As the academic year is coming to its end, many seniors are off to begin the rest of their lives. What does that mean exactly? It’s a question no one feels equipped to answer, but a struggle everyone is forced to face. “You’ll make it there!” I say enthusiastically to friends who are amidst the last few weeks of their undergraduate career. I strive to offer the comfort I hope those around me will bestow a year from now. But it’s a struggle to think of suddenly living in a real life, where summer break no longer exists and time doesn’t seem to be frozen within social settings and self-involved drama. Where friends aren’t around the corner, but across the world. For advice on life events as profound as this one, I looked to an expert like Sheryl Sandberg, the author of “Lean in for Graduates,” to lead the way.
I was gifted this book as a senior in high school, two weeks out from graduation. I was equal parts excited and uneasy about the future. My financial situation was far less cushy than I’d hoped for, the admissions process far less forgiving. Everything outside the warm little bubble of high school felt dangerous and unsafe, but also exciting and new.
So, naturally akin to books of the self-help nature, I was overjoyed about the gift and the idea that after reading the works of Sandberg I would be miraculously more self-aware and emotionally equipped for the enigma that was college. So I dived right in. The night I got the book was the night I began reading it, and I finished it before graduation.
To say it completely reversed my uneasiness about change and feeling of treading deep, dark waters would be a lie. But it did stir up a feeling of confidence I’d always swallowed for fear of being conceited, or attracting too much attention. I realized life after gradation would be different.
Admittedly, Sandberg spoke about topics that were slightly beyond my 18-year-old gaze, like getting my first real job and negotiating salaries, but they were relatable all the same. Her words of self-confidence, power poses and self-actualization taught me that “faking it ‘till you make it” isn’t the worst philosophy, and that as cheesy as it sounds, believing in yourself is the first and most essential step to proving your personal and professional worth to others.
Another reason Sandberg’s words reached me was the emphasis on “leaning in” as a female. Leaning in to the idea that you don’t have to choose between a career and family — but you should feel entitled to make that decision. The idea that you should stand up in class, professional environments and everywhere in between and speak your mind when you have something important to say. The idea that you should negotiate for higher pay and preferable work environments because you, as a female, deserve them just as must as the Joe Shmo next to you in a polo. These ideas were eye opening to my 18-year-old self.
I lived in a whitewashed town with well-to-do friends, a loving high school sweetheart and supportive and involved teachers. To me, the world was already my oyster. I remained blissfully unaware of a something called a wage gap. I thought my hard work would get me where I needed to be. And it’s not say that Sandberg bulldozed over this naivety, but she taught me to take that in tow. She taught me to remain positive and look toward the future with both full eyes and a full heart, but also to remain aware, well read and present in all situations.
One of the most pivotal moments in the book for me was when Sandberg says: “Your life’s course should not be determined by doing what’s safe and easy but by reaching for what’s challenging and hard: the classes that seem impossible on the first day, but you study enough to pass … the jobs you’re not quite qualified for, but you work like crazy to acquire the skills … the moments when you feel alone and overwhelmed, but you are brave enough to ask for help.”
As cliché as the “ah-ha” moment seemed, it felt too good to ignore. Everything Sandberg said made me feel both angry and hopeful. It made me feel excited to become the journalist I knew I could be, while opening my eyes to the actual adversity I’d have to be equipped to face.
In Sandberg’s honest recounts of her decisions on life, family and careers, she teaches women to let go of the idea that they have to be super mom or super woman or super anything. She works to fight the myth that professional women are destined for a constant act of juggling the needs of their family with the needs of their workplace; all the while unanimously closing the door on the idea of being treated as lesser in the workplace for said family, should she even have interest in one. In her novel, Sandberg explores the intersectionalities of feminism while appreciating the complex nature of every life.
Three years later, I read the book again. But the context has changed. Now there’s t-minus one year until I graduate from college. The path ahead is bumpier and less concrete than last time. My fear is bigger and more consuming to match. But Sandberg’s advice remains relevant. Her advice about owning who you are in all aspects runs through my unease.
“Lean in for Graduates” reminds me that I’m not alone in this feeling — in fact, many people are facing it much sooner than me. It also reminds me that when the potential for my college career was questionable and the long hours at my summer job amounted to less than I’d hoped, it all worked out. It will still work out. More generally, it tells us all to keep proceeding, keep looking forward and keep appreciating yourself for what you’ve already done and what you’ve yet to do.
Gina Lopez can be reached at [email protected]