Lesson 18: Sheryl Sandberg; Can A Speech Teach Ambition?

Ken Auletta’s profile of Sheryl Sandberg in The New Yorker is an excellent companion to Sandberg’s TED speech of last December. The latter was passed like a Dead bootleg among a certain group of women who had made a certain set of choices in their lives, perhaps not unlike the way Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest recipe might be passed among another set of women who had made another set of choices. The message and the language in Sandberg’s talk married something women want with the confidence of having achieved it. The performance of the speech made its content doubly impressive.


Sandberg proposes something for the next generation: a set of steps to success, what b-school professors would call An Action Plan. She uses the tools of an economist (data), plus those of a life coach (inspiration), but then marries these things with the rhetoric of history’s finest feminists. In her talks, benign words like “leadership,” “ambition” and “achievement” are defused of their traditionally tricky politics. She does this with charm and humor, as opposed to the more traditional tool, self-deprecation.

In her Barnard Commencement speech, Sandberg told the graduates:

So, what advice can I give you to help you achieve this goal?  The first thing is I encourage you to think big.  Studies show very clearly that in our country, in the college-educated part of the population, men are more ambitious than women.  They’re more ambitious the day they graduate from college; they remain more ambitious every step along their career path.  We will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap.  But if all young women start to lean in, we can close the ambition gap right here, right now, if every single one of you leans in.  Leadership belongs to those who take it.  Leadership starts with you.

“Leadership starts with you,” a platitude in other contexts, feels original here, because we want it to be newly true for those girls. And the strategies for achieving leadership? “Sit at the table.” “Make your partner a real partner.” Said another way: Know the difference between deference at work and deference at home. Your boss is not your husband.

Sandberg also advises young women: “don’t leave before you leave.” For some, “leaving before you leave” is simply a convenient way out of a bad job. For others, it’s a self-destructive play at the illusion of optionality, something easy to NPV in the abstract but almost impossible to monetize in reality.

Sandberg’s rules are not only applicable to women dreaming of IPOs alongside applesauce cups. Hers are rules for all women, because all women deserve to believe in themselves. Yet an eloquent Action Plan for ambition is not enough. There must be confidence, too. Where does Sandberg get her confidence? Can we learn that,too? Because that's what we want most to teach our daughters. Somewhere between Austen and Sandberg, does the perfect speech for teaching confidence exist? 

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