Why Leaning Out Might be the Best Step Toward Leaning In Again

As you might know from reading this blog, in June I left my previous company and, instead of taking the six-figure executive level role I was I leaving it for, had a change of heart and decided to take a career “pause.” I’ve spent the summer effectively “leaning out,” which is the best way I can think of to boil down the complicated collection of thoughts, feelings and decisions that have led me to where I’m currently at.

If you haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” I highly recommend it. I devoured it shortly after it came out, and I found it refreshing to hear a successful female executive talk about why women need to work harder than their male colleagues to ascend the career ladder; why they need to approach negotiating for a promotion or a raise in a completely different way than men do; and the skills that women need to hone (especially in relation to balancing a career with a family) to make it to the C-suite. The title of the book was based on Sandberg’s advice to women to focus on making intentional decisions that prioritize professional success, even if they occur during the same time that women are considering other life choices, like starting a family.

While the book generated some controversy, primarily because Sandberg had resources that most women don’t which allowed her to focus on her career (i.e., being able to afford nannies and sitters, having a very supportive partner who shared all of the domestic and childcare responsibilities), I found the book full of practical advice and useful tips for navigating the male-dominated workplace. The message I took away was that even though the corporate world is almost always designed by men to favor the advancement of men, there are ways to navigate the obstacles, survive and thrive if you know how.

Based on my decision to turn down a job and pause my long climb up the corporate ladder, it feels accurate to call what I’ve done for the past 2.5 months “leaning out.” This decision to lean out can certainly be attributed, in part, to being burned out and disheartened after working for a company that wasn’t a good cultural fit; for a manager who was checked-out; and where most of the people I worked with were on auto-pilot.

However, the real reason I decided to lean out is the result of an uncomfortable realization that took hold shortly before my 40th birthday: I was dedicating most of my life to demanding work that was incredibly unfulfilling. Yet, when I was presented with a new job opportunity in May, I misguidedly thought that taking it, starting over at a different company and stepping into a higher-profile role would give me the satisfaction I was looking for. After a lot of soul-searching, I knew it was the wrong choice. So instead of ignoring my heart for my head (as I’m often inclined to do), I gave myself permission to say no, come up for air and take some time to figure out what I really want.

After 2.5 months of leaning out, have I figured it out? Not really. I wish I could say I know what I want to do with the rest of my life, but I’m still muddling through the very large questions that led me to take a break. While I don’t have as many answers as I’d like, what I do have is this: more perspective, more time for myself and slightly less fear about what’s going to happen next (even if I still don’t know what that is). This may not sound like much, but it’s been pretty liberating after 16 years of working toward career goals that I no longer think are the right ones for me. Here’s what leaning out has done for me:

  1. I’m no longer embarrassed to say that I’m currently unemployed. If you read this post, you’ll realize that’s a big step. I’ve managed to boil down what was a very difficult and personal choice into a couple of simple sentences benign enough for small talk, and I can discuss my decision without worrying what others will think.
  2. I can easily counter comments like: “You’d better hurry up and get back out there,” “The longer you don’t work the harder it will be to get a job,” “It’s easier to find a job when you have a job,” “Just take a job and then you can figure out what you really want to do,” “Aren’t you bored?” “What do you do all day?” with rational responses delivered in a calm and non-defensive way. This is because the negative, fearful and judgemental part of me has already thought these very same things and, instead of letting them paralyze me, I’ve decided to let go of them and carry on anyway.  
  3. Instead of cramming as much as possible into 15-hour days that flew by in a blur because I just wanted to get them over with, I’ve learned how to slow down a little, and I’m working on trying to be more present in my daily life.
  4. I have way more patience. Things that used to drive me crazy (i.e, long lines, inefficient processes, overly talkative people, lateness, poor customer service), have become mild irritants rather than triggers that would take my blood pressure up to boiling.
  5. I’ve started to get dialed into my body’s natural rhythms. I already knew I wasn’t a morning person, but I’m enjoying mornings a lot more now that they don’t start with 40+ emails in my inbox, unproductive conference calls and texts from my boss freaking out about missing a deadline for something his boss had asked him to do a week ago, knowing I’d wind up doing it for him. Now, I wake up when I want to, and I go to bed when I want to. If that’s not life-changing, I don’t know what is!

Perspective aside, I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve figured out the meaning of life and now spend my days in sublime harmony. I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve that, but it’s definitely been eye-opening to have more freedom and flexibility than I’ve experienced in a very long time. I’m consistently amazed at the breakneck pace I was previously operating at, and I’m baffled by how I managed to keep all of those proverbial plates spinning in the air (rarely letting one drop) while often sacrificing my health and personal life for a large paycheck.

I do wish these 2.5 months had left me with more answers than questions, but my internal dialog on this subject continues to sound something like this: Why are we expected to figure out what we want to do with our lives in our 20s and then never deviate from that path and the careers that we ultimately (and often accidentally) wind up working in? For example, consulting, marketing and management were never my passions, but I was good at them so that’s what I stuck with. Why don’t we get promoted for trying something different, taking risks, switching careers or learning something new? Instead, promotions are handed out (at best) for delivering what was expected or (at worst) because of tenure or favoritism. As a result, most of us in the corporate world watch as our personal goals get sidelined while more of our time is focused on achieving a definition of professional success that we didn’t create for ourselves, even as our identity becomes increasingly tied to our career.

Leaning out has allowed me to revisit what professional success truly means to me, and to separate the worker from the person. I also have a better sense of what I’m looking for if I do decide to take another job, but I worry that it’s unrealistic. I recently had an experience that helps to explain this anxiety and the reticence with which I’m approaching the job search process. Last week, I was sitting on my upstairs porch enjoying the sunshine while updating my resume, and I heard singing and laughter coming from a neighbor’s roof across the street. There were about seven men hard at work replacing roof tiles and painting the exterior in 89-degree heat. One of the men started to sing a song and the others joined in, with some whistling along, some laughing and others making jokes. They were literally whistling as they worked.

I knew they must have been hot, tired and sore after hours of physical work. I probably wouldn’t have lasted 15 minutes up there, but these guys appeared happy and energized, and they actually seemed like they were enjoying what was clearly difficult labor. Contrast that with the years I’ve spent sitting in front of a computer in a climate-controlled office that had free snacks, beer and ping pong tables and making far more than what they were being paid. Yet, I rarely (if ever) remember liking the work I was doing as much as they appeared to. I envied them, and I longed for a work environment that would make me feel like that.

Is it possible to find that kind of enjoyment—even for an hour or a day—from your work? What have I been doing that’s prevented me from achieving that? What do I need to change to make that a possibility? Like I said, I have a lot more questions than answers, but I’ve started to redefine what I want and figure out how to look for what (I think) will make me happy professionally. I’ve realized that the only way I’ll be successful is to do the opposite of what I’ve been doing: take it slow, define what I’m looking for, be present enough to find it and be honest with myself when I notice that I’m defaulting to old habits. When I do eventually find what I’m looking for, I’m going to consider applying this approach so that I don’t lose my balance: “The Secret to Office Happiness Isn’t Working Less, It’s Caring Less.” The crux of the article is summed up quite poetically at the very end:

By caring about work a little less, we can afford ourselves experiences of what is truly meaningful, and let us rest for a while in the unfolding present.

Resting in the unfolding present doesn’t come naturally to me at all—probably because it’s the opposite of what’s required to be successful in the corporate world. This has also been one of my biggest challenges during the time I’ve spent leaning out. I’m used to structure, deadlines, being decisive, multi-tasking and moving on to what’s next at warp speed without spending any time being introspective. I’m used to rapidly processing data from five minutes ago while simultaneously planning for five months in the future and treating the present as an irritating necessity to get over with as quickly as possible. Wash, rinse, repeat.

These behaviors and thought processes  don’t go away overnight, but the perspective I’ve gained from leaning out has led me to realize that they won’t serve me well if I want the next 16 years to be more than just a well-paid, dissatisfying blur. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I’m working hard to design a life where my work is meaningful, fulfilling and enjoyable, at least part of the time.

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