Lean in to Yourself

May 23, 2013 | Updated Jul 23, 2013

Like many of my women friends, I recently read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, and I feel invigorated by its mix of honesty, generous advice and boldness. Sandberg's advice is most relevant for women at the early stages of their careers, but so what? It's pretty wonderful to see an established, successful woman taking time to offer sisterly advice to those starting out. And importantly, Sandberg chose to bring her prominence and personal power to a nascent public conversation that acknowledges the disproportionate challenges ambitious women continue to face.

I so appreciate that Sandberg consciously framed her book as contributing to a conversation. Conversation is a beautiful - and perhaps particularly feminine - counterpoint to the overbearing, confrontational style of public dialogue we've all experienced far too much recently. So in the spirit of conversation, I'd like to offer my own career advice to women: lean in to yourself.

My suggestion for women who are ready to change the world with their visions is to take some time away from mastering corporate politics or start-up pitches. First and foremost, get to know your own mind; there simply is no better path to success. Meditate, or at a minimum, start doing some simple mindfulness practices.

This advice may seem surprising. Many people who are unfamiliar with meditation, particularly in the business world, believe meditation leads to a state of peace and enough meditation eventually leads to passivity. That is not my experience. Meditation is not a tranquilizer, but a powerful tool for knowing yourself truly and deeply, and living from that place.

Sitting quietly with yourself on a regular basis will give you insight into your own thought processes. Over time, you'll start to see and be able to question limiting assumptions you may hold about yourself. Sandberg herself points out that our own limiting thoughts are an important barrier we as women need to overcome if we are to succeed in numbers. Stepping away from nagging insecurities and other mental limitations when they show up in the workplace is much easier if you've already established a habit of watching your own thoughts and come to realize that buying into them is entirely optional.

The mental clarity that comes from a regular meditation practice will also make you far less likely to adopt others' opinions unconsciously - and for women this is a crucial skill to cultivate. In my own modest version of the Lean In life, the practical benefits of building some freedom from others' opinions have been enormous. To give just one example, during the time my children were growing up, I had many different child care arrangements. At different times, I worked full-time and part-time. I stayed home. I had jobs that required extensive travel. I spent several years working from home for an outside employer. One magical summer, I lived in a corporate apartment in a city far from home, but brought my eleven year-old daughter with me.

Childcare decisions may seem mundane compared to the expansiveness of your vision, but any woman who has wrestled with them knows that insufficient or inappropriate childcare can undo any hope of true engagement at work, let alone changing the world. All my different childcare arrangements made it possible to do work that had meaning for me and still maintain the kind of relationship I wanted to have with my family. None of them was perfect, but they made the difference between having a career and not having one - either slogging away at a job I didn't want, or giving up and staying home when I wanted to be in the workforce. And I certainly couldn't have set up any of those arrangements if I'd listened too much to other people. Someone is always ready to criticize any choice a mother makes about work and family, and internalizing those opinions is crippling.

Just as meditation does not lead to passivity, it does not make a person weak or timid. A meditation practice may bring a sense of inner peace, but the long-time meditators I know don't shrink from confrontation where it's warranted. Why would they, when you think about it? One of the great blessings of a meditation practice is coming to know that peace is on the inside, not the outside. The carrots and sticks the of the world have far less power to stifle debate for someone operating from that perspective. That's one reason why I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that a firebrand like Ariana Huffington, the editor of this publication, has a regular meditation practice (She spoke about her practice with her characteristic wit and incisiveness at the Wisdom 2.0 conference this past February). Whether you want to bring a new idea into the world, speak truth to power or advocate for yourself, a meditation practice is a great thing to have in your back pocket.

Leaning into yourself also means strengthening your connection to your own heart. With less of the bad advice of the world swirling around in your head, the more subtle voice of your heart has a chance to be heard and with it, insight into what is truly important for you. Building a vision from this place of authenticity is absolutely essential for attaining the kind of achievements that are personally meaningful as well as impressive to others. Having clear access to your heart and your truth is also vital if you have any aspiration to leadership. Think of any leader you admire - doesn't their power to inspire stem in large part from a vision that is profoundly authentic?

I hope these thoughts add a useful dimension to the Lean In conversation. And to young women who are starting out their careers with high hopes and big ambitions, I would say: absolutely ask for the promotion, get the raise, go out and build the start-up. Sit on the board of directors. But don't forget to look inside at the same time. Come to know what is in your mind and heart, and be truly great.