Sheryl Sandberg, What If People Want To Lean Out?



Sheryl Sandberg is not an ordinary person. She is extraordinary on multiple traits, including intelligence and organizational ability. So why should we listen to extraordinary people when they give us advice about how to live our more ordinary lives?

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has written an important book titled Lean In that should be read by both women and men who are choosing to pursue high powered careers.  The book is mainly written for women who are struggling with the give and take between work and family.  Sandberg encourages them to lean in rather than opt out.  However, the book is also for men because she argues that men need to support women as much as women need to support men in their careers.  Given that she discusses sex differences in ambition and career pursuits, another book that I think should be read alongside Lean In for a complementary and important perspective is Susan Pinker’s The Sexual Paradox.

One of my personal hobbies is reading biographies of famous people.  However, biographies are about notable people, who by definition are extraordinary on multiple traits, such as intelligence, creativity, energy, toughness, discipline, and willingness to work long difficult hours.  In fact, for just about all of us who read these biographies, we fully understand that we cannot be like these people, no matter how hard we might try.  In fact, considering the sacrifices that many of these people made to become great, many of us happily choose a more satisfying and reasonable path—for us.

Lean In is not a biography.  However, Sandberg illustrates her points well with many of her personal life stories.  Whenever I read an autobiography, I have noticed that the extraordinary person often tries to act as if they are ordinary.  However, in Sandberg’s case, she is very open and proudly shares how she has been different than others, even from a young age:

The stories of my childhood bossiness are told (and retold) with great amusement.  Apparently, when I was in elementary school, I taught my younger siblings, David and Michelle, to follow me around, listen to my monologues, and scream the word “Right!” when I concluded.  I was the eldest of the neighborhood children and allegedly spent my time organizing shows that I could direct and clubs that I could run.

Even when we were in our thirties, pointing out this behavior was still the best way for my siblings to tease me.  When Dave and I got married, David and Michelle gave a beautiful, hilarious toast, which kicked off with this: “Hi! Some of you think we are Sheryl’s younger siblings, but really we were Sheryl’s first employees—employee number one and employee number two.  Initially, as a one-year-old and three-year-old we were worthless and weak.  Disorganized, lazy…But Sheryl could see that we had potential.  For more than ten years, Sheryl took us under her wing and whipped us into shape…To the best of our knowledge Sheryl never actually played as a child, but really just organized other children’s play.  Sheryl supervised adults as well.  When our parents went away on vacation, our grandparents used to babysit.  Before our parents left, Sheryl protested, ‘Now I have to take care of David and Michelle and Grandma and Grandpa too.  It’s not fair!’”

What the passages above clearly reveal is that even in elementary school, Sandberg was extraordinary.  And even though her siblings were surely exaggerating her personality to some degree, the question I think we should ask is: how many other people (female or male) were similar to Sandberg at that age?  The story above shows that even among her quite accomplished family members, she is an outlier.

Given that Sandberg was accepted by and attended Harvard University indicates that she is likely in the top one percent of intelligence because the standardized test score requirements are extremely high.  Therefore Sandberg is not ordinary on the traits of intelligence or the ability and desire to manage people.  That she is now the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook is not entirely surprising considering that she exhibited such leadership potential and strength of will at such an early age.

Sandberg is a wonderful role model for females (and males) who wish to reach the pinnacle of success in corporate America and really in any discipline.  However, she is particularly an important and powerful symbol for females who choose to pursue the path towards the pinnacle of career success because she has made it and has really done it all.  I just hope that in the many discussions surrounding this very important book, it is not forgotten that Sandberg is not an ordinary person and that not everyone can (or should want to) be like her.  Rather, she is extraordinary on multiple traits, including intelligence and organizational ability.  Given that we each only have twenty four hours in the day, I hope that we will remember to respect those women and men who choose to Lean Out rather than Lean In to a high powered career.  I hope each person will make their choices based on their individual characteristics, personal life priorities, and values and will not feel the pressure to try to be like Sandberg just because she says more people should.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

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This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.


Tags: business, education, psychology, technology, work

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