I looked to see what was holding me back – and I realized it was me.

I’m re-reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. For maybe the 5th time. Underlined, highlighted and bursting with multi-colored post-its.

I’m at a crossroads in my career – deciding between the safe option that I know I can do (and can do pretty well, according to some others), versus learning new skills, trying new things, failing, flailing, and trying and trying again. There are a lot of voices in my head right now – excitement, inspiration, and doubt, doubt and more self-doubt. Doubt and fear mix in a big black cauldron, resulting in a smoky brew of rationalization that tells me I should quit while I’m ahead – i.e. while I haven’t made a fool out of myself. Yet.

In (re)reading “Lean In” this time, there’s one quote from Sandberg’s book that hit me hard:

“Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking  ‘I want to do that – and I’ll learn by doing it’.   […] In my experience, more men look for stretch assignments and take on high-visibility projects, while more women hang back, […] saying ‘I’m just not sure I’d be good at that’ or ‘That sounds exciting but I’ve never done anything like it before’.

One reason […] is that [women] worry too much about whether they currently have the skills they need for a new role. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, since so many abilities are acquired on the job. […] Multiple studies in multiple industries [page 29] show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is. […] Research [pg. 62] revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think meet 100% of the criteria listed. Men applied if they think they meet 60% of the requirements”.

Wow. Doesn’t that just get you in the gut? In all this talk about gender equality, there is surprisingly very little discussion on the internal barriers that women impose on ourselves. Sandberg writes, “internal obstacles are rarely discussed and often underplayed”, but play a huge role in understanding and rectifying gender equality issues. After reading Sandberg’s book, I’m convinced that we (women) need to change how we think about our own potential and abilities.  It seems to me that doing that is already half the battle.

First, if you haven’t read Lean In, please do. It is fantastic. Eye-opening. Life-changing. At least for me. You’ll learn about…

  • the unconscious biases men (and women!) have in how we perceive ambitious, driven, successful, powerful women (i.e. they are competent but not very likable)
  • self-prophetic internal barriers and the Imposter Syndrome (i.e. I accomplished amazing feats X, Y, Z but I’m pretty sure it was all luck and connections rather than internal ability);
  • practical career advice (i.e. when picking a job, only one criterion matters: the potential for growth; “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.”);
  • equal partnerships/marriages/relationships (i.e. because you can’t do it all, you shouldn’t do it all, and research shows that children grow up healthier and more well-adjusted when you don’t do it all. That is, in a family where both parents work).

To end off this International Women’s Day, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Sandberg’s book, where she quotes Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco:

There is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. 

The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have’.  

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