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Deb Gruenfeld

Lean In, Board Member

Palo Alto, CA

The duality of my life tells me that even when it comes to what matters most, there is a point at which you must let go because you are needed elsewhere.

I am a professor at Stanford University in the Graduate School of Business, 25 years in to my career as an academic. Before coming to Stanford, I spent 7 years at Northwestern University working toward getting tenure, and I spent five years before that getting my PhD in psychology. Today, I have a full research agenda and am engaged in research projects with colleagues all over the world. I teach the most impressive and demanding MBA students anywhere, direct executive education programs at Stanford and consult with executives in a variety of industries in Silicon Valley. I am also increasingly engaged in projects relating to the administration and function of the business school and the university. To state the obvious, perhaps, I am leaning in at work.

Meanwhile, I got married the same year I got tenure. I was pregnant with my first child when I arrived at Stanford. In 2005, my second child, a toddler, was diagnosed with cancer. As of this month, she is considered fully recovered. But now I am weathering a painful divorce.

More than once I’ve heard friends say, “I don’t know how you do it.” To be completely transparent, there have been at least a handful of days when I have pulled up my calendar just to calculate the earliest possible date I could retire. When my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, I considered going on leave, and tried to get comfortable with the idea that my career might actually be over. Before I got too far down that path, my dean reached out to me with an offer to lighten my load so that I could stay engaged. I accepted with caution, not knowing what was coming, hoping that I would not let him down and that I would be there for my daughter and the rest of our family as much as both they and I needed. During the 2 ½ years that my daughter was in treatment, I was on the front lines of her care, accompanying her to the hospital for countless scheduled procedures, administering a rigorous regimen of medications at home that had to be taken at certain times under certain conditions, many of which she hated, watching for side effects, and on occasion rushing to the emergency room with late night fevers and other complications. It was brutal, stressful, scary, and at times overwhelming. In the beginning, I went to my office at Stanford just to close the door and cry. Later, when I had to show up to teach, or attend a meeting, I relished the chance to forget about what was happening at home for a few hours. As it turned out, after the first 8 weeks, most of my daughter’s cancer treatment was not an emergency in which only I could care for her. Even the first 8 weeks were not that – but they were an emergency for me; I needed to be with her. The obligation to work gave me permission to ask others to step in. It required that I stop worrying and think about something else. I got a break. She got a break. Leaning in at work taught me, and helped me, to let go of things I couldn’t control at home. It was unquestionably the best thing for everyone.

Leaning in at home, it turns out, has also been good for work. When I was younger, I used to joke with a female colleague who also had babies at home about how nice it was to be able to leave work at work. We watched our colleagues without the same kinds of family commitment agonizing over office politics, staying late to push out an extra paper or two before tenure, traveling around the world to make sure they were seen, and we felt so lucky to have other priorities. We came to work with all pistons firing, no time for coffee and chit chat, wrote the best papers we could, taught our brains out, pumped our breast milk, and made it home in time to put the babies to sleep. There is nothing like being met at the door by a gleeful child to erase the nagging (and useless) feeling that you said the wrong thing in a meeting. I absolutely love my job, and I have the desire to excel. At the same time, because I’ve leaned in to my family life, work has stayed in its place.

I don’t know how I do it, or how anyone else who self actualizes in both work and family does it. There is definitely a lot of rushing around, forgetting stuff, and losing track of minor details. But I do know that the duality of my life is a huge part of what holds me up and gives me strength. The duality of my life tells me that even when it comes to what matters most, there is a point at which you must let go because you are needed elsewhere. This reality makes it impossible to take anything for granted. It is the reason that I find not just satisfaction, but joy in my life. I cherish the moments with my children, knowing they are not endless – I have to go to work on Monday. I love my job outside the home – many days I feel I am actually in love with it -- knowing that work is the one space in my life that is actually mine, where I am expected to pursue my personal interests, develop my own identity and excel in ways that matter to only me.

The thought of leaning in is hard because we fear our dual commitments will be depleting. But I have found that the reality of leaning in is exactly the opposite. The impact of those moments in which my dual responsibilities got in one another’s way are completely dwarfed by the experience of how the duality of my life has bolstered and lifted me up. I thank the universe every day for my job, and for my family, and for the fact that I am lucky enough to have figured out how I am supposed to be living my life.

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