Shadley Grei learned a lot more than he expected when he gave in and read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In.
Honestly, I wasn’t that interested in Sheryl Sandberg’s LEAN IN message. As a man with few corporate America aspirations, what could I possibly gain from reading her insight into the women’s struggle to embrace leadership roles, other than additional empathy for something I had no idea how to fix? But then a friend mentioned that she knew the book’s co-writer, Nell Scovell, and that she hoped to introduce us at some point. Obviously such an introduction would be more impressive if I had actually read the book. Ugh.
My curiosity about the book started to grow as I watched the amount of press the book was getting—both positive and negative—build, so I watched Sheryl’s TedTalk on the topic. Maybe I could gain enough from the video that I wouldn’t have to commit to the reading the book. Kind of like watching the film instead of reading the novel. This technique got me an “A” on my How to Kill a Mockingbird book report in junior high so certainly it could get me through a potential dinner conversation with Nell Scovell. I found Sheryl’s TedTalk interesting but was it really groundbreaking? I wasn’t sold.
The final push to just read LEAN IN and “get it over with” was when my boss was out of town for nine days, leaving me with very little to do, and a copy of the book on her desk.
Fine. I’ll read it.
Fully accepting how grandiose this is going to sound, I read the entire book in a single sitting and it was a life-altering read. This wasn’t about the women in my life. This was about the me in my life.
Reading about “their struggle” became an insight into “my struggle” very early in the book. Chapter One includes the subheading “What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?” and it was in that exploration that the pronouns being used faded from my focus and I started seeing all these tiny mirrors popping up in the margins, between the words, and in the anecdotes. I lead with an apology. I don’t speak up even when I have something to say. I undermine opportunities because of some “maybe” I perceive on the horizon. I ask for permission when it isn’t necessary to get it. I am more likely to share credit than to take credit. I fold when I should fight.
How did this happen?
I think part of my personal struggle comes from being a gay, creative outsider from a very young age. My demeanor, voice, mannerisms and actions were mocked pretty consistently from second grade through graduation. I have a very clear memory of standing in the lunch line in junior high and one of the jocks asking if I could loan him money for lunch. When I said no, I heard him turn to his friend with a laugh and say, “Ask him to borrow money. Listen to his voice. Wow, what a fag.” This didn’t exactly lend itself to a lot of self-confidence. It was easier to stay quiet than to risk ridicule. I’d like to say I got over that damage but I’m realizing it still lives there, under my skin. Even when I’m in a room full of my gay peers, I’m still apprehensive about being heard. We want to think the pains from our childhood are bruises that heal but many are the scars we learn to live with.
I also grew up with very little male influence, and what I did have felt more like a checklist of what NOT to become than any kind of aspiration. And as much as I didn’t want to become them, they seemed to have equal disrespect for who I most needed to be in order to feel authentic. It was the women in my life who shaped and embraced who I have become. Like a puppy that was raised by cats, I see the similarities between me and the Big Dogs around me but I’m still more comfortable purring than barking. While I am fiercely grateful for the compassionate nature instilled in me by these women, I now see that I also adopted many of the same traits that keep some women from taking their place at the table.
I’ve always had a great compassion for women and it’s very easy for me to see life from a female point of view. In fact, it’s been said repeatedly and often that I’m a lesbian trapped in a gay man’s body (which explains a lot, especially my relationship status). It was only in reading LEAN IN that the honesty behind this joke started to make sense. What I had always cherished as my greatest traits—empathy, kindness, inclusion—were, in many ways, the same things that had become the bricks that built the wall between the life I have and the life I want.
The most recent example I can share goes like this: On Christmas Eve, I had an interview to join a small entertainment production and management company. It was a low-paying part-time job with great growth potential that had the opportunity to utilize so many of my skills and put me on a direct path toward many long-held goals. The conversation was laid back, fun and casual. The woman who owned the company ended our interview by saying, “Wow, I really like you. You’re everything I didn’t realize I was looking for … but I don’t know what to do with you because you’re so emotional.” And I didn’t get the job. Wait, what?
There were several signs that I probably didn’t want the job and perhaps I subconsciously made sure I didn’t get it. That said, I don’t imagine there are too many men who were told to their face they didn’t get a job because they were too emotional. And what made her decide I was emotional? The fact that I’m animated, passionate, honest, curious, and empathetic? The funny story I told about bursting into tears when I realized the first time I was going to see my scripted dialogue on film was going to be in an “educational DVD” that turned out to be a porn film? This is for a job in the entertainment industry, right?
The greatest thing LEAN IN gave me was clarity. I couldn’t make sense of the frustration that had been plaguing me for years. How is someone this talented, creative, smart, driven and genuinely kind and generous still so very far from the dreams I had as a kid that remain a driving force? The realization was that I am the reason my dreams haven’t happened yet. I’ve been waiting for someone to give me permission to have the life I want. Well, as it turns out, the only permission I need is my own.
What would I do if I wasn’t afraid? I’d share this story without fear. I’d embrace the fact that my kind of different is just as worthy of extraordinary success as yours. I’d apologize less and risk more. I’m not there yet but I’m on my way. My legs might be shaking but I’m standing up, letting go and leaning in.
So, get ready, Life. Here I come.
Attempting to seriously Lean In, I decided to send this article to Sheryl Sandberg directly. I was both humbled and honored to hear back from her with this response: “This is beautiful, heartfelt – and an important piece. So much of what women experience is experienced by any group that has faced historical discrimination or has not been in power. I am so glad you are using your voice to help others. And so glad Lean In meant so much to you. That means everything to me.”
Find Shadley on Twitter @ShadleyGrei