Why I Choose To Lean In

During my freshman year of high school, after trying to reason with my physics teacher when he said that boys were better than girls in science, I went to the headmaster to request that he be reprimanded.lean-in

I have been passionate about women and girls in leadership ever since I was young.  Like Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead, I did not see any difference in potential between my male and female peers.

Later that year, my classmates voted me Student of the Year for excelling in sports, academics, and student government while getting along with my peers.  These accolades might seem like they would have been encouraging for a young woman, but instead they quickly turned into fuel for a fall from grace.

Female accomplishments come at a cost. – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

I leaned back to protect myself and to fit in.  When insecurities hidden under my good-girl veil compelled me to make some poor choices, I became an easy target for rumors, mean girls and male attention.  In retrospect, I can see that the eating disorder I would develop my senior year served in part as an attempt to kill off my drive and desire so that I would no longer stick out.

Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overachieving. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter. – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Later, as I was graduating from college, my boyfriend at the time and old high school sweetheart (we’ll call him John) was starting his career at a big law firm.  He would frequently tell me stories about how women in his firm were taken off partner track for getting pregnant or how they were just seen as less than in general.  This big firm was still a good old boys club, and although I had grown up thinking I might follow in my dad’s footsteps and pursue a career in law, the stories I heard left me wanting no part of that.

When I finally chose a career path, I landed in one I absolutely loved.  After a summer at Columbia University’s Publishing Course, I landed jobs at Harvard Business Review and then my dream at Conde Nast as the Assistant to the Publisher of their new launch, domino.  I was in heaven.  At the Publishing Course, I had befriended the CEO of Conde Nast, and he assured me that my future in the industry was bright.

However, when John proposed and asked me to move to join him in San Diego two years into my new career, I had a choice to make – lean in or opt out.  While that drive in my belly screamed for me to stay and follow my passion, the overriding dream of marrying my high school sweetheart and having kids prevailed.

And for all the progress, there is still societal pressure for women to keep an eye on marriage from a very young age. – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Despite the fact that I cried through almost the entire week before I left New York, I found myself in San Diego preparing to get married, having almost completely killed off my drive and desire with an eating disorder, and taking a job in online marketing that had its upsides but my heart was just not in.

I had not only leaned back, I had left the playing field all together…and I was miserable.  John and I broke up not a year later, and I set off on my journey to make nice with my heart’s desires.  What a treacherous, gut-wrenching, and exhilarating road it has been.

In leaning back, I was forcefully hiding part of who I was created to be.  I had been wrestling with my burning desire to excel, make a difference, and champion justice since early high school.  These past 7 years have been a process of recovering, revealing, and healing.

My life has changed almost completely.  In a month and a half, I will graduate from my masters program and soon thereafter will be relaunching Heart of Leadership as a non-profit with a mission to empower young women to fulfill on the their true purpose.  We have an incredible core team, and I’m excited for what’s to come.

As life would have it, just as things have started to move in the direction of my true north, I found myself getting stuck yet again in the question of whether I would and could lean in.

Enter an interesting and handsome gentleman who recently caught my attention.  As we started dating, I quickly found myself worrying about whether I would be able to fulfill on my career commitments and be in a relationship at the same time.  While still getting to know him, I was already trying to project whether or not and how I might be able to pursue my professional goals if I really let a partner in.  And then I read Lean In.

I truly believe that the single most important career decision a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

I must lean into my career because I was born with a drive to love people and make a difference.  I made choices as a young person that led to great heartbreak and challenge, and when I see young people everywhere I travel speaking with Teen Truth Live, kindling is thrown into the fire.  I have tried to kill off the drive within in every possible way, and it has not died. Perhaps it has only gotten stronger.

I certainly have not been perfect so far, and I don’t expect the road ahead to be flawlessly executed, but I will find my way to lean in.  I will choose a partner who supports my desire to both lean into my career and be a loving wife and mother when the time comes, and I will champion his goals and dreams.  I will lean into what my heart truly wants and do my best.  I will respect that others choose as best they can, too.

One of the conflicts inherent in having choice is that we all make different ones. There is always an opportunity cost, and I don’t know of any woman who feels comfortable with all her decisions. – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Silencing desires and trying to manipulate a sense of purpose doesn’t help anyone.  Leaning in is being bold, being different, and being willing to not be liked all the time.

I am grateful for Sheryl Sandberg’s courage in boldly creating a conversation that has been applauded by some and criticized by many.  Sometimes messages have resonance that gives permission to a part of us that has been dormant.  I felt that resonance with Lean In.

Without fear, women can pursue professional success and personal fulfillment – and freely choose one, or the other, or both. – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

My goal is to continue to check into what choosing love means to me and lean in to that.  I think that we all choose love a little differently and that’s the way things are supposed to be.  So we ought to be supportive of how each of us leans – in that tension, we have the possibility of something great – people everywhere free to live true.

Lean In is one of those books I wish I had read about 20 years ago when I was entering high school. Sophomore year was the first time I can remember leaning back, and once I started, I didn’t stop until I found myself needing to pick up the pieces and try again.

We as adults need to lean in, and we need to light the path for our youth.  Teens today are under even more pressure and can feel even more isolated than we did.  As we learn, we must help young people acquire the self-knowledge, confidence, and courage lean in, too.

I look toward a world I want for all children – and my own. My greatest hope is that my son and daughter will be able to choose what to do with their lives without external or internal obstacles slowing them down or making them question their choices. I hope they both end up exactly where they want to be. And when they find where their true passions lie, I hope they both lean in – all the way. – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

I am curious about what leaning in means to you.  Please share in the comments below!


  1. Women Evolution (@WomenEvolution) on April 11, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Thank you for being so honest and vulnerable. So many will benefit from these words. Leaning in to me changes day by day. Today it is not letting fear of rejection keep me from picking up the phone and finding my next Fortune 1000 Mentor!

    • Stephanie on April 11, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      Way to lean into the great service you are providing with WE’s Mentorship program! Keep it up!

  2. Foster Mobley on April 11, 2013 at 8:23 am

    Great post, Stephanie. Thanks for the personal sharing. Leaning in, to me, means being courageous about bringing light on our largest boulders holding us back from our true genius.

    • Stephanie on April 11, 2013 at 9:16 am

      Thank you, Foster! It certainly is courageous to bring light to those boulders that hold us back. Thanks to you and your team for helping people and organizations remove those boulders so that the unobstructed stream of genius and life can flow.

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