It took listening to just one interview with Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, before I was downloading this blueprint for professional success for women to my e-reader. I devoured it in about twenty-four hours. Sandberg is a contemporary of mine and the COO of Facebook and many of her stories about the ways in which the professional world hinders women's ascendance into leadership roles (and the ways in which women hinder themselves) resonated with me profoundly.
I'm not a businessperson; I'm a writer and a professor, but what Sandberg is talking about here is leadership in a field and leadership can be defined in different ways. In writing, leadership can be defined as becoming recognized in one's field or genre whether through publishing, grants, and awards or, usually some combination of all three. Most of the lessons from Sandberg's book can be applied to writing, and it's an engaging, compelling read that's not only going to become my new go-to gift for women at the cusp of a professional life but is going to become a staple in my professional development reading list for writers -- both women and men. Here are just a few takeaways:
"Done Is Better Than Perfect": This concept applies directly to women (and men) who tend to be perfectionists, perseverating over that short story, poem or essay instead of sending it out into the world. Of course, anything you send out to be published must be revised to the absolute best of your ability. But over the course of my career, I've noticed women tend to fuss endlessly over their work, far beyond the point at which it is productive, instead of just sending it out. After all, it takes a certain level of confidence to send something out, because even if it's wonderful, nine times out of ten, it's going to come back. Male writers I've known don't take this personally, they just send the work right back out there and guess what? Eventually it gets published. The moral of the story: Give it your best shot and then let it go and get it out there. Don't take rejection personally; just keep trying. Stay in the game.
"Dreaming is not Doing" and "Set Obtainable Goals": Over the years I have watched friends set incredibly lofty goals like: "win the National Book Award" (when they haven't even published one short story yet), or "teach at an Ivy league College" or "be the best poet of my generation." What's sad here is not that they've yet to achieve these goals but that most of them aren't even writing any more. I'm not saying dreaming is bad, just that dreaming without doing is unsustainable. I'm the first person to confess to dreaming about winning the contest I just entered or getting published in the major publication to which I just submitted. But notice I didn't start dreaming until after I took steps to achieve the dream. My whole life has been an accumulation of obtainable goals. For example, by the time I achieved my goal, many years ago, of having an essay published in a new international publication that seemed perfect for my interests (New Writing: An International Journal of Creative Writing Theory and Practice), I was already setting new ones: publish more essays on creative writing (for years, I answered every single call for proposals on the subject), publish an influential collection on the teaching of creative writing (done, with Kelly Ritter, 2007), publish a book about my research on creative writing in higher education (done, 2011), find an agent for my novel The Lost Son, (done, 2012). Along the way, I picked up some awards and was promoted to full professor (unfortunately, still not an easy feat for women according to articles like this one). But notice I didn't sit around dreaming about winning awards and making full professor or deciding if I hadn't won the National Book Award by forty, I was hanging it up. I was following my passions, constantly setting the next obtainable goal and achieving it. Now I'm busy working toward new goals, like publish a book called The Geeks Guide to the Writing Life: An Instructional Memoir for the Rest of Us and start writing my next novel. I probably won't stop till I'm dead or at least incapacitated, at which point there better be to be several seasons of Downton Abbey to keep me entertained.
Choose the Right Partner: I've written about this before here, but it bears repeating. Sandberg reiterates that the fact that the home fires are still considered largely women's responsibility and until that changes and men step up to the plate and chip in their 50 percent (and women let them,) the top echelons of most fields are going to remain dominated by men. I actually lucked out in this respect. I didn't know when I married fellow writer John Vanderslice that he would become, as Ayelet Waldman has often written of her husband, Michael Chabon, a better mother to our two boys than I was (well, let's just say, he's at least as good). But in the three years that we dated, all evidence pointed to the fact that this guy I was besotted with was as committed to seeing that I achieved my professional dreams as I was to seeing that he achieved his. For example, he insisted, I mean insisted, above my protests, on reading aloud one of my short stories at our wedding reception. (I know. What a guy. But you can't have him.) I give myself credit for at least correctly reading the writing on the wall. And the mold wasn't tossed when my husband came into this world. One writer friend's husband built her a beautiful table to write her novels on in the first year of their marriage. Still another friend's husband brings her coffee when she rises in the pre-dawn hours to work on her dissertation. These people are out there, folks. They are the ones you should be looking for. Not the guy at the front of the room craning his neck before he commences reading his essay, making sure everyone's looking at him.
Lean In is full of so many more takeaways that as I neared the end of the book, I found myself wishing everyone in the professional realm would go out and read it. That way we'd all be on the same page about what needs to change for women to claim their rightful place in leadership roles, a sea change that has the potential to make the workplace better for everyone. At the least I can exhort you, dear reader, to pick up a copy. Make it a present to yourself. I'm sure you deserve it.