Amy Poehler Preaches ‘Lean Out’

Think of Poehler as the ‘anti-Sheryl Sandberg’—a high-profile female whose witty, breezy new memoir argues that obsessing over your career may not be the path to happiness.

10.29.14 9:50 AM ET

Amy Poehler wants Sheryl Sandberg to sit back. Lean Out, she jokes, in her memoir Yes, Please, will be the title of her next book, co-written with the Facebook COO author of the women-in-the-workplace manifesto Lean In. The title, one of many Poehler suggests (A Great Face for Wigs is another one) comes from an anecdote she tells about dealing with a pushy male producer who came into her dressing room to ask her to redo a speech because the audio wasn’t good on the first take. “I leaned back … I uncrossed my legs and I made eye contact. I immediately decided this was not my problem, and the relief of that decision spread across my chest like hot cocoa.” Was her behavior a smart career move? Poehler doesn’t say if she ever worked with the producer again. More provocatively, she doesn’t seem to care.

The anecdote comes near the end of Yes, Please. Most of the book is a witty, breezy, at times touchy-feely recap of Poehler’s life so far, from her big-haired ’80s childhood in suburban Massachusetts through her early improv days in New York (plenty of waitressing in this section) to joining the cast of Saturday Night Live, before starring in the series Parks and Recreation. The book is sprinkled with photos, jokes, poems, and guest essays by friends like Seth Meyers, and much of it reads like a warm, chatty memoir in the style of Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl or Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me. It’s only when you get to the last section, and the “lean out” anecdote, that Poehler reveals her secret agenda—a feminist anti-career manifesto: the No, Thank You so contrary to most of what women are taught today about how to succeed in business.

This is nothing against Sandberg, and other boss-minded women, like Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso, who have written books encouraging women to follow their CEO dreams. I’m sure their books are useful to readers who want to run their own companies, or ascend the corporate ladder, or launch their own businesses. If you are a reader who is not exactly sure what Sandberg actually does for a living, but knows it doesn’t sound like any fun, books like Lean In can feel less than helpful. If, in other words, you are more interested in a life of creativity than corporate dominance, you may find more to take away from Poehler’s advice to, as she writes, “treat your career like a bad boyfriend.”

What’s refreshing about Yes, Please, and a tiny bit radical, is the way Poehler doesn’t assume career follows passion. In fact, she writes, “your career and your passion don’t always match up.” Still, she counsels, you should work as hard as you can to follow your passion, and even then, “hard work doesn’t always matter.” So you should just let go.

“Try to care less,” Poehler writes. “Practice ambivalence. Learn to let go of wanting it.” Because “career is the thing that will not fill you up and will never make you truly whole. Depending on your career is like eating cake for breakfast and wondering why you start crying an hour later.”

This is not to say you shouldn’t apply yourself, or that if you let go of wanting it, fame and fortune will fall in your lap. Poehler’s road was long and paved with many years of wearing a waitress tie and apron. (“Years and years of hard work and little bits of progress isn’t nearly as entertaining as imagining me telling a joke in a Boston food court when suddenly Lorne Michaels walks up and says, ‘I must have you for a little show I do.’”) But, she writes, “you have to care about your work but not about the result.” It’s a fine distinction, and one that seems to have gotten lost in much of the current conversation about women in the workplace. Too often, it’s easy to take away the message that we should want to be the boss for the sake of being the boss, want a big career with little regard to the work we actually do.

Of course, critics complain that Sandberg et al’s message only applies to a small percentage of working women, those with the education and resources to advance into high-salary jobs that pay for nannies and housekeepers and all the support staff a woman often needs if she has a demanding job. And similarly, one might argue that it’s all very well and good to treat your career like a bad boyfriend, but when your boyfriend pays the rent, you need to at least treat him well enough that he doesn’t kick you out on the street. Still, Poehler’s argument, that your “career is something that fools you into thinking you are in control and then takes pleasure in reminding you that you aren’t” should ring true to anyone who’s invested an unhealthy amount of herself into what she says when people ask her what she does for a living. Even if you don’t do a mean Hilary Clinton impersonation or have, like Poehler, a great face for wigs.