Lean In, Lean Out, Do What Feels Right

Katie Couric’s advice to recent grads, and late millennials: “Only you know when to lean in, lean out or lie down and take a nap.”

Even Katie Couric has had her share of troubles in the male department, getting a late start on becoming a wife and mom.

That’s one unexpected thing I learned recently during a milestone life event—my commencement ceremony in which I earned a masters degree from American University’s School of Communications.

See, Katie (because we’re close like that) was the featured speaker for my graduation. I should first explain that her speech was highly crowdsourced. Several weeks prior to commencement, the former “Today Show” host had her people email all graduates-to-be asking us to submit questions and suggestions for what we’d like to hear. 

Naturally, I jumped at the chance and submitted no less than 14 questions. Time passed. Finals consumed my days. And then graduation day arrived.

During Katie’s address she spoke of career highs and lows, like her first White House reporting assignment, which she flubbed, sending her back to local network TV. It was humble stuff, biographical in nature and relevant to the spirit of excitement and adventure in the air.

Then, about 15 minutes into the speech, Katie brought up another crowdsourced subject area she’d address: Leaning in. That catchphrase Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has tried to turn into a feminist battle cry and has become much more than just a published book.

This was my question—or one of my many, many questions. There was some definite under-the-breath yelping. I wanted to know whether a big-time professional who also was a mom and, according to the tabloids, actively socializing and dating, believed in this idea of “Lean in.” Can women—or men, for that matter—have it all, as they say? Should we just retire the term “Lean in” and move on with our lives? My query had a bit of bite to it, but I wanted to know her thoughts just the same.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Ms. Couric called out my name as well as the name of two fellow communications classmates who wanted to pick her brain about this latest iteration and version of work-life balance.

Here’s what she told us her thoughts were on leaning in:

As Gloria Steinem said recently, “Nobody can have it all, because nobody can do it all.’” Let’s be honest. Juggling demanding jobs and kids can be challenging. But plenty of people do it and do it really well.

Then her answer took a turn I didn’t see coming. Katie talked about her past as a young woman in her 20s and early 30s. It seems, the UVA grad spent about a decade after earning her undergraduate degree  being out in the work world for the first time “happily single.” Being single and dating around let her also be “footloose and fancy free” and able to move from market to market as she got her career off the ground. During this time, though, the men occupying her time weren’t exactly winners. But this was an inadvertent move to stay free and not tied down. “I dated guys I subconsciously knew were not marriage material,” she explained.

Ultimately, she found her love and married at what some would consider an advanced age, 32. Then, she had her first child at 34, when “my career was in full swing,” she said.

When her late husband died from cancer years later, she told those in attendance at the graduation, that she felt, naturally, sad but also happy that she could support herself and her daughters. And that notion of putting her ambitions front and center has served her well.

Katie’s belief is that work-life balance isn’t a constant state of serene equilibrium. Instead, it requires periodic assessments of how she’s spending her time. When things are out of whack, she takes deliberate effort to right the ship.

Her final statement about the whole Leaning in notion:  “Only you know when to lean in, lean out or lie down and take a nap.”

I’ll consider the notion my final masters lesson.