Sheryl Sandberg, Amanda Palmer + the art of changing the game
Sheryl Sandberg’s book isn’t out yet, but already she’s the subject of backlash and her ‘lean in movement’ declared DOA.
Apparently – or so the media story goes – Sandberg is so wealthy, successful, educated and powerful that a merely mortal woman can’t relate.
This, I can’t help feeling, is bullshit. (Oprah is rather successful, and yet still manages to connect with a female audience. Maybe you’ve heard of her.)
Sandberg’s TED talk went viral, and I know I’m not the only woman eager to inhale my pre-ordered copy of her book as soon as my Kindle downloads it. Women may be criticizing her for not being The Perfect Feminist (whatever that is), but criticism doesn’t qualify as rejection, and the idea that any female figure could speak for all women and represent all women would be like saying that all women are the same.
As with any charismatic figure, Sandberg speaks to a specific audience: she embodies their ideals and resonates with them.
There just happen to be a lot of women who aren’t in that audience.
To dismiss them as jealous or alienated by her success seems convenient in a culture that likes to pit women against each other.
“It’s still a man’s world,” Sandberg acknowledges. (No kidding: Sandberg is writing from the depths of Silicon Valley, about as manly a world as you can get.) And maybe that’s what women are rejecting – not Sandberg so much as the system she represents, encoded with traditional masculine values and the superiority they assert over so-called feminine values.
Sandberg is saying, This is the game. This is how you should play it.
If women aren’t leaning in, it might be because they know or have learned that when you’re the underdog, the smart thing isn’t to play the other guy’s game by the other guy’s rules. The smart thing is to shift the battleground in a way that can play to your strengths.
Maybe it’s not that women lack ambition, or the will to lead, or the sense of how to play.
Maybe they want a whole new battlefield, and Sandberg has yet to show the way to that.
But Amanda Palmer might.
Like Sandberg, Palmer gave a TED talk about “the art of asking” that went viral. Palmer is a musician whose band, The Dresden Dolls, put out an album their label considered a failure because it “only” sold 25,000 copies.
Palmer took to Kickstarter to crowd-fund their next project and, in an online world where people are constantly complaining that no one wants to pay for content anymore, swiftly raised over one million dollars.
If it happened more or less overnight, it wasn’t an overnight success. In Palmer’s TED talk she speaks about the value of truly seeing and recognizing each other, of making real contact, of trusting each other enough to make the ask, and then to open up and receive.
The Dresden Dolls spent years cultivating a strong community of fans, reaching out and connecting with their specific audience. That audience doesn’t include everybody – “Our music’s not for everybody” Amanda admits – but that isn’t required. Srinivas Rao refers to this as “the small army strategy”: develop your own personal army of committed fans, friends and followers, and they’ll be there to catch you when you feel the need to fall.
(And lest you think that this kind of model only applies to creatives, check out the audience-based business model wherein you invest the time and effort to develop an audience, tap in to their needs, create products and services accordingly, and then make a relevant offer.)
Recently I came across the term “the triple bind”, from a book by psychologist Stephen Hinshaw about the contradictory demands girls and women must navigate today. While still expected to excel at “the girl stuff” (relationships, empathy, nurturing, caretaking), girls and women must also excel at “the boy stuff” (competition and achievement), while constantly maintaining a thin, sexually attractive, stylish appearance (a job in itself).
Since you have so many hours in a day, and can only bring your attention to one thing at a time, this gets tricky.
You have to constantly make choices.
How do you study for your math test while also giving your boyfriend the quality time he deserves? How do you look out for the feelings of the same girl you’re trying to crush in field hockey while competing for one of the precious few slots at an Ivy League university?
I’m not sure — since I have yet to read the book — if Sandberg acknowledges the triple bind. I’m not sure if she raises the possibility that when women aren’t leaning in to the conference room, it’s because they’re leaning in to other areas of their lives, prioritizing the “girl stuff” of relationships, connectedness and community over the “boy stuff” of corporate competition.
They’re playing a game they know they can win.
Which is why Palmer’s success is so interesting to me.
Palmer neatly steps out of the triple bind altogether; her financial and creative success are a direct result of not just talent but an ability to forge alliances, connections and community (“the girl stuff”).
It makes me think of Daniel Pink’s book A WHOLE NEW MIND, in which he emphasizes the importance of being “high-touch, high-concept” — deeply empathic, creative, insightful and innovative — in a workworld where left-brain, linear thinking is increasingly outsourced or automated.
It makes me think of so-called lifestyle businesses and global online microbrands, of Kevin Kelly’s theory of 1000 True Fans, of audience-based businesses, of the ever-growing lean entrepreneur movement that demands deep, creative insight into customers to reiterate and reiterate your idea into a viable business model.
There’s a new world emerging, where ‘boy stuff’ and ‘girl stuff’ work together and enable each other instead of imploding on impact.
Instead of leaning into the old game, maybe it’s time to build out a new one.