The art of leaning back: why it’s time to redefine what success looks like

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Helen Russell
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We’ve tried leaning in, but more and more of us are realising that our personal definition of success has nothing to do with getting that corner office. Perhaps, argues Helen Russell, it’s time for a new approach. Photography: Dennis Pedersen.

I have tried leaning in. God knows, I’ve tried. At times I’ve leaned so far, I’ve keeled over. But you know what? Leaning back is the way forward for 2017.

As a woman in my 30s, I have for a while now been told to Take Over The World – juggle a career with a relationship; launch an internet-breaking lifestyle vlog; learn coding and practise Pilates daily – all while producing a couple of children and living in a huge house somewhere leafy with a photogenic dog, of course. And yes, I spent years in a Big Shiny Job climbing the ladder, while simultaneously attempting to tick off all the other stuff too (have a social life, overcome insomnia and eat more kale) because I’d been conditioned to believe that’s what successful people do. Only after a while, it started feeling less like a recipe for success, and more like a nagging failure to dominate anything, never mind the world.

So one night a few years ago, after a large glass of wine, I decided to take a break from my quest to ‘get to the top’ and to move work off the number one slot on my priority list for a while. My other half had been offered his dream job in Denmark, which gave me the motivation to take some time to reassess my ambitions and focus on what might make me happier than my singular goal to be the boss had ever done. I’d given 12 long years of slogging away to getting ahead – and I still didn’t feel like the destination was clear.

Some people thought I was mad. After all I wasn’t far off the much lauded top rungs of that ladder. However, a couple of friends confessed that they’d also been tempted to take the leap and lean back for a while too, but fear of the unknown and other people’s expectations held them back. I knew this feeling well. But taking a step back was the breather I needed to think about what I actually wanted (creative fulfilment, a more balanced life, a chance to pursue my passions) rather than what I’d been conditioned to want (money, prestige and linear advancement in a company). My career has taken a curvier path since then, but I’m happier, more fulfilled, solvent and sane these days. And since I leant back, I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one reconsidering what a successful life really looks like. Increasing numbers of women are demanding more than a one-note existence with work at front and centre.

Never mind Generation Y, we are Generation WW (Wonder Woman): educated, driven and brought up to believe that to have it all, we must do it all. Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 seminal bestseller Lean In encouraged women to reach for the top jobs, insisting that a larger number of us in leadership roles would mean more opportunities for all. “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small,” she wrote, “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” Her words echoed those of our mothers, our headmistresses, and so, with good intentions, many of us charged ahead towards a 24/7 corporate career of networking and achieving. But now more of us are wondering, is this really what modern women want? Because, let’s face it, if the definition of success in the Eighties was about power suits and a corner office, the Noughties championed entrepreneurs then right now the focus is undoubtedly on wellbeing and self-fulfilment and it’s unlikely you can achieve that if you spend 13 hours a day at your desk. We want a career on our own terms and if it doesn’t exist already, instead of forcing ourselves to fit into the very structured corporate world, we’re starting to create it ourselves.

Corporate culture

“Today’s high achieving women care less about the boardroom,” says Marcia Reynolds, author of Wander Woman: How High Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. “They have a longing for motion and meaning that often doesn’t synchronise with the vertical ascent up the corporate ladder that so many people expected of them – and that they had expected of themselves when they started their careers.”

“I have noticed a definite shift in ambitions over the last five years,” agrees Stylist’s deputy editor, Alix Walker. “Whereas once every job candidate I interviewed would answer ‘editor’ when asked where they wanted to be in five years, now people feel comfortable telling you their ambitions are fluid. They may want to write a book, learn photography, travel. Being top dog is not the end goal.”

In short, we’re waking up to the idea that many things about the conventional corporate structure don’t make sense.

“We don’t measure productivity by how many acres we’ve harvested any more, so the amount of time we spend working becomes a proxy,” explains Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Jason Fried, co-author of the upcoming book The Calm Company agrees. “The office is becoming just another tool, not somewhere you need to need to be tied to,” he says. Fried’s company, Basecamp, was a pioneer in remote working, and now hires home-workers all over the world.

According to the jobs site Timewise, 54% of the working population now have some degree of flexible working – that’s more than 15 million people, and by no means are they all parents. Whatever their age or domestic status, increasingly everybody wants the choice to pursue other interests, volunteer or start a second, more rewarding business. Maybe we simply prefer to spend rush hour in a yoga class rather than pressed into a stranger’s armpit on the Tube. And what’s so bad about that?

Against a backdrop of corporate indifference and increasing job instability, the backlash has begun. Fried and Soojung-Kim Pang aren’t the only ones encouraging us to lean back and re-evaluate what’s important. From Arianna Huffington’s Thrive to Drop The Ball by Tiffany Dufu, to The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim, the latest batch of work-life books – far from encouraging us to charge ahead – all focus on an holistic approach to success. Huffington calls this the Third Metric – defining our achievements not through the money or power, but through “wellbeing, wonder, wisdom and giving”. To put it another way, it’s about acknowledging that our health, our relationships and our sense of fulfilment matter just as much as our next promotion. In fact, for most of us, they matter more. So while we’re in no way less ambitious, our ambitions have changed and success has been redefined.

“I talk to a lot of women who are saying ‘I want to step back’,” says psychologist and business coach Salma Shah ( “For some, it’s about work-life balance and not wanting to work the same hours, but for most, it’s about finding work that really fulfils them. They want to go back and discover what their calling was.”

Moving sideways

“I have just turned down a job that 10 years ago I would have given my right arm for,” says 33-year-old fashion buyer Hannah Ebbs. “It was more money, responsibility, and travel – all the things I wanted. They were even offering me a profit share. But they wanted me there five days a week, and it would have meant working weekends too. And I just thought, what’s the point in working so hard when I don’t have time to actually live? So I turned them down.”

Instead, Hannah is going to stick with the tiny company where she’s worked part time for the last three years. On Thursdays and Fridays, she heads to her spare room-turned studio and paints. “That’s when I feel most like ‘me’. I am doing the thing I am best at, the thing that gives me most joy. Why would I want to earn thousands more if ultimately it makes me miserable? It would all go on therapy anyway.”

Many of today’s professional women are starting to prioritise wellness in a way that the generations of working women before us never did. Yet ironically, although we’re more aware of the effects of stress we’re also more likely to be stressed at work – government figures for 2015/16 show 37% of all work-related ill health cases were down to stress. “I speak to women in their early 20s and already they’re saying ‘I’m so stressed, work is so hard’ and they’re making themselves ill,” says Pandora Paloma, 31, founder of health and wellbeing consultancy Rooted London.

Paloma herself has leaned back, or rather progressed sideways, into a portfolio career – an increasingly popular option for those who want to pursue their own dreams, but still need to pay the bills. “I was a real worker bee,” she says. “I worked every evening and weekend.” She left college when she was offered a job in PR, working for prestigious fashion and beauty clients, and in just a few years was associate director of her firm. “But after a while, I didn’t feel inspired.” She took a job with a new company that allowed her to work from home sometimes. It gave her the flexibility to train as a yoga teacher and a nutritionist. Two years ago, she finally felt ready to take the plunge and start her own business, while still supplementing her income by freelancing as a PR.

“I have a job that pays the bills, and allows me to do the things I’m passionate about,” she says. “What I value most is being able to carve my own path. I feel so much more in control.”

An alternative path

Leaning back or sideways, or any-which-way-but-in might make sense, but it can still be hard to let go of your old definition of success. Especially in light of feminist rhetoric of the last few years, we might even feel guilty about letting down the sisterhood. As Sandberg writes: “We stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, women who had to fight for the rights that we now take for granted.” And no-one wants to be that girl, doing all the ‘taking for granted’.

“I think I might always have a pang of ‘what if’ when I hear about one of my old colleagues getting promoted,” says Amy, 29 who left her job in banking to retrain as a play therapist. “I was one of the only women in my previous company, and I was proud of that. It took me a long time to let go of the feeling that I was opting out by redefining what I wanted success to look like.”

A more empowering alternative is to recognise that women are the ones leading the charge to find better ways of working. Changes that might be unwelcome – whether it’s walking away from discrimination or fighting for a flexible contract – force us to come up with creative solutions. Women have fought to make job shares, homeworking and flexitime arrangements the norm. Leaning back is just the next chapter as more power rests with the individual as opposed to the corporation.

Still, it takes time, effort and serious self-belief to fly in the face of society’s ideas of achievement. “We all absorb the preconceptions of people around us,” reflects psychologist Ellen Bard, “but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Ever. Ability is only one aspect of us in the workplace. You can think ‘I could be a senior manager or a boardroom member’, but a job needs to match our professional style and values, too.” And if you’ve already started down one path? “It’s never too late to change your mind.”

The long goal

Psychologists agree that having the ability to adapt to our circumstances is essential for a happy existence. “It’s about thinking: ‘How can I readjust it to make a life that’s more sustainable for me?’’ says Bard. “Because if it’s not sustainable, it’s not a success.” And for those of us who are likely to be working well into our 70s, this is crucial.

And of course, you don’t have to lean back forever. “It’s perfectly possible to ‘lean back’ temporarily,” says career coach Phanella Mayall-Fine, author of Step Up: Confidence, Success And Your Stellar Career In 10 Minutes A Day. “This is often called ‘off-ramping’, and companies are increasingly wising up to the talent pool of people who have ‘ramped off’ and now want to ‘ramp back on’. Many companies such as Credit Suisse, KPMG and Vodafone, among others offer ‘returnships’ or special programmes for those returning to more traditional work structures.” Employers are also beginning to recognise that allowing staff to recharge their batteries may have a real benefit for business, adds career coach Jeremy I’Anson, author of You’re Hired! Total Job Search. “Most responsible employers will have sympathy for this sort of request and recognise that it can be beneficial for both employer and employee. Even Sandberg’s boss Mark Zuckerberg is taking time off to go on a road trip – visiting every state in the US – so times are changing.”

Leaning back worked out pretty well for me. My career didn’t fall off a cliff – I ended up writing a bestselling book which brought with it a plethora of new opportunities. Now, I do the work I care about. I spend time with my family – and a not-at-all photogenic dog. But I’m happier. And everyone else can lean right off...

How to lean back

Define exactly what success means for you

Six-figure salary, flash car, newest Birkin, wired on double espressos? Success has changed radically in the last few years, and material or status goals don’t have the same weight they once carried. Now, what’s most precious is career contentment – and that can be achieved in other ways.

Dip your toe in

“It pays to experiment while you’re in your current role,” says Salma Shah. “Try a course in an area of interest to see if you like it. Then speak to your boss about a sabbatical to try it out for real.”

Rethink the office

If trundling into an office each morning is killing your soul, think about how you’d like to work. Part time, flexi-hours, shared spaces, digital nomad? These days our levels of connectivity mean we can work how and where we like.

Find a mentor

Does somebody out there have your career/life goals? Track. Them. Down. “Talking to the people who live the way you want is a game changer,” says Shah. Ask them how they made it happen – and take notes.

Helen’s new book Leap Year, How to make big decisions, be more resilient and change your life for good, is out now (Two Roads). She tweets @MsHelenRussell

Main image:
Fashion: Sophie Henderson
Hair, make-up and nails: Jess Whitbread at S Management using Nars Cosmetics
Model: Viktoriya at Zone Models
Model Wears: Dress £1,125, Victoria Beckham; Link Lady, Quartz (100m) Watch, £1,250, Tag Heuer; Shoes, £185, Reiss
Chair: D.153.1 Armchair, £4,245, Gio Ponti for Molteni, available at SCP


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Helen Russell

Helen Russell is a journalist and bestselling author. Formerly an (occasionally glossy) editor in London, Helen now lives in Denmark with her husband and three young children.