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Lean In: Don’t Leave Before You Leave

“…when it comes to integrating career and family, planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them. … Of all the ways women hold themselves back, perhaps the most pervasive is that they leave before they leave.”

—Sheryl Sandberg

With all the traveling I do, I’ve heard more than my share of flight attendants instructing me to locate the exit nearest me . . . just in case.

But when it comes to jobs and careers, keeping an eye on the exit isn’t always the best advice. In fact it’s terribly short-sighted.

That’s what Sheryl Sandberg asserts in Chapter 7 of Lean In—”Don’t Leave Before You Leave.”

Sandberg’s Take

As an employer, Sandberg often encounters talented young women who are reluctant to tackle new projects or accept a promotion for which they are qualified. Probing further she’s discovered their reluctance is sometimes based on the well-known dilemma women face between career and personal/family goals.

“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. When asked to choose between marriage and career, female college students are twice as likely to choose marriage as their male classmates.” (p.92) 

Sandberg appreciates firsthand how demanding a career can be and the significant commitment that comes with a family. And she is adamant in her support of women who, when the time comes, choose to be stay-at-home moms. She’s made that choice herself. What surprises her is how some women opt to scale back their career goals and turn down opportunities to advance before they are married or before her first child arrives.

She urges women to rethink this approach.

“What I am arguing is that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives—not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in.” (p.95) 

On the upside, she believes a woman has better choices if she moves forward in her career before family responsibilities kick in. Doing that increases the likelihood that her job will become more fulfilling, which helps if she continues working (with or without children) and, if she chooses to stay-at-home, makes returning to work afterwards more appealing. Advancing also means higher pay and sometimes greater flexibility that facilitate her choice to be with her children.

On the downside, scaling back is self-defeating since it means a woman will inevitably fall behind her colleagues and “end up in a job that is less fulfilling and less engaging.“ (p.94) Taking time off, sets her back even more and lowers both the level of her job, and (according to studies) her annual earnings will decline on average 20 percent if she’s off for one year and 30 percent if she off-ramps for two to three years. (p.102)

“Anyone lucky enough to have options should keep them open. Don’t enter the workforce already looking for the exit. 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. “ (p.103)

My Take

There seems to be something in every chapter that strikes a chord with me. This chapter was no exception. I agree with the challenge Sandberg is raising, but for different reasons. Still, I wish I had encountered someone like the straight-talking Sheryl Sandberg when I was in my twenties. I needed to hear someone urge me to put my foot on the gas pedal and accelerate.

Instead, I entered the workplace post-college as a single with the belief that I’d find God’s purpose for me as a woman in marriage and motherhood. Which meant my time in the workplace was temporary, second best, and not my true calling. I still worked hard; still cared about my performance. But it was a short-term inconvenience, and my heart wasn’t in it.

In the early years of marriage, I applied for a job as an executive secretary to a hospital administrator “to support Frank’s seminary education.” I figured that would take three years max. (I wasn’t counting on two doctorates.) I made the mistake of mentioning my three-year plan to my prospective boss—something I lived to regret. I had just announced that I had no intention of advancing and excluded myself from ever being considered for another position.

My eye was already on the exit door.

Frank was entering doctoral studies when I passed the three-year mark. It was a spiritual crisis for me—one of those When Life and Beliefs Collide moments in my story. Frank and I had some good but stretching conversations that exploded my preconceptions about marriage roles. Little did I know that the great adventure had begun, and it was not what I expected. I had to come to terms with what God was doing in my life and wrestle with the meaning of my work.

That was when everything changed for me and work became more than a temporary excursion into the workplace to make ends meet. My job became a calling. It was another way for me to honor God with the gifts he had given me. My work at the hospital suddenly had new meaning—it had cosmic significance. No one knows what the future will bring, so as one who bears the image of God, I came to realize that I am to give my all here and now, no matter where I happen to be, to the glory of God.

Little did I know how strategic that crisis would be—both for my marriage as well as for my calling. It forged a deeper partnership between Frank and me where we were in this adventure together and from then on would each do whatever it took to embrace whatever challenges God put in our path. God also used it to prepare me for the next phase of my life when I would take on even greater responsibility to support our family during our four year stay in Oxford during Frank’s D.Phil. studies.

The change in my outlook motivated me to return to my job at the hospital with the conviction that this was my calling. That led me to begin actively looking for opportunities to do more, which over time drew my attention to a different door that ultimately led to my career as a software developer.

I agree with Sandberg. Holding back in the workplace is a short-sighted game plan. But for me it was also presumptuous—a refusal to embrace the way God was leading in my life instead of trusting him and engaging as a calling whatever he placed in front of me.

There are a lot of exit doors in life. Sometimes we should make a graceful exit and sometimes we need to dig in, embrace the situation, and give it all we’ve got. It will take God’s wisdom to know which path to take and when to take it. Obviously, the principles here are much bigger than simply whether or not to get serious about a career. In the final analysis, this is about our relationship with God and actively trusting him in each particular circumstance.

As a Christian the problem with “leaving before you leave” (no matter what hoped-for event or change in circumstances it’s based on) is that we can’t control the future. Full-throttled living in the present is not just wise living, it is a fundamental act of faith in God—the belief that his purposes for me are bound up in where he has me now.

So What’s Your Take?

What exit door are you eying? Do you agree with Sandberg’s advice? Why or why not? How have you handled the challenges of professional and personal priorities?

How can we, as Christians, set a different tone in the career versus stay-at-home mom debate among us?

Lean in with your comments!

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