On Building Up

Since the spring launch of “Lean In” written by Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, there’s been undulating buzz among working women on whether “Lean In” was a service or disservice, welcomed wisdom or another label from a female corporate executive who can afford nannies and housekeepers. The response to Sandberg’s bestseller was the term “Opt Out,” which somehow developed a negative connotation suggesting that working women were angry with the limited career opportunities before them (understandably so), and instead of conforming to corporate cultural norms (which often have patriarchal frameworks) and HR handbooks laden with politically-correct jargon, they were walking away from the mainstream workforce to either work on their own, raise families, or something in between. “Opt Out” suggested you just would not work or play with others ever again.

I’ll come clean: I haven’t read “Lean In” yet, though I’d like to. My coffee table has a stack of books pertaining to a novel I am working on, so building my novel is the bigger priority right now. But this past spring, when reading the reviews about Sandberg’s book, I leaned toward the “Opt Out” crowd. As I continued to build my own communications consulting service, and gained new clients in 2013, I started thinking that “Opt Out” wasn’t quite right either. I hate labels, but societies thrive on them, and a couple of succinct words that can quickly convey an idea isn’t a bad thing. So I propose a new paradigm and catch phrase: “Build Up.”

What is “Build Up?” Maybe it’s people who had leaned in, opted out and decided to build up. Or maybe it’s people who didn’t even know there was anything to lean into, were completely unaware that there was anything to opt out from, and they just were too excited with their own ideas to do anything but build up. I relate to both groups.

Normally, my little online soapbox is reserved for opining about travel, but the “Lean In/Opt Out” dialogue, which really is a 21st century twist on the late 20th century “Mommy Wars” has resonated with me. So I am adding my voice to the din. Here we go:

I don’t like office life and I don’t think the current US workplace is a place for creativity, though there are some exceptions. Everyone says they want you to think out of the box, but they are afraid of risk. I’ve done office life. I’ve been successful at it. I “leaned in” and earned a promotion and bonuses, and was on several occasions the last parent to pick up my kid long after business hours had ended. I bathed my preschooler while Blackberrying edits. I got phone calls on weekends and vacations. I did apple orchard picking with the family on a sunny Sunday afternoon while working through copy over the phone with a boss who had abysmal time-management skills. I’ve had two bosses get fired over bad behavior. I participated in project management and listening workshops to advance my skills so that I could better weather the disorganization and rudeness of others.

So yes, in a sense, I “opted out” of all that to go build something of my own. As an entrepreneur, I am building the kind of writing career I could never have had in the office realm. I am free of labels and titles and pigeon-holed tasks. Earlier this spring, I finalized the paperwork to incorporate my editorial consulting service, and loved receiving the federal Equal Employment Opportunity poster with my approval forms. I was tempted to hang the poster in the kitchen. I love working for me. Perhaps the one downside to solo entrepreneurship is the lack of a holiday office party. Me wearing a Santa hat drinking vodka alone just doesn’t say “Seasons Greetings.”

What I’ve learned since going completely solo in July 2012, and with no inclination of ever going back, is that entrepreneurship is a lot like gardening. It’s a trite analogy, but it fits. There are quiet, slow days when you’re just waiting for something to sprout up. You plant seeds. You have coffee with people you don’t know. You talk about what you can do. You talk about what you’ve done. And then you wait. Sometimes you wait a long time. And sometimes when you’re not thinking about it, a call comes. A project is offered. You’re going to get paid! You blink and something grew.

I’m not against teamwork, but solo entrepreneurship takes a kind of dedication and focus that you don’t always get to exercise when working for a company. There’s no feedback but your own. The little voice inside your head *is* your boss. There’s no one to motivate you but you. You’re building something slowly by hand, which takes time and can be truly gratifying. You’re not leaning in. You’re not opting out. You’re building up.

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