Language is powerful, and tricky, too. It gives us shorthand phrases – like “lean in” or “opt out” – that enable us to represent entire arguments and worldviews with just a couple of words. But the power of these phrases is dangerous; their weight digs grooves that frame the debates in which they are implicated, making it difficult to free ourselves from the terms in which we’re accustomed to thinking.
Like most people following the news over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what it means to “lean in” (and it’s counterpoint, “opt out”) and the assumptions and judgments inherent in the terms. Sheryl Sandberg coined “lean in” to signify a more passionate commitment to career ambition and leadership; it’s meant to carry a positive connotation (though in my experience is referenced drily and with some cynicism/resentment by many women). And opting out, of course, refers to women choosing to leave the workplace to become stay-at-home mothers. Both place work at the center, with action defined by one’s orientation toward career (and notably placing all the agency in the individual with little to no regard for the social context for these actions).
But as someone in the midst of career transition, I find myself wondering why this debate is necessarily framed around work. I’ve recently left my job of more than a decade in order to invest time and energy in figuring out what I want to do next. At first glance, this might look like opting out, but I prefer to see myself as leaning in, in a broader sense – not into a specific workplace or leadership position but rather into an exploration of my passions and desired directions, which after all are necessary fuel for that “lean in” drive. True, I’m not working full-time or earning a significant salary right now, but I’m deeply engaged in questions of how to create a meaningful, sustainable career, as one component of a meaningful, sustainable life. And believe me, this process takes effort worthy of “lean in” recognition.
Similarly, I look at my friends who are not working outside of the home (or working very part-time), and in some cases I see women who have not rejected work or career but rather have actively chosen to “opt in” to a particular vision of family life. Though it may look like they have embraced a traditional family model, I know that many of them are striving to create something that is actually counter-cultural for our achievement-oriented Northeast community – a life that is not defined by public accolades or by the assumption that the more frantic your life is the more important you must be. And most of them view this period as one stage in a lifetime of varied work.
Ultimately, it’s the in/out binary that does us the greatest disservice. As we’re learning through new career trends including flex time, telecommuting, “encore” careers, the rise in small entrepreneurialism, etc., many of us will live lives in which work is ongoing but not linear, with different phases of irregular intensity. In aiming for that elusive “work/life balance,” we do best when we remember that work is neither in opposition to “life” (as that pesky slash might suggest) nor is it necessarily always at the center (as the in/out binary suggests).
What happens if we shift the language? An article in last Sunday’s New York Times Styles section explored how “lean in” has become such common parlance that it is now applied widely beyond Sandberg’s intention. This “off-label use” can undercut the phrase’s precision and power, but perhaps it can also help reframe the debates around work, family, and balance so that we can imagine “leaning in” as an invitation to explore broader and more varied definitions of success than Sandberg’s corporate model. That’s something I could lean into.