Why I'd Rather Stand Up Straight Than Lean In

If a well-lived life is one of small triumphs, unexpected moments of beauty, and an abiding personal satisfaction, then most of us are on the right path. And it's a joyful path.
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Yesterday I was standing in the office kitchenette, peeling a clementine, when I finally figured out what I don't like about Sheryl Sandberg's book. I was rushing, as I often am, in between meetings, as I always am. I was peeling the clementine in a hurry. But the color, the texture, the way the peel came off in almost one big piece -- that clementine was so gorgeous, it actually stopped me for a moment. People write entire poems about things this small and beautiful, I thought. Slow down.

We'll put aside for a moment the observation of my wiseacre colleague Amanda, that people do indeed write poems about clementines -- when they're on LSD. Like me, Amanda is a working mother with a busy schedule, and she knows exactly what I'm talking about. Maybe she just doesn't like clementines.

As we all know by now, Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of the ubiquitous book Lean In. I should be her target audience. Like her, I am a well-educated working mother who cares about the plight of women and who wishes more of us were running Fortune 500 companies. I'm not worth billions of dollars, as she is, which I suppose is an important distinction. But her message should inspire me, and instead it makes me want to unfriend her. And, as ridiculous as it might sound, I couldn't figure out why until my Clementine Epiphany.

To be sure, Sandberg seems to have noble aspirations with respect to women in the workplace, and I'm grateful for the conversation that she has started. Perhaps most of us should be trying a whole lot harder, in the hopes of achieving the kind of career success she has. And make no mistake: as the editor of Real Simple, I love, love, love my job. I think I am good at what I do, and I am also very lucky -- which, per Lean In, is how women too often characterize their success. And apparently that's self-defeating. But, I'm sorry, it's true: I am lucky in my career. (I'm also lucky that I have a dog who does not chew the furniture and that the crocus bulbs I planted last year survived the local squirrels and are actually blooming.)

Here's the thing: I don't want to be striving for bigger/better/higher/more every minute of every day. I don't always want to have a larger goal. That just sounds exhausting and, worst of all, completely joyless. I want to enjoy my days: past, present, and future. I take great pleasure in my professional success, but I can tell you with certainty that, when I'm lying on my deathbed, I'm not going to be thinking about career wins. I'm going to be thinking about my parents and two sisters who greeted every new life situation like it was another chapter in a long, hilarious narrative; my steadfast husband, who gave me love and a true north; and finally, the three children who made me take life both more and less seriously, and whose faces are the only thing I see when I close my eyes.

Like many working mothers, I sacrifice a lot of my personal life to meet workplace demands. But I have rarely had to sacrifice the reliable, small joys that pepper my days. If you are always leaning in, always pushing toward the future -- well, how much time do you have to enjoy your present? My days in the office are busy, and when they are over, I don't want to go to networking dinners or think about finding a mentor. I want to go home and have a meal with my family and laugh my head off over some dumb YouTube video my husband found that day. Maybe that means I'm not really ambitious. But if I had to choose between ambition and fun -- well, that's an easy one.

Back to the clementine. If a well-lived life is one of small triumphs, unexpected moments of beauty, and an abiding personal satisfaction, then most of us are on the right path. And it's a joyful path. When I stopped myself in the office kitchen, I suppose I was telling myself to lean back for a moment. I don't really want to lean back for long. But I don't want to lean in, either. I know I'm most comfortable standing up straight.

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