“Lean In” and reflect


I just couldn’t resist photoshopping Sheryl’s head onto Lena’s body.

I feel you.

I find it strange when semi-autobiographical work is bashed for being so based on personal experience that others can’t possibly relate to it. Let’s compare Lena Dunham’s Girls and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for a second.

I know these are on fairly opposite ends of the media spectrum. One is a mostly-fictional NSFW show about 20-something women stumbling awkwardly through life. The other is a self-help-career-manifesto about an extraordinarily successful 40-something woman. But both have been criticized for being about privileged white women with elitist problems while also ignoring the experience of women of color. There has also been a ton of other criticism about both in relation to their particular flavors of feminism. (Lena Dunham Made Me A FeministMaybe You Should Read The Book: The Sheryl Sandberg Backlash)

But both are written from their personal perspectives and neither of them are claiming to be speaking for all women. Instead both offer their unique perspectives in hopes that others may be able to relate in some way, which I feel encourage others to share their own as well.

To be clear, this is where I’m coming from

I am a single, 27 year old woman working/playing as a designer in the tech bubble of San Francisco. I am a first-generation Asian-American who grew up in the upper middle class midwest. I  had a healthy dose of Women’s Studies and Asian-American Studies in my undergrad, so I’m a feminist that’s also hyper aware of racial representation in the media.  I have spent the majority of my (relatively short) career working in fields predominantly filled with men (first motion graphics, then interaction design).

What follows are a few quotes I bookmarked from Lean In, which I recently finished (via audio book). I also include some comments about how I personally relate to the advice from my perspective (which is a lot closer to the 20-something stumbling awkwardly through life side of the spectrum). And a few drawings, to break up all those words.


“When women evaluate themselves in front of other people, or in stereotypically male domains, their under estimations can become even more pronounced. Ask a man to explain his success and he will typically credit his own innate qualities or skills. Ask a woman the same question and she will attribute her success to external factors, insisting she did well because she worked really hard or got lucky or had help from others.”

I think about this a lot in relation to learning to program. Some of the people I admire most are those who have both visual and technical skills so whenever I meet a designer/coder unicorn I ask about how they made that transition to the other side. Most of the time I get some version of the “I’m just good at it and figured it out myself” story, which is drastically different than how I feel about my code journey. It has been a slow journey and I definitely attribute each programming-skill-level-up to the help many empathetic men (I haven’t been around many women who code) who could explain complex new ideas using metaphors I could relate to. But I also recognize the driving force behind this journey is my innate curiosity and nagging desire to make things exist in the world. I think there’s a healthy balance between gratitude and self confidence.


Taking initiative

“Taking initiative pays off. It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do.”

One of my favorite pieces of advice from my dad  is “If you want it that badly, you’ll make it happen.” I hear that in my head all the time and feel it’s a super empowering mantra to have and has guided me through a lot of my life.

Potential energy

On seeking out positions where there is a high potential for growth vs stability:

“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat, you just get on”

Having worked for both huge and tiny companies, I’ve found that I generally prefer the pace of smaller teams. Of course sometimes it’s so fast that it seems like the slightest breeze can change our direction. But generally I feel like the speed makes it a very efficient way to learn the skills I’ll need to adapt to whatever life throws at me later. And while working at a tiny start up right now might be relatively higher risk compared to a larger corporation, I feel like at this stage in my life it’s exactly the best time to be digging in and betting on the higher potential for growth rather than just playing it safe.


“Trying to overcorrect is a great way to find middle ground. In order for me to speak the right amount in a meeting, I have to feel as if I’m saying very little. People who are shy will have to feel like they are saying way too much.”

Max started our improv class by having us react to each other with extreme (and often loud) levels of emotion in order for us to develop more emotional range on stage. Being naturally reserved & mild-mannered this was really hard. I hate shouting. But he kept pushing me to react bigger and eventually I at least felt more comfortable reacting more emotionally (but still not great at it). It also helped me realize I needed to work on that off-stage as well. In most cases I have to actively overcorrect my tendency to be reserved and un-reactive to others.

Shifting our thinking.

“In internal report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60% of the requirements. This difference has a huge ripple effect. 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 grad school we often wondered, “How will these weird projects help us find practical jobs?” Our faculty would reassure us that it’s not always about looking at a job posting and seeing how you can fit into their list of requirements, so you shouldn’t just focus on learning the things you can just check off a list. Instead, work on the type of things you’re curious about and what excites you, while developing a unique point of view.

Some companies will see the value in your unique perspective and skill set. Maybe they didn’t know they needed someone like you until you came along, so they didn’t have a specific open position for you to fill. But sometimes they will create entirely new positions just so they can hire you to keep doing the very things you like doing so much anyways. Or alternatively, if you know what excites you,  just create the kind of company that does the kind of work you would want to do.



“Searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for prince charming.”

Yes, this entire section is supposed to be about mentors, but as the first quote implies, I feel like all the advice below applies to both potential mentors and potential romantic partners.

“Because it is harder for young women to find mentors and sponsors, they’re taking a more active role in seeking them out. And while normally I applaud assertive behavior this energy is sometimes misdirected. No matter how crucial these connections are they probably won’t develop from asking a virtual stranger “will you be my mentor?” The strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides.”

“We need to stop telling them ‘get a mentor and you will excel’ instead we need to tell them ‘excel and you will get a mentor’.”

“The word mentor never needs to be uttered. The relationship is more important than the label. The label itself is open to interpretation.”

I have been fortunate enough to have several people take me under their wings over the years, even though I’ve never formally asked someone to be my mentor. I would agree that mostly it just develops naturally and it never really occurred to me to go looking for someone to call my mentor.

For some reason it seemed to take longer for me to learn these same lessons as they related to searching for romantic partners (replace the word mentor with boyfriend). I tend to be fairly assertive about making things happen in the rest of my life, so it has taken me a while to realize I should just chill out and let things develop at a more organic pace. Meanwhile I should just continue doing what I’m into, meet people along the way, and not set unfair expectations for arbitrary and highly subjective relationship labels.

Worrying about trade-offs

“From an early age girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good mother. By the time they are in college women are already thinking about the tradeoffs they will make between professional and personal goals. When asked to choose between marriage and career, female college students are twice as likely to choose marriage as their male classmates.”

“Since women start this mental preparation well before trying to conceive, several years often pass between the thought and conception, let alone birth….By the time the baby arrives the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her career than she would have been had she not leaned back…By not finding ways to stretch herself in the years leading up to motherhood she has fallen behind.”

My mother had me when she was 35, which I suppose is relatively late but seems fairly common these days. But basically that meant she had lots of adventures before she had me (and became a stay at home mom). Her advice to me was always to go do all those things I want to do before having a family. And my dad has always encouraged me to pursue my career so I’ll be able to take care of myself. As a result, instead of scaling ambitions back in preparation for making trade-offs for an imaginary family, I have more of a “what can I fit into the next couple of years while I still can” mentality. Maybe that’s not the right way to think about it, but it’s not that I don’t want to have a family, it just seems silly to worry about any of that at this point.

This is one of those cases where I feel like parental advice has a huge impact on the way we prioritize our life and how independent we are. I have female friends with parents who pressure them to hurry up and get married (which seems so old-fashioned to me, but I guess it’s still common). Sometimes I feel like that leads to a sort of overly dependent mentality.

Looking for life partners

“When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated, and ambitious.”

Fair, smart, opinionated, and ambitious are equally important to me. I would also add “playful” as an equally important requirement. It just seems like if you’re going to be spending the rest of your life with someone you would want them to be a little goofy and not take every thing so seriously all the time.

Wrapping up

The last few chapters were more specifically about family related things, which I thought was interesting but at this point I don’t have much to add to that. But overall I thought it was pretty encouraging and useful for me because it made me reflect a bit more about where I am and what I’d like to go from here.

  1. this is WONDERFUL. you have inspired me to reflect and pull a post together about my reaction/perspective. and perhaps YOU can mentor me :-)

  2. i saw this article on Lean In from an interesting perspective – “5 Ways to Make the Lean In Movement More Inclusive of Poor and Working-Class Women” – http://www.xojane.com/issues/five-ways-to-make-the-lean-in-movement-more-inclusive . . . which I thought was also an interesting take, similar to what you shared here at Myth-Lab.

  3. Here is the Lean In organization link I shared via f/b – http://leanin.org/

    And one of the groups I am part of is a Platform Partner – Global Niche – http://www.globalniche.net/ – which is a nifty thing.

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