Leaning In, Leaning Out, and Finding Option B
I finished Sheryl Sandberg’s first book, Lean In, sprawled on the floor of a tent in Southern Oregon’s Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. Outside, the sun was baking the desert landscape and my friend Kathy was in her tent next door, close enough that we could pass snacks back and forth. There were no antelopes to be seen, only hungry mosquitos that bounced against the mesh windows of our tents, forcing us to laze away the afternoon.
Snapping the book shut, I tossed it aside with a dismissive, “Whatever, Sheryl …”
It was the first month of my yearlong sabbatical. I’d just quit my job; I was making a concerted effort, in fact, to “lean out.” There wasn’t a point in my life when the COO of Facebook, challenging women like me to go all out in their careers so we could join her in the C-Suite, could have had any less sway over me.
Sandberg's critics had said of course it was easy for her to “lean in” from her place of privilege: she was white, married, wealthy, and well-connected. These were valid points but my real beef with Sandberg was, Why lean in? Really how attractive was her lifestyle? Hundreds of meetings, thousands of airline miles, millions of emails, children raised by a nanny, and the stress. No, thanks.
I wanted to see equal pay and opportunities for women in the workplace too, but I didn’t want it Sandberg’s way.
So Sandberg and I went our very separate ways. Then, recently, as I was browsing the library, I saw she had written a new book called, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. I’d also recently come across Brené Brown’s book, Rising Strong, about how we pick ourselves up after a fall in life. I was intrigued that Sandberg had also written about this topic.
I was so out of the loop that I didn’t realize until I started reading the book that Sandberg wrote it after her husband died suddenly in 2015. I was shocked. I continued reading, with greater compassion.
How people overcome hardship and failure has become increasingly interesting to me, because I see how much negative events hold us back in life. Negative events discourage and undermine our self-confidence and faith, and these are what most often keep us stuck.
The Three Beliefs That Hold Us Back
I’ve seen – in both myself and others – that the more quickly we can process negative events and find ways to rebound, the faster we are back on track toward creating the life we really want.
So I was intrigued when, in the first few pages of Option B, Sandberg introduces the work of Martin Seligman, a psychologist who discovered that there are three typical beliefs that keep us from recovering quickly from setbacks.
He calls these beliefs the “three P’s”:
- Personalization: the belief that we caused the negative event.
- Pervasiveness: the belief that the negative event now pervades every area of our life.
- Permanence: the belief that the repercussions of a negative event will always affect us.
It’s like listening to an internal song on repeat, writes Sandberg. “The loop in your head repeats, ‘It’s my fault it’s awful. My whole life is awful. And it’s always going to be awful.’”
Behind these fallacious beliefs are three truths that can help us (if we can remember them):
- Sometimes things just happen to us. We are not necessarily to blame and are not solely responsible.
- Even in the midst of deep suffering, there are still parts of our life where joy, peace and beauty exist.
- The repercussions of a negative event will eventually fade and even pass.
“Hundreds of studies have shown that children and adults recover more quickly when they realize hardships aren’t entirely their fault, don’t affect every aspect of their lives, and won’t follow them everywhere forever,” writes Sandberg. “Recognizing that negative events aren’t personal, pervasive or permanent makes people less likely to get depressed and better able to cope.”
An awareness of the fallacy of the three P’s helped Sandberg cope with her husband’s death. She also writes about how it’s been shown to help teachers be more effective in the classroom; college varsity swimmers to recover and improve from poor race times; and salespeople who face regular rejection in their jobs.
The three P’s resonated with me because they sum up a phenomenon that I’ve been noticing for a while, but didn’t have a way to articulate it.
Bouncing Back, Daily
Recently, I’ve found myself referring back to the three P’s in the course of a regular day. When I find myself becoming frustrated or discouraged, it’s been helpful to ask if I’m in the middle of one of the three P’s.
Often, I am.
I might have a thought like:
“I’ve tried to set up this meeting with this guy for weeks! Why isn’t he getting back to me? He doesn’t think I’m important. I don’t think he likes me.”
New thought: “This isn’t necessarily a reflection on me. He’s probably just busy.”
“Everything has gone wrong today! My life is a complete disaster.”
New thought: “Today was rough. But there were still some good moments. It was fun to go to lunch with friends."
“The house is always a mess! We’re always so disorganized.”
Permanence. (Note: Seligman discovered that the words “never” and “always” are signs of permanence in action. Sandberg found that it was helpful to replace these words with “sometimes” and “lately.”)
New thought: “Sometimes the house is a mess. We’ve been busy lately.”
Often I don’t remember to stop and investigate why I’m sinking into a funk – but when I do, I’ve found that this simple mental tool helps me reassess what’s happening.
Giving Others – and Ourselves – Room to Change
The danger of the “permanence” belief is something I’ve especially noticed in relationships.
At some point I noticed that my relationships with at home and at work went better if I tried to avoid saying to someone:
Such as: "You’re always late." Or, "You never listen to me."
Because if we say this about someone, we never give them the opportunity to change. Even thinking it is dangerous, because it means that we consider it a fixed, permanent state for this person. It doesn’t leave them any room to show us that they’re working on it, that maybe we misread them, or that they’ve improved.
In fact, when I snapped Sheryl Sandberg’s first book shut, I thought our paths would never cross again. But here they have.
And I appreciate it and have gotten a lot out of it. It must have taken a lot of courage for Sandberg to write about such a devastating personal tragedy and make something constructive of it, as well as to publicly acknowledge that some of the criticisms of Lean In were valid.
That’s big. She changed. So have I.
Five years ago, when I tossed Lean In aside, it was an act of bravado. I'd quit my job and wanted to explore what other options existed for me outside of corporate America, but I still worried how soon I'd crawl back. I felt a little guilty about "leaning out" and wondered what consequences I'd face later.
It's been pretty amazing to see what happened instead. I haven't gone back to corporate life. Instead I have my own business. I'm the woman leader who calls the shots and sets the strategy. I do what I love and I'm not stressed. I'm also a new mom, and am figuring out what it means for me to “lean in” to work and life.
I'm writing you right now because that same journey led me to this work. And I'm writing about how to build resilience and overcome hardship, because I've also learned along the way that choosing a more personally authentic life is still filled with its share of difficulties and failures.
In fact, sometimes the stakes seem higher because to create this life and work, I listened to my heart and I chose this and it's up to me to live it to the fullest.
And now I wouldn't have it any other way.