I’ve been leaning in for as long as I can remember.
On second-grade career day, I showed up as a “computer executive” and can still recall feeling proud and strong in a tiny tweed skirt-suit and nylon stockings. From the time I started school, my mother taught me that when I knew the answer, I should sit up in my chair and hold my hand high so my teacher could see me. In many ways, it was a lesson that served my two sisters and me well.
But, after a painful breakup at 39 years old — as I searched for a way to put back together what felt for the moment like a fractured life — it was time for a new lesson. I learned from my meditation teachers what it meant to let go of expectations, to sit with my experience and say, “Right now, it’s like this.”
This past October, six months into processing the break up, I started sitting down with local meditation groups. I thought that I would fix whatever was “wrong” with me — that part of me that, even after years of self-development work, wasn’t as calm and carefree as I wanted to be.
As much as I tried to bring my best self to my relationship, I struggled with (often career-related) anxiety. And, I didn’t have the language to ask for what I really needed from my former romantic partner, which was someone to hold space for me through a stressful time that would be impermanent. I didn’t know how to ask for it because, despite holding space for others, I hadn’t fully learned to do it for myself. I was living the Greek poet Archilocus’ quote about what happens under pressure — “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.”
Initially, I set out to meditate as a way of “taking control” of my situation. I would tackle this last self-improvement project with the same diligence I had always drawn on. It was the drive that propelled me to academic achievement at my public high school, to an Ivy League undergrad education and ultimately to Harvard Business School.
But one of my teachers quickly pointed out that meditation couldn’t be another thing on my endless list of tasks to master. He said there would be no doing it wrong or doing it right. It would not be about meditating to be a different or better person, but to meet my life experiences, the good and not so good — to sit with them and be present.
It was fifteen years before learning this lesson that I had matriculated at one of the best schools in setting high expectations. That education was off to a running start my first year of HBS, when my section wrote our “life predictions” in our leadership class.
There were some common themes in my classmates’ stories. Many involved boy/girl twins welcomed lovingly and effortlessly by married partners who had impressive and fulfilling jobs. People also envisioned taking time off to travel the world, writing books or starting charities after selling their imagined companies. Our stories were filled with ambition, optimism and purpose, which strikes me as remarkable since they were written just weeks after September 11, when so much was raw and the future seemed especially hard to predict.
A number of these past predictions were distributed at my 10-year reunion, and sometimes they were prescient and close to reality. There is a concept in Buddhism called mudita, which means “sympathetic joy,” and I have genuinely felt it after seeing a female classmate being listed as a top entrepreneur in Forbes, publishing her first book, or posting on Facebook about her anniversary to a great partner. I felt similarly when a male classmate was praised by Bill Gates, won a Pulitzer Prize or became a new dad. My life is richer for knowing such amazing people, and my heart grows when I share in celebrating their successes.
But, there are also many ways that life has unfolded for me and my classmates that would have never been included in rosy life predictions, and these realities elicit something much closer to compassion than mudita. Most of my best friends from business school are women, and I’m also close to women who earned postgraduate degrees from other top schools. I’m old enough to know that life experience can’t be completely generalized by gender, and that other genders aren’t spared of life’s hardships, but I also know that our stories have become much more textured with unexpected joys and deep disappointments than our younger selves could have foreseen. And that some of the difficult parts of these stories are unique burdens of the female experience.
We’ve enjoyed incredible privileges of which I’m very aware, but collectively we have also made difficult and expensive choices to freeze or not freeze our eggs; struggled through years of infertility; and have dealt with everything from divorce, death, and unconscious bias (or worse) from above and below, to partners who didn’t keep up their end of the equal childrearing bargain (even if they seemed like progressive choices earlier on), careers that stalled despite leaning in before having kids and felt even further off-track after returning from maternity leave, and the longing of wanting to share these ups and downs with a loving life partner but not yet finding one. These are the kind of stories that are told mostly privately in small groups of women; however, sometimes they are shared publicly, in acts of great vulnerability, generosity and bravery, to inspiring effects. We have learned from working and living just how very much turned out to not be in our control.
At a friend’s urging, I recently dug up my own HBS prediction. Because I was too private to hand it in for later distribution, finding it involved my parents shipping a barely functional laptop across the country so I could retrieve the file. And, when I did, it was illuminating.
Generally, I was pretty terrible at predicting what my life would be like. My narrative was happy but linear and narrow. Ten years out, the imagined me was married (to a man who, though I had not named, was my first real love), had two children and co-owned a home in Boston, where I settled after school. There was mention of meaningful work at a leadership level, family, friends and volunteering. It was a beautiful life, but had little in common with the differently beautiful life I actually turned out to have.
My real life path has taken me much farther afield from Boston and opened my heart and mind in ways I could never have predicted. As in my imagined path, I worked at The New York Times for a few years, where I was privileged to collaborate with smart, passionate and caring co-workers. But the Great Recession and a shrinking industry contributed to me leaving the company before the promotion to VP to which I had aspired. I was fortunate to join a start-up that enjoyed a meteoric rise, and felt proud of the contribution I made in bringing onboard marquis clients. But I also struggled with intense stress at the time, and the hurt of an unexpected layoff post-exit. I did buy a house, but on my own and much later than I imagined. The babies I’ve held in my arms have not been my own. They have been my nephews and niece, and the offspring of dear friends who have become like family. I tell those friends that I love them and feel it in a way that’s only possible when you’ve been a witness to someone’s life and their vulnerability and strength for decades. I’ve traveled extensively — from scuba diving on a volunteer trip in the Maldives to working in the Philippines — and made connections around the world that would have been hard to build with the responsibilities I’d imagined for myself more than a decade ago. And, in the waning days of my thirties as I write this, I am still going on first dates, meeting men who take me on moonlit motorcycle rides, teach me to play pinball or how to appreciate breakbeats, challenge me with their world views and inspire me to consider what my spirit animal might be.
I’ve learned that for this textured and beautiful life of mine, mindfulness training and supportive communities are as important to achieving my highest potential as any Lean In Circle could ever be. This life calls for equanimity — the ability to ride the waves of life — which some seem to have naturally. In Buddhism, which informs much of the modern mindfulness teachings, equanimity shares equal footing with compassion, sympathetic joy and loving kindness. I am a woman leaning in the best way I can, but I am also someone who is long on compassion and a lifelong learner in the ways of equanimity. I consider myself incredibly lucky to work for a company that values mindfulness as a path to cultivating equanimity, and I intend to make the most of it and continue to lean in like heck.
Somehow, through persistent hard work, an education for which I’m incredibly grateful, and a healthy dash of luck, I managed to make it from that tiny tweed skirt-suit to some of the most respected institutions in the world. Because I have this enormous privilege, I feel the weight of expectations and responsibility to myself and other women in a way that sometimes contributes to the part of my life experience I so wanted to “fix” a few months ago.
It took sitting with a meditation teacher covered in tattoos from shoulders to wrists for me to understand that it’s okay being 100% me and in this moment.
Compassion is why clients trust me and why I give so much effort to working for companies I believe do good things in the world. Those efforts have made a difference, even if success has not shown up in the way I might have imagined in my life prediction. Deals my team and I did ended up funding reporters’ body armor in war zones, growing online businesses and indirectly paying for important technology advances. I can still flex on my weaknesses as I lean in, but no matter how many Plan Bs I aim to kick the shit out of, I’m giving up the need to shoehorn myself into one model of what success looks like. In the end, presence, self-acceptance and mental freedom are as valuable to me as whatever dent I can make in the leadership gender gap.
When I first thought about sharing this perspective, I told myself that I would do it later — maybe before my 15-year business school reunion, reasoning that with two more years I would have time to turn this newfound appreciation for mindfulness into some kind of accomplishment I could point to. I would launch a conference, achieve higher levels of promotion in my career or do something entrepreneurial that would legitimize my message. Then it occurred to me that this was exactly the opposite of the point my teacher was making about letting go. Meditation is meant to be a refuge from all that.
Mindfulness means having the ability to stop the striving for the moment and being okay to say, “Right now, it’s like this.” I can drop into that stillness and take a minute to breathe.