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Whitney Caudill Headshot

Looking Back, I Was Leaning In

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There has been much ado about Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. The book has been billed as both a feminist manifesto and battle cry for women to aggressively force themselves up the ladder. I have read the book and found it to be candid, realistic, inspiring, and totally unworthy of the negative criticism it has received.

Ms. Sandberg is not pointing the finger of blame at women as some suggest; rather, she is encouraging women to be confident, bold, and engaged -- to lean in to their careers -- as a way to affect change. I wish I had the benefit of the book and her experience before learning about some of the things she addresses in Lean In the hard way.

I especially like that she doesn't enjoy having to give the advice she gives. As she told The Washington Post, "I do not like some of the advice that I'm giving in the book. No question." she says. "Because I don't think we should have to give that advice. I don't think we should have to tell women: Say 'we' and not 'I.'" She is right. We should not have to tell others to be nice, smile, talk less, don't seem aggressive, or say "I" too much. I learned long ago that it pays to smile often, write thank you notes, and be "appropriately female" (be nice, dress like a lady, and to not be too aggressive). I don't always abide by those rules, but I try.

Much of the advice in Lean In and the stories Ms. Sandberg tells rang true for me. This is one of those passages:

From an early age, girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good mother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs they will make between professional and personal goals.

I was 21 years old and only a few months out of college when I had my first job interview. I sat in an office inside a building just a few steps away from the Virginia Capitol. I was wearing the only suit I owned at the time, my pixie, yet professional, haircut combed perfectly into place, and my empty, but for a legal pad, black Coach portfolio in my hand. I had prepared thoroughly for this interview, ready for the standard political job questions -- what historical or political figure do you admire, what do you think about the governor's position on this or that, and where do you see yourself in 10 years. I had made a conscious decision to be myself, which meant dancing closely between the Republican Party line and what I wanted to say. So, the answers went like this...

"Eleanor Roosevelt."

"I think the governor's plan [for whatever it was] is well thought out and needs little improvement."

"I will have graduated from law school, worked, gotten married, and maybe staying home with children until they are school age."

As you might imagine, answer one was not popular with the Republican administration and the truth is that I probably said it just to see what the response would be. I respect Eleanor Roosevelt, but I was more interested in seeing if that would be held against me. I knew most everyone else had offered Ronald Reagan as their answer. Answer two was true. Answer three, sadly, was really what I thought was supposed to happen, what I thought they wanted to hear, and probably what I expected would happen.

I was wrong. Answer three was nowhere near my truth. It was what I believed or what I thought was expected of me. I thought I was supposed to go to school, find a "good man" to marry, work, and then if I were lucky I would be able to stay home and take care of children.

I was already making plans for the husband and children that, as Ms. Sandberg points out, "may not even exist yet."

I did not get that job.

That result was a blessing in disguise. Looking back, had I gotten the job I likely would not have gone to law school that fall, or ever. I would have gone down a road that would have led me to a totally different place than where I am today.

I did go to law school, which has led to a series of good jobs creating a career that makes me very happy and has no end in sight. But what about the husband and kids I was making plans around? Well, they still do not exist. Those things did not happen because I stopped planning and making decisions based on a life that was not mine. Somewhere between that interview and the day I graduated from law school, my outlook changed. I started planning for my future and not the future of a husband and kids that I did not know. When opportunities presented themselves and I ran toward them. I stopped hedging, looking too far into the future, and waiting.

I decided to lean in, and I didn't even know it.

The unconscious decision to lean in was the best decision I ever made. It has not produced a husband and children, but it has produced a career that will facilitate a great family life -- if and when that opportunity and its accompanying decisions come along. Until then I will remember this last piece of advice from Ms. Sandberg: "Don't put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made. That's the only way to ensure that when that day comes, there will be a real decision to make."

Agreed!