When I was a little girl in dance class, my teacher would tell me to imagine a string that started at my tailbone, went up through my spine and came out the top of my head. Every time I breathed in, I was to imagine someone pulling on that string, creating a little space between each vertebra and making me a little taller. Breathe in, create space, grow taller.
Lately I find myself hearing that dance teacher’s voice in my head more often than not. On a practical level, I remind myself to drop my shoulders and imagine that string pulling so that I may relieve the tension in my neck, shoulders and upper back from a day spent at a desk, on the phone, at a computer monitor. The practical application also reminds me to walk into the room with a certain amount of confidence and command no matter how nervous or unsure I may be in any given situation. But the metaphoric application of the string being pulled – of space being created, of growing a little taller – is really what I think of when I think of leaning in.
Not all of us are lucky enough to experience that struck by lightning moment: the phone call, job offer or brilliant idea that changed the course of our lives. Those moments are rare and amazing. But sometimes there isn’t a cliff to jump off or a big leap to make. Leaning in isn’t just about making big decisions. Most of us, my guess is, have an incremental experience of leaning in—the little moments along the way where we breathe in, grow a little, do a course correction.
At 38 I became a stepmother to two engaging, amazing children. I was, at the time, fairly new to my job as Executive Vice President of Production at Warner Bros. Those children, of course, came as a result of a relationship. My husband is one of the most brilliant, high-energy men I know. He is also one of the most demanding. I say that not as criticism but as a loving fact. To be engaged in a relationship with my husband is to be with someone who is present and interested (and interesting) and who expects his partner to meet him as an equal.
Focusing on work was easy as a single girl. Focusing on work as a married woman with two kids was a different ballgame. The weight of my own personal goals of success at work, success as a stepmother and success as a wife combined to crushing effect. My shoulders were up by my ears, my lower back was in constant agony and I was generally overwhelmed. My internal narrative became one of “I can’t… I’m too busy… I have too much on my plate.” A crushing sense of fear manifested as excuses—reasons why I couldn’t say aloud that I had ambition to be more, reasons why I couldn’t own the fact that keeping up with my job and being a present stepmother and a good partner was not enough for me. I wanted more—I wanted a higher level of professional success and a deeper meaning to my life beyond just ticking off the boxes of the day. What I realized, ultimately, is that it was not my goals that were suffocating me—it was my fear of not achieving them. Fear of failure was literally preventing success.
No watershed moment changed my fate. No unique opportunity presented itself, no lightning bolt struck. But somehow, somewhere along the line, I remembered the voice of my old dance teacher. I practiced feeling the string pull at the top of my head, creating space in my life. I created space to forgive myself for not being 100% perfect at everything (and I stopped making homemade pancakes for breakfast). I created space for my own ambition. And as I gave voice to that ambition, I found support. I’m not shouting from the rooftops but I am saying aloud to my husband and close friends what I dared not say in the past. And one of the best things about leaning in has been gathering advice from the extraordinary women in my life.
The other day, I left a meeting incredibly upset. I felt humiliated and angry that I’d wasted my time. I called a friend: a highly successful agent who is brilliant and funny. As I heard myself tell the tale I realized how silly I sounded. I said, “Really I should stop leading with my emotions and just ask myself what a man would do.” And she said, “Or what would Elizabeth Taylor do?” We had a good laugh and continued to talk and then she told me about a day she’d had the previous week—a bad day when deals fell apart and nothing went according to plan. She happened to be in London and she stopped what she was doing and took the time to go to the National Portrait Gallery. There she sought out a portrait of Elizabeth I, who came to power relatively late but remained on the throne until her death 45 years later by sheer force of will and her ability to remain steady as those around her fell to their own greed or hubris. “Slow and steady,” my friend said to me, “That’s your course. Just like Elizabeth.”
So now at 46, when other people are thinking about the end game or retirement, I feel myself just gaining momentum. I lean in to brilliant and supportive friends, I feel the pull of the string and create the space to grow. At 46,I finally own the fact that I have ambition and that having ambition doesn’t make me a bad, selfish person. There’s a good chance I will fail at reaching my highest goal. But I will never regret a life in which I was too afraid to try. I won’t regret saying I wanted more. Little by little I forge ahead. I may be a little late, but there’s still plenty of time.