Au­thor says hard work won’t al­ways get you ahead

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - DANA GEE dgee@post­ twit­

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.”


Van­cou­ver na­tive Tara Hen­ley says she fol­lowed a lot of so­ci­ety’s rules about work­ing hard and be­ing pro­fes­sion­ally am­bi­tious, but still found her­self per­son­ally un­ful­filled and in a pre­car­i­ous fi­nan­cial state.

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