If I’m being honest, I read it mostly out of a sense of obligation. It turns out obligation is not such a bad motivation.
One of the programs I lead at Harvard is called the Women’s Initiative in Leadership (WIL.) In this program, we talk a lot about the struggles women face in the workplace, at school, and as they navigate the choices they must make when they choose to start a family. So, inevitably, when Sheryl Sandberg released her book Lean In, it was a topic of conversation in our little circle; her book’s theme and a lot of its content after all lend itself perfectly to what these women are working through right now. So I admit it, I read her book not because I wanted to. I knew that eventually someone would ask me about Sandberg’s book or it would be a topic of conversation at WIL and how could I possibly participate– let alone lead that conversation– if I hadn’t read it?
It was a quick read, one with many little lessons and tid-bits of advice. A lot of it has been recounted in interviews and book write-ups so I won’t bore you with the details. After all, for me at least, it was really the book that I read after I read Lean In that leant (yes, pun intended) more meaning to Sandberg’s bits of advice. That book was called Outliers. By Malcolm Gladwell from the New Yorker, it’s been on my list ever since freshmen year when my proctor told me about it. He used to call me an outlier and, mathematically inclined as I am not, I used to brush his comments away, teasing often that I was in search of redefining that word. Outlier, after all, to most of us means someone who’s really different, who’s off the charts inexplicable in some weird, word-defying way. Definitely not me. I’m normal, I would protest. (Hold the sarcasm please, peanut gallery.)
But Gladwell’s book challenges that definition. “Outlier” after all suggests some quality intrinsic to the individual– some merit they alone deserve that steeps them higher than their peers– or at least on a different plane or playing field. Outlier is for the fish who swims out of stream, who doesn’t hang with the in-group… or really any group at all for that matter. Hence my hesitation and aversion to the word.
But not so, writes Gladwell. Outliers are products of their environment– and not just products but beneficiaries too of the distinct advantages their environment, their upbringing, their unique social status or even time of birth affords them in life. This to me is actually a more compelling argument.
You can call it nature and nurture. It takes the onus a little bit off the individual; likewise it credits their success (or lack thereof) to the circumstances they find themselves in. (Basically, it’s not your fault if you’re a screw up– you can see why I like this argument a bit more ;) This is the argument that is behind the criticism of Sandberg’s book– albeit most people wouldn’t get straight to the point and tell you that. Sitting from her perch, she writes a book that is very much for women like those I meet each week in WIL. Women who aren’t exactly juggling 2 or 3 jobs or forced to take care of sickly parents or deal with the death of a loved one. Women who are fortunate to be able to invest time and money into perhaps the best investment there is– their own personal growth and education. Sandberg’s advice is great but is perhaps, Gladwell would say, for the outliers, people with the right circumstances, the right lot in life. Is this to say that people who don’t get that lucky break are stuck? That they too can’t be outliers?
No, not at all.
I think here there is a potential to bridge the gap between the arguments Sandberg makes (i.e., that the individual can chart her future) and that Gladwell does (i.e., it doesn’t matter how much you do as an individual– you have to get lucky, you have to have to the right timing, the right family, the right opportunities.)
Well, I think they’re both right. And that’s not a cop-out or some grandiose diplomatic gesture meant to find the merits in both arguments. I really mean it. They both make good points. But if experience has taught me this it is that your success is not a direct product of your own volition and proactiveness but those things are important too. But, to be an outlier, you need both. And this is perhaps the half-glass-full naive idealist in me, but I think there are more opportunities out there then most people think. Your circumstances present opportunities for you each and every day but it is your prerogative to act on those circumstances. Most people don’t really. But even the tough stuff, the horrible background, the suckiest of situations, they too allot you a special vantage point if you think critically and really strategically about what you get from them. You see you can have the right circumstances– or even the wrong ones– but what matters just as much is that you view them and use them as an opportunity to–wait for it–lean in.
And with that, Ishani and I are kicking off a whole new series with a line-up of awesome women we know. They’ll take us from Bosnia to Kenya, up through New York and down through Chile. We’ve asked them to “lean in” in some way and then guest blog about it. We see it as a slight push– hey, an opportunity even– to get them not just to share in the incredible work they’re doing this summer but to also lean in a little and show off their outlier-ish tendencies.
Maybe, you’ll be inspired. We sure are.
Here’s our first two guest blog posts: