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Months after the book first started making rounds as the latest feminist manifesto, I finally made time to read Facebook (FB) COO and former Google (GOOG) employee Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. My overall reaction?
Everyone should read it … and not for the sake of women.
Many of the overarching themes — while directed to and addressed in the context of women — were full of advice applicable (if not necessary) for society as a whole.
In fact, here are three takeaways from Lean In that everyone should think about:
Don’t be naïve.
You could make a pretty killer drinking game out of Lean In, if you used words like “assumptions,” “expectations” and “bias” as the triggers. And for good reason. As I’ve written before, subtle expectations (even ones we place on ourselves) are often what hold women back the most — especially in societies where overt oppression has been eliminated.
But while this is hardly a new idea, Sandberg also acknowledged another important layer to the problem: “Most people would agree that gender bias exists … in others. We, however, would never be swayed by such superficial and unenlightened opinions.”
She then adds the morsel of truth that can apply to countless corners of our lives: “Except we are.”
Of course, far beyond notions of masculinity and femininity, we have biases, make assumptions and are swayed by outside opinions, societal norms and so on. Yet we are often reluctant to admit it … if we even realize it in the first place.
In general, I think this in large part stems from our society’s emphasis on choice. Heck, capitalism was founded on homo economicus — the idea that was are rational, autonomous decision-makers. Instead, our individual choices are often not as rational or isolated as we believe (Just ask Dan Ariely). In all facets of our lives, assumptions, emotions, subtle biases and more sneak in.
That’s not to say we will ever offset or eliminate them. But whether you’re hiring a new employee , deciding your own career path or … well … anything really, at least take time to acknowledge the outside factors that inevitably exist.
Don’t put others down.
Of course, our emphasis on choice is interesting in the sense that we don’t like to be told we are biased by outside factors … but also don’t like to be reminded that we could have made different choices. This is what Sandberg does throughout the book, though: She points out tiny instances women could have down this or that differently to maybe go a little further.
Lots of females didn’t like that. In fact, my initial commentary about Lean In talked about how disheartening the backlash to Sandberg’s success and advice was. As women, I said, we don’t like when a finger is pointed back at ourselves. One way to defend against that: Pull down those who have made it.
After actually reading the book — where she acknowledged this time and time and time again — I was even more shocked that such a response was still so evident.
The bottom line and broader lesson is that there is always something you can do better or differently. Women shouldn’t be mad at Sandberg for reminding us that, and across the board we need to be better at taking criticism — hardly a common trait in a society that prefers cheering and self-esteem building for kids, and scapegoats and outside blame for failures.
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Finally, Sandberg addressed the feminine myth of “having it all” — a phrase you’ve likely encountered in a headline or debate. I agree with her conclusion that such an ideal hurts reality, as it constantly make women feel like we aren’t doing enough.
But beyond working moms, we generally expect (or think we are expected) to have it all. As Alain de Botton talked about in one of his lectures, our society seems to believe implicitly in a world where we don’t have lost keys, where we have no traffic, where we marry ever after, find jobs that are fulfilling and so on … even though all those things are not the norm.
My mom said it best. As “Life is Good” T-shirts continue to make the rounds showing a content character on the front, she has dreamed of creating her own “Good Enough” shirts featuring a character who dreams of perfection, but is happy with reality. We can’t have it all, she would say, and should be happy with what we have.
Granted, this does not apply in all cases — there are plenty of instances where women especially should push for more — but it’s an important reminder not to be too hard on ourselves. No one has it all, and no one should.
Not even women.
Alyssa Oursler is an Assistant Editor of InvestorPlace.com.