A Year After "Lean In," The New Mantra Is "Breathe In"

In the public discourse about women and career, the prevailing new wisdom says not “lean in,” but instead “chill out.”

D Dipasupil / Getty Images

At a large concert hall in Midtown Manhattan in late April, Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski were in a bed at one side of the stage, as around 2,000 people sat in the audience.

The MSNBC host had jumped in first, kicking a pair of red-soled Louboutins up behind her, while Huffington remained by the couch with three panelists — just a few of dozens, many of them famous actors or media personalities, invited to speak at Huffington and Brzezinski’s two-day Thrive conference, an extension of Huffington’s recent book of the same name. Within a few minutes, the whole group had migrated over to the professional slumber party. The plush white bed served as a fine backdrop, both for Huffington’s white pants and Brzezinski’s white dress, and for the topics discussed during the conference: mindfulness, meditation, health, sleep, and other themes related to the broad “third metric” of success (after power and money) that Huffington focuses on in her book.

A little over a year after Lean In mania spurred a thousand think pieces, the conversation — about women and work and the tired notion of “having it all” — has shifted focus. Following the naming convention in the public discourse about women and careers (lean in, opt out), you might call this one “breathe in.” Or “chill out.”

The new conversation focuses less on getting to the top, and more on making sure you’re not miserable, unhinged, and exhausted by the time you get there.

“It’s time we recognize that, as the workplace is currently structured, a lot of women don’t want to get to the top and stay there because they don’t want to pay the price — in terms of their health, their well-being, and their happiness,” Huffington said in an email.

Others, of course, have pointed out potential pitfalls of the brand of 24/7 careerism associated with Lean In. A widely circulated Dissent magazine piece, for example, argued that “leaning in,” as prescribed, often benefits employers more than female employees.

Thrive, like Lean In, makes use of both anecdotal evidence (Huffington describes collapsing in her office “in a pool of blood” due to stress and exhaustion) and scientific evidence (“55 pages of endnotes to convince even the most stubborn skeptic,” as she put it) to make its case. The growth of scientific studies on topics like meditation and mindfulness, at work, Huffington said, are a large part of what’s driving the shift.

“This scientific validation is part of a larger shift, as people in every industry at every level have learned that there is no tradeoff between living a well-rounded life and our ability to do good work,” she said. “This has been the year when meditation and mindfulness finally stopped being seen as vaguely flaky, vaguely new age-y, definitely California, and fully entered the mainstream. It was also the year of CEOs coming out. Not as being gay, but as being meditators!” (It is true: Take a recent conference on transcendental meditation, attended by hedge fund titans, CNBC hosts, and Mario Batali as evidence.)

Huffington, who frequently evangelizes on the topic of sleep during speeches and in interviews, may be the most public voice in the conversation, but others say they have recently noticed that at professional and networking events for women, there is a rising interest in “redefining success” and in topics like health and meditation.

“At the Fortune Most Powerful Women Conference, these discussions happened,” said Sallie Krawcheck, the former president of the Global Wealth & Investment Management division of Bank of America, who last year bought and now runs the women’s networking organization 85 Broads.

“The research that shows that if you rest the brain, the brain is healthier, maybe this is the way we have it all. I think it’s a really intriguing idea, that by living more wholesome lives in which we take better care of ourselves, maybe we can be more successful people too,” she added, pointing out that earlier in her career, “I had my very best research ideas when I was a young research analyst after I would come home and had been playing with my son for an hour.”

It can seem odd at first, to hear some of the world’s most famously hard-working women, offer that their best advice is to relax a little — and it does invite the question of who exactly can participate in these conversations, where there is the time and luxury to think about meditation and eating healthy. But Brzezinski and Huffington take it in stride: During an hour of panels, Brzezinski’s phone rang several times on stage and Huffington spoke about her struggle to go to sleep when email and episodes of House of Cards beckon.

“We’re having a national discussion about women in the workplace unlike anything I’ve seen in my career and what is so interesting is that it’s being led by enormously successful women,” Krawcheck said.

D Dipasupil / Getty Images

Smaller organizations are also beginning to pop up with bets on the idea that professional women are looking for more help “breathing in” than they are “leaning in.”

Caroline Scheinfeld, 26, left her job working in early stage venture capital last year to found 3WCircle, a networking startup with the tagline “We swap life stories before business cards.” After attending dozens of professional events, many of them targeted to women, on the topic of venture capital fundraising, she said she saw a need for a network that was more interested in life outside of work. In addition to salon-style conversations, the group has hosted yoga events.

“I think in our generation, we’ve seen a few generations of women try to have it all and fail,” Scheinfeld said. “We were the generation that didn’t have to try and become equal. We were raised that we were equal.”

Women involved in the conversation argue that this newest discussion speaks for a new generation of feminists.

“In the past few years we’ve witnessed the beginning of a third women’s revolution,” Huffington said. “The first women’s revolution was led by the suffragettes more than a hundred years ago. The second was led by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who fought — and Gloria continues to fight — to expand the role of women in our society and give them full access to the rooms and corridors of power where decisions are made. This second revolution is still very much in progress, as it needs to be. But we simply can’t wait any longer for the third revolution to get under way.”

You might call Huffington and Sandberg today’s Friedan and Steinem for the career-minded, but they don’t see themselves as at odds, or in competition, like their predecessors famously were.

“I see Lean In and Thrive as companion volumes, both committed to asking a larger question, which is, ‘What is a good life?’” Huffington said.

She put the relationship between “thriving” and “leaning in” as such:

“There’s a French expression, reculer pour mieux sauter, which, loosely translated, means ‘leaning back in order to jump higher.’ That’s what cats do. And by leaning back, we become much better at leaning in.”

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