Can you lean in if you’re over 40?

I just finished “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg yesterday and was pleasantly inspired by it. I had heard a few things that made me think I might not like it (perspectives on children, HR practices, an emphasis on careerism at the expense of family). My reading was a good reminder not to rely on the reviews of others in evaluating a book. And with that: here is, not a review, but a reflection.
The main argument I took away was the encouragement to be honest about what work I want to do, and to pursue it actively. Her examples of how women can hold themselves back from challenging careers did not feel like “blame the victim” to me: they felt very true and important to reflect on. It made me wonder about times I’ve held myself back from challenging work, which I think was more of a challenge in my education than career. Unfortunately, lack of challenging myself educationally definitely has a career impact. I also realized how significant negotiation skills are to all aspects of work – including the work I want to do – and am inspired to develop mine.

In terms of what work this might inspire me to do, I also appreciated three key reminders: that I will have a long life beyond children and so might as well build up a challenging and exciting career to enjoy; that the example I set for my daughter of doing work I love is more important than I’ve given it credit for; and that the more I advance in my career and become well-positioned, the more flexibility and opportunities I will have. Even with all the emphasis on pursuing a career, I loved that she very consciously positioned herself as respectful of varied lifestyle choices, and I actually believed her. Her arguments about men’s responsibilities, and about the need for systemic changes in support of eliminating gender biases, were also meaningful.

So, can I lean in at my age? Sort of. I don’t believe I can, at this point, achieve the career success I might have if I had engaged more actively at a younger age. And my personal beliefs about time with young children make it more challenging to put the time into a career. And, my location: not exactly a hot spot for career advancement! However, the example Sandberg offers of her mother is very encouraging in that it shows that people of all backgrounds, of all ages, can make a decided, positive, significant impact on their world if they choose to do so. I do choose that, and am thrilled with the advice in this book that can move me forward towards whatever work I pursue.


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