The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace: An Interview With Bestselling Author Marissa Orr

Marissa Orr is a former Google & Facebook executive, a leadership speaker, and the bestselling author of Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace. With 15 years of experience working at today’s top tech giants, as well as having conducted talks for thousands of people in the US, Europe, and Asia-Pacific, at companies and universities such as Google, Twitter, Pace University, New School, American Express, and more—Marissa is one of the leading voices in the public conversation about women at work.

In our interview below, Marissa details how her experiences at Google and Facebook led to Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplacehow her definition of success has evolved, some of the philosophical lessons she observed in the workplace, and much much more. Please enjoy our interview with Marissa Orr!

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Can you first tell the Daily Stoic community about yourself and your new book Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace? 

When Lean In was published in 2013, I was working at Google, and they became front and center in the national conversation on the gender gap. To address its lack of female leaders, Google began offering a ton of resources — trainings, events, workshops etc. — specifically designed to get more women in senior roles. I’ve always been passionate about women’s issues, so naturally, I was thrilled and attended everything they offered. But after a while, I became disenchanted. The discussions never seemed to be truly honest, and it felt more like corporate cheerleading than anything real or useful. The worst part for me was the incessant stream of advice on how to behave. Instead of encouraging us to bring our individual strengths and talents to the table, we were essentially being told to act more like men. Of course, nobody said it like that. I mean, this was the corporate world after all. Instead, we called it ‘success behaviors,’ which really just meant ‘male behaviors,’ but changing the word made everyone feel better. I couldn’t think of anything less feminist or empowering than implying men represent the ‘norm’ or the benchmark to which we should aspire.

I decided to write my own perspective on the topic and presented it to a handful of friends in a conference room. But over time, more people showed up and it grew from one presentation into a series of lectures that I presented at other companies and even a few colleges across New York City.

In 2016, I left Google after 13 years to start a new job at Facebook. Part of what attracted me to the company was their role in the public conversation about women at work. I figured they would be really supportive of the lecture series and dreamed of maybe expanding it from more than just a side project.

But Facebook turned out to be much different than I expected. I was relentlessly bullied by a powerful female executive and it was one of the most dark, isolating experiences of my life. My identity as a conscientious, well-respected hard worker had completely unraveled and I knew I was going to be fired. So, I started asking myself those questions that only seem to surface when you’re at your absolute lowest point: who am I and what do I really want?

The whole experience forced me to come to terms with what I had always known but until then refused to admit: I was never going to be truly happy in the corporate world. In my heart, I desperately wanted to pursue my dream of turning my lecture series into a book and continue speaking on women’s issues. So in the end, my time at Facebook was an absolute gift. Had I stayed comfortable and happy at Google, I may have never ended up writing this book and following my true passion.

As for the premise of the book itself — Lean In and books of that nature suggest that in order for women to win the corporate game, we need to play it more like men. Lean Out is an attempt to reframe the issue altogether: the problem isn’t women, but the game itself. The corporate world is a zero-sum competition for power, and people are rarely honest about the rules for winning and what it actually requires of people. It took me 15 years to figure out what game I was playing and to realize I had been working very hard for things I didn’t really want.

But Lean Out doesn’t mean quit your job or stop trying or reduce your ambition. It simply means leaning out of anyone else’s story or idea of who you should be, what your career should look like, and what success means.

Have you read the Stoics? Can you tell us the story of your introduction to them if so? Any favorites? Favorite quotes? 

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of stuff on behavioral science, religion, and philosophy to try and understand myself better and learn how to solve my own problems. Stoicism naturally came up across those genres, but the first time I really began consciously applying it to my life was while writing the book.

For most of my life, I’ve been a pretty impulsive and instant-gratification kind of person, but writing a book requires the exact opposite behaviors. So, I had to almost rewire my entire personality and become a more patient and disciplined person. A big part of that transformation came from embracing routines as a way to structure my day.

When I started writing Lean Out, I was still working at Facebook, and in order to manage the amount on my plate, I started waking up super early and set up a strict morning routine. I’d get up at 4:30 A.M., meditate, do 10 minutes of yoga, then work for an hour on the book before getting the kids up and out to school, then getting myself to the office. Two years later, my morning routine is still the same except I don’t do the 4:30 A.M. thing anymore.

You encourage women to define success around well-being instead of winning. To stop copying what everyone else is doing. Opt-out of the endless competition and workaholism. Find your own path. Stick to it. This echoes Seneca in many ways. But figuring out your path in life can be hard. What do you recommend to ambitious young people who are struggling in trying to figure out their path in life?

I still struggle with it almost every day! I think that’s maybe the essence of the path — that it’s a lifelong journey which never ends.

Even though I did have those moments of clarity at Facebook, where I recognized I was on the wrong path and knew I needed to change direction, those moments of clarity were followed by a million more moments of anxiety and doubt. I still battle those moments even though the book is done, because I think, well, what’s next? Am I making the right choices when it comes to how I spend my time? Instead of trying to have the right answers to all these questions, I focus on living up to my own standards of effort, integrity, self-reflection, and honesty, trusting that if I do, the path will continue unfolding.

I also don’t believe that you always have to know exactly what you want to do and have a very clear image of that at all times. That kind of thing never worked for me and the idea that it was the ‘key to success’ stressed me out more than anything. Too many times I got hung up on the fact that I wasn’t 100% certain of the exact outcome I wanted and it prevented me from getting started. Now I see it more in terms of whether or not I’m moving in the right direction vs. whether or not I’m closer to an ideal outcome.

At some point, you just have to start and commit learning from your experiences, both good and bad. In fact, I’ve learned more about which way to go on the path from things that didn’t work out than from things that went well. Each experience is like a little point of light that guides you in the right direction. You just have to look for it.

Breaking into the male-bent world of tech as a woman, there must have been many moments of frustration and unfairness and adversity. How did you not let that get to you? Is there anything you learned from that that you think other people trying to make it in other fields might benefit from?

The engineering organizations at both companies are very much male-dominated, but I always worked on the business side which was pretty even in terms of gender, and at Facebook, I actually worked with many more women than men. So I can’t speak to the experience of working in a male-dominated environment.

As an executive at tech giants like Facebook and Google, you would have been around some brilliant thinkers and decision-makers. What have been the more philosophical lessons that you have observed or heard over the years? 

I learned the art and science of power politics in a way I probably couldn’t have had I just read about it in books. A former manager of mine at Google was brilliant in this regard, and I was fascinated by the way he navigated his relationships and the organization overall. He once explained to me that he thought of his work as an iceberg. Knowing that the people above him and those with the most power only see about 2% of his work (the tip of the iceberg), he put significant thought and energy into how that 2% showed up and worked very hard to increase the proportion that was “above water.”

This might seem terribly obvious to most people, but I had never thought of it that way. I was under the naive impression that the 98% of what I did at work every day was what mattered and gave little thought to anything else. But once he explained this to me and I observed him in action, it was clear he understood the game and was a master player. He ended up being promoted to the top of the organization faster than anyone I’d seen during my time at the company. To be clear, I’m not judging his approach as good or bad. It worked for him in getting what he wanted. I’m just saying it taught me a lot about what it takes to succeed in that world.

Stoicism has become quite popular among tech folks. Curious to hear if you have any thoughts on why it’s resonated so strongly?

I really have no idea. Maybe because they’re building stuff all the time, and the act of creation often involves some sort of struggle?

What books or writers have most influenced the way you think and the way you live?

There are so many, but a few of the most influential are:

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker — My first entry into the science (and politics) of gender, and it was the first book that sparked my lifelong fascination with human behavior.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman — Feynman is my hero – he always told the truth and never took himself too seriously.

The Six Pillars of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden — It pains me that the title of this book is so dry and boring. It should have been called, “All you ever need to know about why people behave the way they do.” This book might be the one that has made the most impact on my life.

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey — this book takes so many different aspects of the way the mind works and stitches them together in such a way that it’s practically an instruction manual on how to live.

Also:

Could you leave the Daily Stoic community with one message or piece of advice? It could be a question to journal on, a philosophical practice to try, or just something to think about as they go about their day.

Here’s an excerpt from a book I love, Know Yourself Forget Yourself by Marc Lesser:

One day Harry said, “Being a human being is easy. You just need to ask and answer three questions. One, what do you want? Two, what do you have to do to get it? And three, can you pay the price?” A coy smile appeared on his face, followed by a loud belly laugh. “Real simple,” he howled. “Very few people bother asking the first question!”


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