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Jessica Goldman Foung
Writer & Health Warrior
San Francisco, CA
I now know that my toughest battle was not the one for my life, but to reclaim my life as normal.
I officially leaned in when I realized I needed to lean out. Like most twenty-somethings, I desperately wanted to keep in step with my peers. I wanted to have glossy business cards, to earn a splashy professional title, and to climb the career ladder. Fast. I was twenty-six and had my mind set on becoming the Development Director of the nonprofit I worked for by the next year or two (maximum). And I would do anything — late nights, long hours, lessons from Google university — to make that happen.
But unlike my friends, I wasn’t just juggling a social calendar with my Outlook. I wasn't trying to prove to superiors that yes, even with only a few years of post-college experience, I was fit for the job. At twenty-six, I wasn’t just trying to keep up with a full life. I was trying to stay alive.
A few years earlier — days after my twenty-first birthday and hours before I returned to Stanford for my winter quarter — I started having grand mal seizures at my parents’ home (luckily only a few minutes from Stanford Hospital). After seven consecutive seizures and dangerously high blood pressure, I was diagnosed with an aggressive case of Lupus, which was attacking my kidneys and my brain. I went from hoping for the best dorm room to fighting for my life. I began a three-month stay within Stanford Hospital’s halls, complete with chemotherapy, apheresis treatments, dialysis, and plenty of visits to the ICU.
Thankfully, with amazing medical care and support from family and friends, I stabilized, regained my strength, and became well enough to move home and begin taking classes between dialysis exchanges. I had survived; my kidneys, however, did not. And I realized that – while I was back on my two feet – the path ahead of me looked much different than three months before.
I now know that my toughest battle was not the one for my life, but to reclaim my life as normal. When in survivor mode, the goal was clear: live. Nothing else mattered. But once I survived, that simple goal (see: live) started getting colored by the shoulds and coulds. Graduate from college, hold a full-time job, save the world and not just yourself.
This is how we get to that desk job and my ambitious career goals, where I was leaning in so desperately I almost keeled over. In order to keep up with my development duties, a multi-million dollar capital campaign, and numerous grant proposals, my health became last priority. Stress ran high, work days were long, and I never had time for doctor appointments, blood work, or even picking up my medicine. Worst of all, not only did I not feel well, I never felt professionally satisfied either.
Luckily, a woman much wiser than myself (my mother) picked me up for lunch one afternoon, peeling me away from my computer. But instead of putting her car into drive, we stayed still, in park. She asked me a simple question: “Would you like to live five years or fifty years? Because if you want to live five years, keep doing what you’re doing. But if you want to live fifty, you’ve got to figure something else out.” Much to her and my surprise, I didn’t fight back. She was right. I could have a career and my health. But before I went into hyperdrive, I needed figure out a new route. A realistic path that took all my needs, desires, and realities into consideration.
So, after years of doing everything to stay on track, I jumped off and I leaned out. I gave my notice and left my desk, my business cards, and my professional title. I went on a week-long retreat with my mother. It was a start and it wasn’t easy, especially when I returned home to San Francisco—the land of young CEOs and professional prodigies. But in between moments of trolling Craigslist and missing the comfort of a nine-to-five, I reflected on what I loved to do as well as what I could do, and do well, from my bed or from waiting rooms.
I traded the corporate ladder for the corporate jungle gym and I swung, nervously, into an entirely new field — writing. I even begged my way into an unpaid internship at a local magazine (technically only available for undergraduate students). And after a two-month crash course in journalism, I flew away from my new professional nest and went out on my own. A freelancer, using my development skills to hustle and network with editors, writers and anyone with more experience than myself—all from the comfort of my bed or the chairs at my doctor’s office. I worked harder than ever before, but this time, I worked within a framework that took my chronic needs into consideration.
A year later, I not only was not in the hospital, but I had a book deal. My work focused on food and wellness and the many ways they interact. And my health became an essential part of my professional success. While I can’t say I ever strike a perfect balance of work and life, I can at least say that when the scales do get tipped, it’s now much easier to set them back to even. As someone with Lupus, my world will always ebb and flow with challenges that are both welcome (a new baby!) and taxing (the joys of chronic disease) which will complicate my professional plans. But by leaning out, I now know I can find innovative ways to lean back into my potential, as long as I stay open to new paths, stay true to my path and forget about following someone else’s.
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