she chose to talk about what she had given up.”
Although all careers require some form of sacrifice, Hewlett says, “no male leader does that. I feel that many of us are still mired in the expectations of the 1950s.” And, as she puts it, “we need to get over that.”
We need to get over that. What terrible, terrible advice! The only right answer for the Sylvia Ann Hewletts of the world is that professional achievement is the real measure of a successful life. Meanwhile, Elsa Walsh tells me that she was really surprised by the number of men who wrote in response to her Post essay, saying that they’re struggling with the same thing: the drive for professional achievement robbing them of a meaningful life with their families and friends.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is wrong, then, that no male leader does that. Men actually are starting to do that — and if they aren’t, they ought to be. Hewlettism will make you miserable. How sad, but how typical, that top executive Andrea Jung’s humane, hard-won wisdom about the personal cost of hard-won success is dismissed by Hewlett, who argues that to truly succeed, women need to harden their hearts. This is poison.