Seeing 25 years into the future

Inesha and I are back on Harvard’s campus for a relatively laid back reunions week–a week filled with almost tangible excitement as a new class of Harvard grads exits the Yard for the last time (and celebrates plenty in the days and nights leading up to it) and many classes of years past re-enter for their 5th, 10th, 15th, 25th, 35th, and 50th reunions.

Commencement

Harvard President Drew Faust and recipients of Harvard honorary degrees, Commencement 2013

Being a part of all of this–and yet, not being a part of it (since we are, after all, still current students)–has been a a real “looking glass experience” if I’ve ever had one. These have been days when we walk through the Yard at a time when the green has practically turned Crimson with  unmistakable gusto as regalia adorn every signpost and t-shirt. At night we work as “night counselors” (an unbelievably pleasant job) since it requires only that we sit inside one of the residential colleges and ensure that no 9-17 year-old children of alumni slip out of the doors while their parents are out late into the night (alumni delight in staying inside their old college dorm while attending their reunion). Fortunately, this job has also afforded me time to pick up a book that I had only just glanced through when all the hubbub around it began–that widely critiqued, widely praised tome of Mrs. Sandberg’s: Lean In.

Just last night, as I waved  slightly inebriated alumni through the gates of the college and towards various nightcap events, I was reading Lean In and doing my best to lodge in my memory the small nuggets of wisdom that Sandberg was imparting on me. The book was a pleasant read and by the end of the night, I was feeling inspired and, as you might imagine, the alumni were quite happy as well as they left their cocktail parties and trickled back into the dorms for the night.

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George Barner ’29, the alumnus from the oldest class year (104 years old!)

Fast forward to this afternoon, a Saturday, when the hot temperatures were  accompanied by only a few light festivities and little in the way of personal commitments or work to attend to. Thinking we could beat the heat, Inesha and I stumbled into one of the lecture halls in the Science Center. There we found air conditioning and also, serendipitously, an alumni panel that had drawn a sizable crowd to the rows of bright red chairs that I will probably forever associate with my morning Chemistry lectures. Inesha and I sat in the far left corner of the cavernous hall, hoping not to be a disturbance, though surely the other attendees wouldn’t mind the presence of two much younger (and more naive) students. At the front of the room sat a panel consisting of four women and one man. “Come on everyone, don’t be afraid to lean in and sit closer to the stage,” said one of the panelists into her microphone. She was a tall blonde woman wearing a patterned sheath dress and a pleasant smile as she beckoned to the audience. Her choice of words elicited a chuckle from those around us. It all made sense a few seconds later.

Unbeknownst to us, we had just walked into a panel on none other than Sheryl Sandberg’s, Lean In.

Now, to be sure this book had already been the cause of much conversation on campus. But also, the book (along with Mrs. Sandberg herself) arrived at Harvard at a time when classes and seemingly everything else were in full swing. Thus, even though I was eager to join the discussion, I had quietly planned to read the book in the first few weeks of my summer and tucked it away in my mind for the time being. But even if I wasn’t jumping to join the discussion, I wasn’t impervious to it going on all around me. I can distinctly remember how positive the reaction seemed to be from the many young women around me–after all, Sheryl Sandberg was fighting the good fight, and she was speaking up and leaning in to start a conversation that simply needed to be had. I, tempering my own comments with the caveat that I had not yet read the book, tended to feel the same way: yes, this was a book that was trying to move mountains and change entrenched norms in the workplace. Careers should not be thought of as a ladder, Sandberg writes.  Because then it seems that there is only one way up and most of the time you just end up staring at the butt of the person above you. Too true.

Fast forward a few weeks and I am sitting in an alumni panel feeling sheltered from the merciless heat, and yet pelted by a hard-hitting reality that certainly wasn’t shared on Commencement Day. Surrounding me in this Harvard lecture hall were graduates who presumably represented the reality that I would be facing in 25 years. They had kids, careers, health insurance. They had divorces, disabilities, and memories. But most of all, they had nuggets of wisdom that I found far more telling than those that I had read just the night before in Sandberg’s book. Now this was a conversation that had to be had.

One woman shared her story of going from earning a six figure salary at Oliver Wyman to applying for a job at a local Starbucks in a time of hardship. Her husband had been laid off and she had left her job in order to take care of her children. And of course, health insurance is tied to one’s job. The problem was, Starbucks paid $8/hr and daycare was $10/hr. What followed were many tough choices.

Another man shared a story about working at a dream career but then going through a terrible divorce that left him feeling detached from his children and miserable from the hardship. Years later he is remarried and, fortunately, has managed to find happiness again.

The stories were uplifting too, explaining the empowerment that comes from making choices and staying true to yourself in the worlds of both career and family.

Another mom took the mic and said, “I want to talk about the terminology a little bit. Why is it that deciding to stay home with your kid is leaning out? I may have had a corporate job that had me working overtime every week, but I have to say that staying home with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old was the hardest job I ever had.” Applause erupted in the hall as she sat down.

Some women spoke about finally telling their bosses “no” to that request to work overtime when they had to leave work in order to watch their kid make the winning shot at his basketball game. They spoke about demanding a pumping room on the trading floor of an investment banking firm and encouraging their male and female colleagues alike to leave work when they had to be there for their families (and to explain to their coworkers where it was they were going). “By talking about it we make it ok,” explained one woman. More than anything, the message that resonated with me is that these alumni who had been through all stages of hardship with children and careers didn’t necessarily believe that Sheryl Sandberg’s message was as well positioned as myself and many other 20-somethings might think. What they called for was not a change in the behavior of women, but rather changes in the cultural and structural factors that can often prevent them from leaning in. I am aware that the people who sat around me in the lecture hall today are also privileged in their own way. They are by no means representative of the average American family, but simultaneously demonstrate that hardship cannot be defined by any one experience and hits at all levels of the economic spectrum. We may not be able to predict the challenges that we will face later in life, but we do control our response to it. One man’s words remained with me throughout the session:

Life is more stressful than any one of us thought, but it’s more beautiful too–a Harvard alum, 25th reunion

His words reminded me of many similar ones that my father would share with Inesha and me when we were even shorter and (if possible) more of a handful than we are now. Even though he never put it in a single statement, this was exactly what he was trying to tell us every time we rolled up to the gas station and he reminded us that a car–like life–doesn’t just run on fuel and energy. There are also the car inspections and vehicle registration payments and unanticipated visits to the mechanic. The groceries, too, wouldn’t just find themselves in our kitchen. We would need to choose carefully and shop for them, and generally, it’s just a good idea to know what the cost of bread is these days. What might have seemed like mundane advice on the surface, was an implicit appeal to always appreciate what we have and work for what we want, all the while remembering that no one does it alone.

Throughout the school year, I attend various panels that bring celebrities and politicians and true changemakers from around the world to rooms filled with millennials who want to soak in their wisdom. We hear about their first job out of college, the mistakes they made on their resume, and the hard times during graduate school. But sitting in that lecture hall this afternoon, one crucial factor was distinctly different–the makeup of the audience. Here, there were families in the room. Wives sat next to their husbands or partners and women and men alike shared stories about their struggle to balance work and home life, decisions to have kids or no kids, or fears about the future as their kids leave home for college and they are faced with the difficulty of jumpstarting their careers at age 50. Rather than feeling that the excitement and limitless energy of a room of college students had been unceremoniously sapped from the room, I felt fortunate to hear about a reality that I had never been exposed to in such a real way. I was given an opportunity to see 25 years into the future. Between the jubilation and ceremonies, nightcaps and reminiscing, these alums had real stories to share about their experiences post-Harvard and, on this afternoon in particular, how these related to Lean In.

I haven’t finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book yet, but when I do, I know I will set it down with a far more nuanced perspective. Leaning In assumes a different form for every person, and for some, it may be that taking a step back from work is their personal way of leaning in and doing something that they never thought they had permission to do. It’s true that Sheryl Sandberg had a powerful mentor in Larry Summers, and she is gracious in recognizing him and the many others who have helped her get to where she is today. But the reality is that sometimes we have to be our own best advocate. Discussion about the injustice of having no federally mandated paid maternity leave in the United States when it exists in many countries around the world or the fact that there are many explicit choices that we have to make but never talk about only supported that point.

No matter what your opinion of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, you can’t deny that she has started a national conversation. I still feel far removed from the problems that were discussed during the alumni panel today, but just hearing about them and hearing from families, and not just successful individuals, gave me a more than one-dimensional view of “what success looks like.”

Though I have dreams and hopes and plans for the future, I have to recognize that I don’t actually know where I will be in 25 years. But one thing is for sure: I sincerely hope that I find myself back here at Harvard during my own 25th reunion. As powerful as conversation is, it is made doubly so by the passage of time through which intangible ideas can be shaped into reality. Of course only time will tell, but having “seen through the looking glass,” I feel strength in knowing that I as much as any of my peers have the ability to change the tide with regard to many of the cultural and structural challenges that we face in the workplace. And for starting that conversation, I have to thank that famed management maven-turned author herself, the one and only Sheryl Sandberg.

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