PLAYING BY NEW RULES
Author says hard work won’t always get you ahead
In 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg ’s book Lean In implored women to adopt an ambitious version of work-life balance and to “lean in” to positions of power and leadership if they wanted to succeed in the male-dominated workforce.
For journalist Tara Henley, the “lean in” theory actually became more of a millstone than a mantra as she learned the hard way that life didn’t magically become manageable if you just worked harder.
There had to be a better way, right? Henley set out to discover how best to cope with the craziness of modern life. The result of twoplus years of research and interviews is the new, eye-opening book Lean Out.
“The whole thing made me very, very angry and it took me a long time to understand why it made me so angry,” said Henley, who grew up in Vancouver. “I think part of it was just that idea that everything can be solved by just working a little bit harder or trying harder, trying more. Also, it really bothered me that there was a real kind of lack of recognition of any area of life other than work.”
Henley, who is a producer at CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show in Toronto, pointed to a woman in her Toronto neighbourhood who ( before the COVID -19 crisis) took it upon herself to build community by setting up an online system by which neighbours could ask for and offer help.
The example makes her wonder why this type of work doesn’t garner the same respect as a big paycheque and a seat at a boardroom table do.
“That’s what women do — and that is a form of leadership. That is a form of ambition. It’s a very selfless and wonderful form of leadership,” said Henley. “I felt that wasn’t being recognized.”
In 2016, at age 40, everything changed for Henley. While working on a story about the overwork epidemic (yes, the irony is well noted) for CBC Radio in Vancouver, she realized, with the help of severe chest pains, that her once fierce drive “suddenly felt like a dangerous liability.”
That combined with debt, an unaffordable housing market and stories from others in their own burnout crisis led Henley to look deeply at her own life.
“It was a funny sort of way of working through all of it,” said Henley when asked about writing the book. “For me, I needed to say some things particularly about what had happened to Vancouver. And I needed to say some things about the world. I felt like we were kind of in the emperor’s-got-noclothes moment where so many of us privately are saying and talking about, thinking about, how insane things have gotten, but it wasn’t really being said publicly that much. I felt like it needed to be said.
“I used my own example, because obviously it was sort of the easiest to use, but also because I felt it was quite a good way to illustrate where we’re at. I had basically just followed a lot of society’s rules to the letter and things were still so precarious. So, I wanted to get at that. I hope that the book is not really about me. I hope that the book is about us.”
In Lean Out Henley talks to many different kinds of people: life coaches, community organizers, artists, ex-convicts, doctors and award-winning journalists like Sebastian Junger.
“What Sebastian Junger really drove home, in his book (Tribe) is what we really need from each other is we need the security of knowing that we will feed each other, we will house each other and we will defend each other,” said Henley about Junger’s book that looks at war veterans and their return to society.
“Those are really basic needs. And those have nothing to do with sentiment, or changing your perspective or changing your thinking. Those are like physical needs, and needs that are tied to our biology in all kinds of ways. You can really see it in this crisis right now. Like we can all individually wash our hands as much as we want. But we need the government to say businesses are shut down. Schools are shutting down.”
The timing for Henley’s book is fortuitous as the “we’re all in this together” sentiment is sweeping a world that has undergone a massive sea change in just a handful of weeks.
“I would never play down the kind of suffering that we’re all experiencing right now, and how difficult it is, but I would also say that there have been some things that have changed overnight, that we really needed to change,” said Henley.
Those changes she sees are a deepened respect for all front-line workers; an understanding of how precarious day-to-day life is for many people and the questioning of self-absorbed greed.
“In the book, I talk about what happens in disasters and how people come together and how that’s so good for everyone’s mental health,” said Henley. “I think we’re also seeing that effect happening, as well. I don’t think that things go back to business-as-usual after this.”
As for her own life, Henley’s return to deadline journalism may not seem like the likely outcome for the person who wrote a book called Lean Out. Don’t worry, she totally gets that.
“I’m going down all these avenues, interviewing all these radicals who have really wonderful ideas and I think are great examples of alternative ways to do things, but as you know, from reading the book, that where I arrived at the end is completely different,” said Henley with a laugh.
She is back in Toronto and back in a newsroom. But, and she says it’s one of those big buts, she couldn’t have returned to that life without the lessons she learned from the people she met while writing the book.
“I’m so glad to have been given the support from all of these people,” said Henley. “Now, I’m able to be in this crisis and be covering it and be part of what’s going on in a positive way.”