These words are from an article.

Lean in both animates and intimidates women to ask themselves: “How can I do better?” “What am I doing that I don’t know?” “What am I not doing that I don’t see?”

What does it mean? I am confused by the grammatical structure of these sentences.

3 Answers 3


That is referencing something, however, the context it is put in is crucial, so we have to find out what the context is first. The best practice when you need a good context and you don't have it in the current paragraph, is to go back one paragraph.

Let's do that in this instance, let's go back one paragraph. The first sentence already provides enough information to search for our context:

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., wants to change that,

We haven't found our solution here, but we do have a starting point: that references to something not explained in this paragraph. So let's go back another paragraph.

Our answer is in the last part of the paragraph:

Liberated women won the fight for education and the right to work at careers previously closed to them, but now, having deserted the green grass of suburbia for the grim concrete of the city, they’ve encountered a new obstacle: Few get a room with the view from the top of the executive suite.

This is a writing style to keep the text more enjoyable. If you keep in mind that the subject of the text is about femnism, you can piece together what the writer is trying to say, which is: "women don't get high-ranking positions as easily as men do." The book that is being talked about is designed to give women a better chance to get a job, by taking a perspective from a man's viewpoint as well. This makes it a lot easier to figure out your two sentences.

With this knowledge, let's look at them again:

“What am I doing that I don’t know?”

"What am I not doing that I don’t see?"

Personally I'd change the sentences to:

"What am I doing wrong that I don't know"

"What am I doing wrong that I don’t see?"

So in the end the two sentences are referring to how women should look at themselves and reflect how their behavior influences their position in the company. Why is that so? Because it fits the context it is put in, and by carefully analyzing the text.

Edit: As pointed out in the comment made by Em1, I overlooked a particular sentence. For the sake of completeness I will just make a new section to the existing answer.

She has written what could be called “The Male Mystique,” eager to shape female psychology in the mold of male power. “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” is about how women must learn to act like men if they want to succeed in business.

This sentence gives a much better in-text definition than I gave and it requires less searching. After that, you can just repeat the last part of the original answers.

Once again kudos for Em1 for pointing this one out.

  • 2
    You don't need to get back that far in the article. Just two sentences: "“Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” is about how women must learn to act like men if they want to succeed in business" -> What am I doing wrong and what am I not doing what I should do.
    – Em1
    Mar 22, 2013 at 10:44
  • @Em1 Thank you for pointing that one out, I added it to the answer, and gave you credit for it as well, of course. Mar 22, 2013 at 12:03
  • All the focus on 'that' and previous paragraphs is not only irrelevant, it distracts from the actual sentences.
    – DCShannon
    Apr 14, 2015 at 23:23

“Lean in” both animates and intimidates women to ask themselves: “How can I do better?” “What am I doing that I don’t know?” “What am I not doing that I don’t see?”

The above is not an example of fine writing. It misuses the verbs animate and intimidate (1,2,3,4,5). One does not animate or intimidate someone to do something, one motivates or instigates them to do something; or might intimidate them into doing something.

Restoring some ellipses, the question “What am I doing that I don’t know?” can be construed as grammatically sound; but it can be misunderstood because of being so elliptical. I presume the intended meaning is “What am I doing that I need to improve but don’t know about?”

† The phrase “Lean in” was used by article author Suzanne Fields to refer to the book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook Inc.

  • Thank you very much. It is very hard for me to presume the intended meaning.
    – Kaili
    Mar 22, 2013 at 16:07
  • +1: Had to look up in the dictionary for the meaning of elliptical. Dictionary: Elliptical language has parts missing, so that it is sometimes difficult to understand. Example: His message was written in a deliberately elliptical style. Mar 22, 2013 at 16:17
  • @EnglishLearner Ellipsis refers to the omission of a word or phrase. You'll also see the word elide used in this context, but some linguists prefer to use the term elide only when talking about elision (omission of a vowel or syllable).
    – user230
    Mar 22, 2013 at 17:17
  • I don't think we're looking for "that I need to improve" so much as "that I need to stop doing", but the sentence itself doesn't actually imply any value judgement regarding the behavior. It's just asking what they're doing that they don't know about. Unconscious or automatic behaviors.
    – DCShannon
    Apr 14, 2015 at 23:26

There's no need to refer to any other sentences or paragraphs to determine the meaning of those sentences. They stand alone.

Both of these sentences are about getting feedback from others to help the speaker get a better perspective on their own behavior.

What am I doing that I don’t know?

This could be rephrased as

What behaviors am I doing that I don't know that I'm doing?

or simply

What am I doing that I don't know about?

Getting feedback like this can be very helpful. For instance, in a speech class you'll get feedback about your posture or any nervous ticks that you might engage in unconsciously. Once you're told you're doing these things, you can make a conscious effort to stop.

In the context of the article and book it's referring to, the speaker would be getting feedback on things they do in the workplace that affect how they're treated.

What am I not doing that I don’t see?

This is very close to the previous sentence, but the speaker is asking what behaviors the observer can think of that the speaker is not engaging in, but could be.

It could be rephrased

What other things can you think of that I could be doing, but am not currently doing?

or simply

What am I not doing that I don't see that I could be doing.

In the context of the article, this question is asking what other behaviors could the speaker engage in to be treated more fairly.

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