The Road Not Taken

Harvard Yard, where it all begins (campaign.harvard.edu).

Harvard Yard, where it all begins (campaign.harvard.edu).

Former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan Montella doesn’t want her new book painted as “the anti-Lean In treatise”. But what if, regardless of the author’s intentions, that’s exactly how it reads?

Montella’s memoir chronicles her glittering professional experiences at a white shoe New York law firm and investment banking house Lehman Brothers, as well as her unceremonious downfall. We watch up close as Montella’s first marriage dissolves, CNBC informs Montella and the world that her career at Lehman is over, and she attempts suicide.

Montella was quite clear in our email correspondence, as well as in the text of her own book, that she is sharing her story because she hopes it can be helpful to others, but she also sees her story as uniquely hers. Montella has no interest in challenging or delegitimizing any other woman’s personal experiences, whether that woman is Sheryl Sandberg, or someone less famous.

As a fellow writer, I respect Montella’s integrity, since marketing her book as a response to Sandberg’s would inevitably boost sales. However, as a reader, I had a very different reaction to Montella’s written words and Sandberg’s well publicized vision for working women.

Like Montella, I grew up in New York and went off to Harvard (also Sandberg’s alma mater). Much of the work-obsessed mindset Montella described in her memoir reminded me of what I’d really learned at Harvard. So, I was surprised when I asked Montella about Harvard’s influence on her career, and she wrote back, “I don’t attribute the way in which I leaned in to my career to my time at Harvard. In fact, if anything, I might have been my most balanced in my life when I was in college.”

I can’t say the same. When I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1996, I found a campus brimming with very bright people. Of course, there are bright people everywhere. What really set Harvard students apart from most Americans was the intensity. The drive, the ambition to succeed that had not only propelled everyone to Cambridge, but also fueled endless hours of work at student leadership organizations and prestigious summer internships.

Women and men were considered fully equal and capable, even if every Harvard class was always lopsidedly male (at that time). Women were encouraged to be vocal and hard-charging, and like our male classmates, we were taught to put the pedal-to-the-metal in our professional aspirations. There was no room for mediocrity and no room for human weakness. We were supposed to be living Pinterest-perfect lives — even if social media didn’t exist yet.

Of course, my life wasn’t perfect. No one’s was, but our default was pretending that everything was.

My personal life was thrown for two serious, unexpected loops during college, but like Erin Montella, I was stubborn. I simply acclimated myself to my altered reality, rather than absorbing that I needed to change.

When I found myself at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in early 2001, I still had some of my trademark Harvard intensity. I was bored by lulls in the work week and always wanted to do more, like my many friends in investment banking and consulting who clocked countless hours. I even volunteered to come in and answer phones on Christmas Day, since it wasn’t my religious holiday. My much wiser boss advised me to spend the day relaxing at home.

That first boss also taught me the importance of investing time and energy in friends and family. Work isn’t everything, he advised. Things can always go south at a job, and when they do, the people who’ll support you are your loved ones. Pay attention to them now and live a full life. Thankfully, I took those words to heart.

I thought about all of this while reading Montella’s memoir, which felt like a personalized version of the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. Just as George Bailey’s guardian angel Clarence shows him how different the world might have been without him, Montella’s memoir offered a view of the road I never took. Between my choosing government service over the corporate job Harvard’s Office of Career Services would have preferred and my decision to stay home to raise my daughters in recent years, I haven’t fit the Harvard mold for a long time now.

But Erin Montella did. For two decades, she lived the hard-charging, high-flying feminist dream I had relentlessly drilled into my head as an undergraduate. It was fascinating to peek into the mind of someone who had been a success, in Harvard terms. While I felt terrible for Montella, reading of her personal struggles, I also felt somewhat vindicated in an anti-Lean In sort of way.

Sandberg has been marketing dreams of corporate success that fit neatly with the Harvard culture; she wants women to focus intensely on their careers until they have to squish in family commitments. And here comes fellow Harvard alumna Montella to tell her story of how she’s not only lived that dream but also felt its hollowness. To find true happiness, she wed a high school classmate, had a baby late in life, and has largely gone off the grid. In other words, she’s traded in her Harvard-approved existence for a normal, even traditional life. Cheers to that.

This article appeared in altFem magazine.

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