Lean In? Sometimes I’d rather Lean Away.

So, I have an on-again, off-again book club, and one of the books we recently discussed was Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She is the woman in that popular TED talk, which exploded into a book/movement to ‘lean in’.

lean in

The book is for women in the workplace. Or rather, it’s for women who want to excel/climb the ranks in the workplace. She is essentially looking at why we don’t have more women leaders, and a LOT of that reason, according to Sandberg’s discussion, is about children/family.

That is to say, women anticipate having children, and so they back away from work. There are other aspects, but this point is one that interests me the most. Essentially, she suggests that even before meeting the loves of their lives, women are already planning their exit strategy for motherhood. And therefore, they are less ambitious in their jobs.

Okay, I can get that. In fact, I’ve seen that actually happen.

Now why am I talking about this today? Because I’m curious about leaning in from the perspective of cancer.

Sandberg argues women should lean in so that if they do have kids, when they return from their mat leave they will be in a good position. Focusing on advancing your career is worth it for the places it will take you, and because when you come back  to work you’ll be at a higher level.So, say instead of babies you have a possibly shorter life span on your mind. Are there similarities here? Should we ‘lean in’ and create a legacy of some kind? Does that kind of stuff even matter? Why bother leaning in if the clock is officially ticking? Is the assumption of illness, change, or even death reason enough to not go for a promotion or try to rise up in a company? Better yet, those diagnosed with stage four cancer – are we more likely to lean away?

Maybe it’s a matter of time. But that’s the one massive question that cannot be answered. It could be a year, it could be twenty years, it could be . . .  well, who the heck knows?

I’ve met one woman who choose to lean away. She was counting down the days till retirement and was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. Instead of retiring, she went on disability as she slid into depression. Somehow, to her, being on disability rather than being retired seems to equate to missing the golden ring. But then, I reckon the depression contributes to that perspective.  She is emotionally disconnected from joy, and that is really crap.

There are other women – younger ladies in the thick of motherhood, diagnosed with stage four and choosing to stay home. They’d rather spend time with their kids, and who is going to argue against that? That makes all kinds of sense to me. They are leaning into what matters most to them.

And then there is me. To lean in or lean away? This past autumn had me leaning in to get the book done and out. It was a very good decision, and what an experience. Also, I worked during that time too, even right after diagnosis when life was nothing but brick walls. Though to be honest, while we build Zsolt’s business I don’t have a choice whether or not to work. I must work. We need to eat and pay rent 🙂 Retirement isn’t an option. Heck, I’m only 31! There is nothing to retire.

But even if I’m working, should I be leaning in? Should I try to grow my career or be content as it is? Is it fair to my employers if I apply & get accepted for a higher position? What if I get sick again, and their investment comes to nothing? Is it selfish to lean in? Do I even want to lean in?

With my book it is different. I like to lean in because it’s just me. Either I sell or I don’t sell. Either I create or I don’t create. No one else is impacted. But even with writing . . . well, there are these scans every few months . . . there is that constant limbo. Life itself is an emotional stop and go.

There’s a point in here somewhere . Actually, no, there isn’t a point. There is a question: Do you lean in, and what does that even mean to you after being diagnosed (or someone you love being diagnosed) with cancer? And if someone told you time was limited, would your career even remain a focus?

What do you think? Leaning in post-cancer, leaning in at stage four . . .

I lean into what I love, that’s for sure. But as for the other stuff, I don’t know. I found myself not committing and using “I had cancer, so I don’t’ want to waste my time on crap that doesn’t matter” as an explanation for that – whether or not it is a good explanation. Honestly, I’d rather write short stories that make people smile. I’d rather capture someone’s story and help them feel special. I’d rather tweet and talk and doodle and create. I’d rather feel my heart get filled up with a job very well done. And most of all, I’d rather weave stories, even if it’s not catapulting me to the top of an organization, or even a bestseller list, it’s what I prefer to do. Now with the stage four, I feel that way even more.

Though as I said, I still need to pay my bills 🙂 And really, my dreams are much bigger than just paying bills. I want to buy property and travel and live well and realize some huge ideas that must involve success. So, despite stage four, and not knowing what the next scan will bring, I actually do want to lean in. I want to lean in on my terms and with what I love.

So that’s a little from me. Now it’s your turn:

Lean in . . . what does that mean after fighting for your life? I’d love to know.

12 thoughts on “Lean In? Sometimes I’d rather Lean Away.

  1. Great question! For me, it certainly meant a leaning away from my job and a leaning towards the work I am doing now which doesn’t pay as much but gives my life more meaning.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Round Up | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  3. I think you captured it perfectly by saying that you lean into the things that you love. That’s what we should all do…isn’t it? I actually had a conversation about this with one of my coworkers years ago. It was a discussion about hypotheticals, though — not because he had dealt with an illness. It started as one of those “what would you do if…” conversations, and we landed on the classic “what would you do if you knew that you had exactly one year left to live (keeping your health but ending in an unavoidable accident or something)?” His former boss apparently told him that she wouldn’t do anything differently. She would continue to work and carry on in exactly the same way for the whole year. At the time, that struck me as being incredibly sad. I mean, didn’t she have any other interests? Wasn’t there something that she would rather be doing? Weren’t there people or places that she would rather see? I later realized that her answer meant that she was content with her life. She liked her job (obviously), and for all I know, she was perfectly fulfilled by it. I’ve never had that experience from a day job, which is probably why my answer to that question was the EXACT opposite. I’ve liked my job (I’ve also hated it), but it isn’t THE THING that I would want to lean into. Like you, I lean into writing. If writing was my full-time career? Yes, I think it would remain a focus, even an outlet, with any type of diagnosis. It totally depends on what’s important to you — and for some people, if they’re lucky enough to have a day job that is actually their chosen vocation that they enjoy and want to excel in, then why shouldn’t they lean in if they want to? Who knows what will happen to any of us tomorrow. (I realize that I am likely oversimplifying things with these hypotheticals, but I’ve also talked about the premise of that book with my book club, and that was always my gut response!)

  4. I read the book too and realize some of the mistakes I’ve made. For me, it was about understanding my value in the work place and the things I have done that sabotaged that. After cancer, I like leaning into what I love and then try to balance all the rest. I don’t know how long I will be on this earth but as long as I’m here I’m going to need money. I loved your enthusiasm for the Claires and that you wrote that book so quickly. You inspired me.

  5. What a thought provoking post on so many levels, thank you! It really made me think about where we want to direct our efforts, and I think what comes to my mind is that often we are compelled to make a choice between work and personal interests. I reckon that for me, it is about leaning in to what matters to me. Part of that is about my profession, but only part, and a good part is about channeling time and energy into the things I really want to do such as writing, photography, reading, enjoying my surroundings, exploring ………….

    Leaning in, I feel, after a cancer diagnosis and all that entails, is about leaning in to what matters, at a particular time. As you so wisely say, leaning in on your own terms and with what you love/

  6. Leaning away here but to be honest it had already begun even before I was diagnosed.

    I was a modest “success story” in my field, IT. I moved to a new country, learned a new language and started a career as an informaticienne. And I fought – oh, how I fought constantly – for a better position, a better salary and for recognition and respect. 12 hour days, 7 days a week. In a country with 5 weeks of paid vacation I took my PC with me and religiously checked my email and made phone calls from the family summer house. And finally I made it – Worldwide IT Director. Great salary, great company, lots of travel (still have the China and India visas in my passport). An honest to God woman immigrant success story. 3 years running I was an invited speaker at the Executive MBA program at one of France’s most prestigious engineering schools.

    And I was miserable. I thought it was the company and so I moved on to another one. Same thing but with more money. But I no longer liked my field, I loathed the politics and the things I had to do to keep my position. I started drinking to excess every night and so on. Amazing that I held on as long as I did. It was a combination of the tyranny of other people’s expectations and my pride that kept me on the treadmill. What was I if I no longer wanted to be that? What kind of person was I to let other people down? Couldn’t make up my mind what to do but it couldn’t continue since it was affecting my job performance and I think I would have been fired eventually. So I negotiated my departure and let go for a few months. The months turned into a year and I felt better – went to AA, started writing and looked for another job. Then in 2012 I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Now that active treatment is over I am “living in limbo” (yep, got those lovely scans and tests every few months) and it’s strictly One Day at a Time these days.

    Mostly it’s good but when I’m feeling low the guilt surfaces. That I’m no longer making the big bucks and contributing to the family finances. That I’m not much of a role model for my two daughters and for the young women I used to speak to in those MBA programs. That I have all these skills that God blessed me with and I’m not using them.

    What I do know is that trying to “lean in” to something that made me so unhappy, bitter and angry, isn’t the answer. It only took me to a place where I was resentful of everyone and everything. Can’t go back, can only go forward. But to where? No idea.

  7. I absolutely agree, lean in to what matters to you, whatever it is. When I was diagnosed in my 30s I got into showing people (myself?) that it hadn’t changed me. Ahem well I tried anyway! But more recently when the cancer recurred I had realisation I didn’t want to waste time on things that didn’t matter to me. Older, maybe wiser and now I just want to spend time with people I love and also write too. Enjoy all that matters to you. Your writing is so full of life, I have a sense that’s what you are investing in, wise lady you are. Audrey xx

  8. Wow. Very thought-provoking post on a complex issue. Since diagnosis and treatment, I’ve decided to lean into life and do the things that make me happy. My priorities are where they should be from my perspective: my daughter and loved ones. Savoring the small moments. Work is enjoyable, but it can’t be everything. And I, too, enjoy writing — and I think it’s a good thing to shoot for goals, as long as they mean something to us.

  9. dear Catherine,

    for me, the leaning, either away or into, is so confusing and overwhelming. I so want to lean into things that matter and make me happy. but going through this tortuous treatment for uterine cancer is so difficult and definitely makes it all such a complex issue. continually having to lean into whatever I have to do for the best outcome often entails unpleasant and painful things. I find the only fix for that is to lean into what I am grateful for – an ace medical team, incredible support network, and a sharper, more honed sense of compassion for others who are also struggling. at the same time, I need to lean into the grief at the loss of my Beloved, another painful but necessary part of my life. the counter balance, what I try so hard to achieve, is savoring the times when I can feel happy, when I feel glimmers of hopefulness, when I can write, enjoy losing myself in a good book, or feel comforted by the beauty of nature. contending with these two enormous life-altering situations is a rollercoaster ride. I wish it could be smoother, more like a dance – moving forward, swaying a bit more gently, stepping back, leaning into, leaning away – but the timing often feels so “off”. but I am a big believer that one can only do what one can do, so try to accept that perhaps in time my lurching to and fro will take on a better shape, that my three little words, resilience, grace, and re-invention, will become more integrated and my emotional and physical and spiritual foot steps will not be so clumsy.

    this was a great post, Catherine. and as I was writing my comment, it actually helped me identify feelings I haven’t been able to put into words. thank you for that!

    much love and light,

    Karen xoxo

  10. I definitely lean into what I love. The rest I do to keep the roof over our heads.(Zero interest in climbing anybody else’s ladder.)
    My suggestion: Go for it. Lean in and dream big. You get to choose which way you angle.

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