The New York Times ran a story today about commencement speeches and included an excerpt from Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who spoke at Barnard College. Her words are worth repeating:
“Women almost never make one decision to leave the work force. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, ‘I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day.’ Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, ‘I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.’ These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back.
So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”
After reading this, I realized how often I’ve heard young women plan their careers in just such a way: someday I’ll want to have a family, so I better rein myself in now. I call that “borrowing trouble” — reacting to a future, imagined problem. The small-scale version that I frequently hear from family and friends is: “Maybe I shouldn’t apply for that job. If I get it, I have to move to a new city/commute for hours/work all night/[insert other possible dire consequence here].” I’ve said it myself. But what I tell friends, family and myself is, “Apply for the job and worry about the consequences later. You can always say no.” Wimmins, don’t cut yourself off from opportunity! You can always change your mind and your career (I’ve done it), but you won’t have the Best!Job!Ever! if you don’t even apply for it. Remember, the more you achieve, the more you’ll be able to make and break rules to suit your future needs. And never forget what Adam Ant said, which I quoted just yesterday:
“Don’t you ever, don’t you ever,
Lower yourself, forgetting all your standards.”