Carol has been reading Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, the chart-topping book of advice for women in the workforce by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, and Nell Scovell, TV and magazine writer. Their message is that the women’s movement has stalled and that women can revitalize the fight for equal rights and power by embracing challenges in the workplace and pushing themselves to reach their full potential. Carol found it compelling, and suggested I read it, too, so I went out and bought a copy. But I didn’t want to read it. In broad strokes, I knew that it would make me angry about the world and that it would make me feel bad about my feminism. More precisely, I did not want to face the flurry of conflicting emotions that I knew would come with reading it: inspiration, anger, guilt, empowerment, shame, despair, frustration.
I emailed Carol and told her I was hesitant, and, borrowing a phrase from another writer, Susan Jeffers, I asked if I should “Feel the fear and do it anyway?” (Remember that the fear in question was not whether to accept a big promotion or a take on a personal challenge. It was to read a book about accepting promotions, taking on personal challenges.)
I did read it, and, predictably, I felt rotten. I felt rotten because, in 2016, it’s still necessary for women to work harder for equal pay. I felt rotten because, in 2016, the bestselling book on this topic asks women and not society or institutions to do the very difficult work of creating change. I felt rotten because I am not part of that change. I did not lean in. Recognizing that mine would be the greater part of the struggle to balance work and family, I left the work force after having my third child. I felt rotten because I helped stall the women’s movement.
I also felt rotten because reading Lean In chimed with an experience I’d been having with my favourite podcasts. One of my regular and most enjoyable pastimes is to listen to BBC’s Desert Island Discs while I take my daily walk. Each guest chooses a playlist that would accompany him or her to a desert island. Through this list, they tell the story of their exceptional lives. The guest list is eclectic: surgeons, fashion designers, chefs, politicians, actors, authors. Because the programme is British, I’m often not familiar with the guest, and this adds to the pleasure of listening. I’m learning about another person new to me and all the good that he or she has done in the world.
I realized though, that the pleasure of these podcasts was becoming too much of a good thing. I was listening daily to the stories of exceptional lives, and in the back of my head, where the negative voices live, was always the question, “What have you done lately? Why isn’t this you?”
Clearly, it is not the intention of either Lean in or of Desert Island Discs to make women feel bad about themselves, so what is the problem with these stories of exceptional lives?
The problem is that when we consume them daily or when they sit at the top of the bestseller list for months, we lose sight of just how rare a thing it is to excel.
The problem with exceptional lives is when stories about them become prescriptive rather than descriptive.
The problem with exceptional lives is, most of us don’t have them, and people who live to work should not be exemplars for people who work to live.