Debora Spar

College President

Location: New York, NY

"I forgot about my colleagues and about the insane juggling that was already dominating my life. I put my head down and indulged in the pure pleasure of the work."

One of my most important Lean In moments occurred very early in my career, during my second year as an assistant professor at Harvard Business School (HBS).

I was – from the very outset – an oddity at HBS. I was 27 when I started; the same age as an average student. I didn’t have an MBA or even any real experience in business. I had a husband and a toddler son and I wore a pink suit to my interview. None of my colleagues had ever seen anything quite like it.

Only weeks into my first semester of teaching, I became pregnant, prompting the department chair to exclaim incredulously: “How did you have time to do that?” HBS had no maternity leave policy at that point, and I was due to return to the classroom only six weeks after giving birth. In the interim, I traveled to Fremont, Ohio to do research, ironically, for a case on Gerber baby food and their entry into post-communist Poland.

Several months later, with a toddler, an infant now at home,  and teaching a class of 100 students, I found myself struggling not only to write the case but to create an accompanying cash flow model. I had never analyzed a cash flow model in my life, much less written one. Everything in the model had to convert Polish zlotys into dollars at a time when Poland was in economic freefall and no one really even knew the value of the zloty. All of my colleagues were giggling, I knew, at the spectacle of this strange young mother writing about baby food, of all things, and building a model she didn’t understand. I sat at my assistant’s desk for two straight days, hammering away at the model and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I had brought from home. I felt pathetic, initially, and scared. But at some stage the endorphins kicked in, and I felt the sheer joy of hard work and a tough challenge. I forgot about my colleagues and about the insane juggling that was already dominating my life. I put my head down and indulged in the pure pleasure of the work.

My Gerber baby food case went on to sell thousands and thousands of copies, launching what would eventually be a very successful career for me at Harvard. And I crave peanut butter and jelly whenever I have a new challenge before me, luxuriating in the rare pleasure of work and sweat and making something happen against the odds.

Forget about your colleagues and about the insane juggling that is likely dominating your life. Put your head down and indulge in the pure pleasure of your work.