Don’t want to lean in or opt out, but not sure what to do? This is the answer you’ve been waiting for

lean out instead of leaning in or opting out

I was on vacation, sitting on the beach in Jamaica. Actually, I’ll be honest, I was hunkered down on our little patio, while my two-year-old napped (which he did for at least two hours every day). I both loved these couple of hours (time to myself) and felt frustrated (because I felt chained to our room). It was so hot that I would sit in the one shady corner trying to stay cool. Before we left on vacation, I saved a bunch of articles I wanted to read – all about work-life balance, women in leadership, and all the stuff I love to talk about in Balancing Bravely.

what if I don't want to lean in or opt out

I had a few articles related to Sheryl Sandberg (the author of Lean In and COO of Facebook). At first as I read them, I was getting so excited and empowered. But the more I read and reflected, I realized that while I loved parts of her message and truly appreciate everything she has done for women, Sheryl Sandberg’s story is not my story. Her goals and ambitions are nowhere close to my goals and ambitions. Her definition of success is so far from my definition of success it’s hard to put it into words. I suddenly started to wonder, did I really want to lean in?

I’ve always thought of myself as smart, ambitious and driven, but if I don’t want what she wants, does that mean those things aren’t true for me? Then I began to feel insecure, overwhelmed, confused. If I didn’t want to lean in, did that mean that I wanted to opt out? 

No. Definitely not. I love my intellectually stimulating work. I believe in what I do. I was excited to go back to work when my boys were 5 months old. Yes, I felt guilty and overwhelmed trying to juggle everything, but I also found relief in being able to have grown-up conversations and think grown-up thoughts.

As I sat on that patio in Jamaica, my son took the longest nap of the entire vacation. My little shady spot got smaller and smaller and smaller, and my anxiety grew as I suddenly felt like working moms had only two options: lean in or opt out. 

What if I didn’t want either one of those options: leaning in or opting out?

I have absolutely no ambitions of being at the CEO of any large organization.

I also don’t want to opt out of the workforce.

But is there a path to success if I don’t want to lean in or opt out?

I did what I always do in these moments, I began to research. Shockingly, there were no articles with the title “what if I don’t want to lean in or opt out?”

How could that be possible? There was no way I was the first person to think of this. In fact, the more I thought about it, there has to be a path to success for women who don’t want to lean in or opt out, because if 57% of women are working, and less than 5% of CEOs are women, then almost all women land someone in the middle. And there better be a path for the rest of us to feel fulfilled and successful without rising all the way to the top.

Then my research got stuck. I had notes for half of an article, but I had no answers. I had no advice, I only had the problem without a solution. I am a problem solver in a deep and intense way (if you have read any of my articles about creative problem solving, impostor syndrome, or how we can celebrate success, you probably know by now), and there was no way I was going to write an article about a problem without some kind of concrete advice that women can take to help them move forward. So the notes sat on the shelf (well this is 2019 so they sat in a file that didn’t get opened for a long period of time).

Enter Lean Out by Marissa Orr

Then one night, out of the blue, I was flipping through Flipboard articles and came across an article in Forbes about Marissa Orr. The premise of the article is, “what if women want to lean out?”

I forwarded myself an email of the article and wrote “email this woman first thing in the morning. You need to interview her.”

Luckily, she not only took my interview, but sent me an advance copy of her book Lean Out: The Truth about Women, Power, and the Workplace. I began reading it on my commute to work on a Thursday morning. I read it during the entire one hour commute to work, I read it during my lunch break, I read it on my commute home, I read it as I laid in bed, and the next morning when a meeting was canceled, I read the book instead of doing work. I finished the book by noon. Essentially I read the entire book, on my cell phone, in 29 hours. I literally couldn’t put it down.

It was about women and power in a totally different way.

“Power doesn’t have to roar. It need not coerce or control. Women aren’t weak. Their power in this world might be less visible, but it’s no less profound.”

What Marissa Orr, Facebook, Google, and a whole bunch of research can tell us about leaning out

In some ways Marissa’s life and my life are very different. She worked in corporate America for big companies like Google and Facebook, she’s has a communications degree, she has three kids who are older than mine, and is divorced. In other ways our lives have these massive parallels. We have been coming to shockingly similar realizations from a totally different perspective, but ending up at the exact same place. We are both seeking a life that leads us feeling like there is purpose and fulfillment. We want to feel more work-life balance, and we want to feel as though our time is spent meaningfully. We both deeply derive satisfaction from getting to root causes, intellectually stimulating conversations, and creativity. I came to these conclusions before I even spoke to her, because I felt like I knew her as I read her book.

Marissa and I come from a very different but complementary perspectives. In fact she even says at one point in her book, “I’m not a behavioral scientist” when talking about how we all feel rewarded in different ways – I think she was worried behavioral scientist may attack or critique her perspective. Well guess what, I am a behavioral scientist, and what she is saying made so much sense. 

For example, she makes the analogy that we are trying to understand how to help women reach the top by looking at the success stories. But that’s like thinking about teen pregnancy and interviewing women who did not get pregnant to find out what led them to those decisions. What we really need to understand is the root causes of why some women did get pregnant. The stories of people from the top can only tell us what it took for those individual women to succeed in the current system, but it doesn’t tell us how all women should succeed and it doesn’t tell us what success looks like for all women. 

Why working moms opt out or lean out of the workforce

My absolute favorite quote of the book is:

“People say women lean out of their careers when they have kids, so they can spend more time with them, or for financial reasons or because of childcare issues. All are absolutely true. But I also think there’s another reason. With their time squeezed and their energy scarce, women have a dramatically lower tolerance for politics, power games, and office bullshit.”

Yes. I don’t have time for that. I want to enjoy my job. I want to feel intellectually stimulated. I want to have comradery and social connection. I want to feel accomplished. I want to spend time with my kids and my husband. I want to spend time outside. I do not have time for friends filled with melodrama and I do not have time for office politics. It is these unpleasant politics that throw off my work-life balance way more than an extra assignment at work.

What steps can women and working moms take to lean out and have a more meaningful work-life balance?

When I got to speak to Marissa, I wanted to focus on the actionable things that women can do, that’s what I love, that’s what I’m passionate about, that’s what Balancing Bravely is all about. 

In my life, I have asked some variation of the question, “that is really interesting, and I totally agree with you, so if a woman wanted to put that into action right now today, what would be the best first step?”

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is rarely something concrete, clear, and actionable. I was so excited for the interview with Marissa, but as I was in the middle of asking this question and I had a moment of panic, what if Marissa answer wasn’t going to be that helpful?

She paused for a moment after I asked the question, then said:

“Leaning out doesn’t mean you reduce your ambition or work less hard.

Leaning out is not letting someone else define what success looks like for you.

Leaning out is not letting someone else’s story of who you should be guide your life decisions.”

That’s when I knew I was talking to someone who really got it, because that is exactly what we need, we need to get back to our values, and what we care about most. We need to stop comparing ourselves to others and focus on what we really want.

Women are not the problem, but we can be our own solution. We cannot and should not sit around and wait for the system to be fixed. We should try to fix the system when we can, but we need to each take responsibility for our own lives to figure out how we can lead meaningful, successful lives that leave us feeling as though we have a balance between our work and the rest of our life that makes us feel fulfilled.

So what does having a meaningful and for filled life mean for Marissa? 

Since I want to know the real life details, I asked Marissa to share what her life looks like now versus when she was still working a corporate job.

Two years ago, she was waking up at 4:30 AM, trying to find a little time for herself and what she was passionate about (at the time working on her book), then she spent the morning with her kids, before her babysitter arrived at 7:45. She left for work 1.5-2 hour commute. She spent the day in meetings and tried to leave the office by 4:00 or 4:30 (for another 1.5-2 hour commute) to spend the evening with her kids, and go back online after they went to bed. She constantly felt like she we seen as not giving enough at work.

Now, she mostly works from home, she continues to wake up early, spending 45 minutes a day centering herself (by doing yoga, meditation and reading). Mornings before school drop off continue to be chaos (that’s the life of parents), but then she goes back home and works from home. She says the days are in some ways more relaxed, because she has less meetings and more control over her life, but also more intense, because writing a book and launching a speaking career is a lot of work


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    She shared that the two things that she misses most from her old life are the commute and her work friends. Even though she’s an introvert, there’s something amazing about having friends at work, good friends with whom you can share good times and the hard times. She used to spend her commute listening to music, singing out loud at the top of her lungs. But if you don’t spend hours alone in your car, that time gets filled with something else. I thought this was such an interesting observation, since I have also dramatically scaled back my commute time. My commute is an hour each way, and I currently only do it one or two days a week. I will also admit that while I did not love my commute when I did it every day, I actually sometimes miss it. That was alone time just for me.

    So if you are stuck in a job with a long commute, see if you can think about the ways you can be grateful for your commute, maybe it’s providing you something you don’t even realize.

    When I asked her what she loves most about her current life and working from home every day, she said that she loves getting to wear PJs all day. I commiserated that I adore wearing yoga pants on the bottom, while having a fancy shirt on the top (since I spent a good part of my day on video conference calls). 

    Are you a working mom looking to lean out to reclaim your work-life balance?

    If the idea of leaning in and climbing the ladder doesn’t resonate, but you know you don’t want to opt out, you are not alone. In Lean Out: The Truth about Women, Power, and the Workplace, Marissa Orr fabulously captured how we need to empower ourselves to re-define what success looks like. 

    You can start by understanding your core values and using those values to shape what success looks like for your life. This can be a long slow process. You don’t need to jump the gun and quit your job or move across the country. Take time to truly figure out what you want your life to look like. And remember that our lives have many decision points. The choices you make today do not guide your work and life choices forever, you can make changes so many different points in your life. 

    Good luck!