When Leaning In ends in Dropping Out

14009391698_3ef93cf1ac_mThis summer, I tried something new: I joined a training group through my local running store.

I’m not new to running: I’ve been doing it off-and-on since I was seventeen, and consistently for the past six years.  I run for enjoyment, and I run for my mind: for strength and energy, and as an anti-depressant.

I consistently run 5K in 28 minutes. This spring, I did my first 10K and ran at almost the same pace. So it got me thinking: maybe I’m able to run faster, and my current pace is  just a habit.

When my local store offered a 6-week summer program, I signed up. It’ll be fun! I told myself. It’ll be like summer camp! Meet new people, try new things. Plus, I told myself that if I could run a faster 5K, I could train faster, get more out of my running, and perhaps even get closer to my goal of running a half marathon. For an engineer like me, efficiency is the ultimate temptation.

The pace groups were: beginner, 28 minutes plus, 23-28 minutes, and 23 minutes minus.   I started in the 28 minutes group, because it most closely fit my current abilities.

That very first practice, I found out two things:

1. The 28-minute plus group consisted of middle-aged men who were beginning runners, and

2. They actually ran about a 32 minute pace. With walk breaks.

After the first practice, the coach suggested that I move up to the 23-28 minute group. Excited and scared, I told myself: this is what you’ve been trying to do in your work life. I’ve been trying to lean in more: to take risks and challenge myself, instead of holding back based on what I think I can do or what I think is going to happen next. Here, although my running history tells me that I build muscle and miles very slowly, I’m challenging myself by running in the highest tier I can possibly handle. I’m not holding myself back.

Anyway, isn’t that what those middle-aged men were doing when they joined the 28 minute group instead of the beginners’ group that they actually belonged in? It was a familiar pattern: always exaggerating a bit, always pushing beyond where they objectively belong.

My first two weeks of leaning in were great. I was near the back – but not at the back – at every practice. I ran harder than I’d ever run before. I was surrounded by experienced runners who inspired me and gave me advice.

But as the weeks progressed, I didn’t. The pace increased, and with it, the gap between me and the other runners widened. The slowest runners in my group dropped out. Before long, I was lagging an entire city block behind the rest of my group. I wasn’t surrounded by experienced runners anymore, because I wasn’t surrounded by anyone at all.

I lifted my head from my own embarrassed misery and looked around. Those beginner men in the 28-minute group were gone. Long gone. Even so, I kept my head down and kept plugging along, at the way-back of the 23-28 minute group. I was embarrassed and frustrated, exhausted, over-trained, and not improving. I also wasn’t having fun or meeting new people, which were my original reasons for joining the group.

Result: I dropped out in the fifth week.

So what happened? I think I would have been happier and experienced more long-term growth if I’d been able to run in an appropriately paced group. I didn’t trust my own self-awareness – my innate ability to judge my own abilities and needs. Even if I’d stayed in the 28-minute group, though, the beginner men’s slower pace would have held me back.  They eliminated that group as an option for me.

If I could have changed anything about my own choices, I would have done some more problem-solving midway through the program, and perhaps dropped back to the slower group.

Overall, my experience left me wondering: is this what happens when I lean in at work? As an engineer, I value accuracy. As a woman, I have clear self-awareness about my needs, my strengths and my weaknesses. Instead of blindly pushing ahead because that’s what the boys are doing, what if I used that unique combination of abilities to pace myself and ultimately achieve more than my peers?

Readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Does this running analogy apply to our working lives?

photo credit Kevin Dooley – Flickr

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4 thoughts on “When Leaning In ends in Dropping Out

  1. Hm…now I’m thinking hard about this. As a runner, I find this a fitting analogy. Why is blindly pushing ahead supposed to be superior? Why is the male way to do something automatically superior to the female way to do something? In my opinion, it’s just another little flash of sexism coming through our culture.

    And distance running shows us that pacing oneself through a difficult task really is the way to go, so I say good for you!

    • everydayhas says:

      Exactly! I read a lot of women’s career books (thus the Lean In reference) and get really tired of advice on how to adapt to the poor behavior of the men around me. It’s exhausting and unsustainable.

      • In my opinion, that was the failing of the 60s/70s/80s feminist movement. Just saying, “Okay, we’re all going to be men now and that will solve all our problems,” does not work. Now to be clear, I am extremely grateful for what the 60s/70s/80s feminists did and I don’t want to discount that. But it’s time for us to move beyond some of those early ideas.

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