Interview with Sheryl Sandberg
Building Resilience, Finding Joy and
Kicking The Elephant Out of the Room
(Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Maisel/Lean In)
We will all face various forms of adversity and loss in our lives, and it can blindside us and leave us in a state of shock, confusion and despair. That is what happened to Facebook COO and Lean In founder Sheryl Sandberg, after the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, who died almost two years go from a cardiac arrhythmia after going to a gym while they were celebrating a friend's birthday at a resort in Mexico. Sandberg was devastated and overwhelmed by her grief and sadness, and unsure how to navigate the many emotions and situations she found herself faced with. She decided to document her very personal journey to recover from her loss, and she shares what she learned to help others in her latest book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. She told me, "I think part of why I wrote this is because I want to tell other people what I didn't believe at the beginning, which is grief never goes away entirely - of course I'm still sad, I miss Dave every day - but I really believe it can get better. And I want other people to believe that."
The book's title comes from a Facebook post Sandberg wrote last June, as she was marking the first thirty days of grieving following Goldberg's death. In it, she wrote, "A few weeks after my husband, Dave, died, I was talking to my friend Phil Deutch about a father -son activity that Dave was not here to do. We came up with a plan for someone to fill in so my son would not have to miss out. I cried, 'But I want Dave.' Phil put his arm around me and said, 'Option A is not available. So let's just kick the shit out of Option B.' That became my mantra, and for the past two years I've tried hard to find meaning and happiness in the wake of our despair," she wrote. "My friend Adam Grant, a psychologist, told me that we are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, we can build it. Adam and I set out to explore how to build resilience - in ourselves, in our children, in our relationships, and in our workplaces and communities." Sandberg wrote Option B with her friend and collaborator Adam Grant, an author, Wharton professor, and organizational psychologist. The book features not only her own story but also stories of others facing adversity of all kinds. As Sandberg put it, "It's not just death, it's cancer and illness, challenges, someone going to jail, someone losing a child - we don't talk about these things and that means when we most need each other, we're not there."
Like her 2013 best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which inspired Sandberg to found the Lean In organization, her new book has an online counterpart, OptionB.org, a nonprofit initiative of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation to which Sandberg is donating all of her proceeds from the book. This website and online forum is dedicated to helping people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity. At OptionB.org, people who are facing hardship - and their friends and loved ones - can find and share personal stories, join groups for solidarity and support, and access resources that will help them build resilience. At time of launch they announced they are focusing on seven topics (and will add new ones based on community input) which include: Abuse & Sexual Assault; Divorce & Family Challenges; Grief & Loss; Hate & Violence; Health, Illness, & Injury; Incarceration; and Raising Resilient Kids.
I talked with Sandberg about her journey and how it has changed her outlook on herself and her life, what she learned about raising resilient kids, the pioneering policies companies like Facebook are offering to support their employees, the specific challenges women face and how her outlook has changed since Lean In and much more.
Marianne Schnall: You know how much I admire you and your work, and this book is so beautiful, moving, inspiring, powerful and important. And I know it's going to help so many people, so I wanted to help spread the word.
SS: Thank you, that means a lot.
MS: And thank you for writing it, because obviously this was not only such a difficult thing to go through personally, but it also must have been very hard to write about and share so publicly. Why did you decide to write this book? What motivated you?
SS: When Dave first died the grief I felt was so awful, I wrote about grief in the book and I know other people who are reading what you write have experienced this as well - I just didn't think it would ever get better. I literally felt like there was nothing that would ever make me feel okay again. And people who have been through it, some of them told me it gets better, it gets better, it gets better. But I didn't believe them. And so I think part of why I wrote this is because I want to tell other people what I didn't believe at the beginning, which is grief never goes away entirely - of course I'm still sad, I miss Dave every day - but I really believe it can get better. And I want other people to believe that.
Dave lived this amazing life - he was such an amazing person - and I know if he were alive he would still be doing so much good to help others, and if the book can help anyone, I think it really honors his legacy. One of my favorite stories in the book is about Joe Casper. He is a doctor who lost his son. Now he is still a doctor, but he also counsels bereaved parents - he got a PhD in psychology. He talks about when he does good in his son's name and extends his son's legacy, he calls it their co-destiny. And I think part of why I did this is to keep Dave's memory alive. And if we can do some good in his honor, in his name, it feels like a really good way to honor his life.
MS: Absolutely, you will definitely be accomplishing that and much more. You write about "kicking the elephant out of the room," and as a society, we're often cultured to avoid painful conversations, but you share how actually hurtful it was when people wouldn't ask you how you were doing. What advice would you give to someone about communicating with a friend or a colleague who is experiencing a crisis or a serious illness or a loss? What are concrete things you can do or say, or even things not to say?
SS: Well, you're right about the elephant in the room, and it's not just death, it's cancer and illness, someone going to jail, someone losing a child - we don't talk about these things and that means when we most need each other, we're not there. I realized on the other side of this how much of this I got wrong before. So before I lost Dave, if someone went through something hard, I would say something usually the first time, try to be kind, but then I would never bring it up again because I thought I was reminding them of their sorrow. Now I know how ridiculous that is - you can't remind me I lost Dave, I know that. So when people didn't say something, it felt like they didn't care, even if they did.
And so I really think the most important thing is to encourage people to acknowledge the pain. "How are you today?" is an acknowledgement. "I'm here if you want to talk," - not that everyone wants to talk all the time, they don't, but if you want to, I'm here. I also learned the power of the word "we." Not saying to people, "You are going to get through this," but "We are going to get through this." That is such a different message, because it makes people feel less alone, and again, all of these forms of hardship, it's not just the hardship itself but the isolation that comes with it. And I experienced this myself when Dave died. Talk to anyone who has cancer, and they'll tell you this. Talk to anyone facing serious problems, this is what they'll say, over and over. "We" changes that.
The third thing - and this is something I really got wrong - is I used to say to people, "Is there anything I can do?" And I meant it, I was sincere, I wanted to help them. But the truth is that what that really does is it kind of shifts the burden from the person who is trying to help, to the person being helped - you're supposed to figure out what the person can do and tell them. And that can be a hard question to answer. It's better to offer to do something specific than say, "I'll do anything." My friend Dan Levy tragically lost a child, and in the months he was in the hospital, a friend texted him and said, "I'm in the lobby of the hospital for a hug, whether you come down or not." Or someone who asked a friend, "What do you not want on a burger, because I just went and got you a burger." Not "Is there anything I can do?" but "Here's the burger." The power of just doing something is so important.
MS: In the book you also write about the ways we can better support people in the workplace, and I know your experience has directly affected Facebook's policies around family and bereavement leave. How did this experience change your ideas on how workplace attitudes and policies need to change?
SS: Well, I've been a long-term advocate for family friendly policies at work, one of the things I wrote in Lean In is that when women are in leadership roles, companies tend to have better policies. So it's something I've believed for a very long time, but this experience really drove home the need even more. On the Facebook side, we had very generous policies before, but now we have even more generous policies. We now give 20 days of bereavement leave for an immediate family member and 10 days for an extended family member. We already had unlimited sick days, three weeks of PTO, but now we have six weeks of family medical leave as well, as well as an additional three days of sick leave for a loved one.
I've become a very loud advocate for that. I think other companies need to do more and do better, and we need public policy because not everyone is going to work for a company or work at all, so we need the right public policies. We're the only developed country in the world without maternity leave that's paid. We're one of the only countries in the world without family and medical leave, and all of this is totally unacceptable. So I believe very strongly that we need companies to do better, we need companies to become convinced that it's good for them, because it is. Stand by your employees, they stand by you. And we need public policy to make sure everyone is covered. I also feel very strongly that we need to make sure that when companies think about these policies, we think about contractors too. We made sure that all of our contractors were paid a living wage of $16 and also got paid time off. I think people need to think about their contract workforce as well.
MS: These are such important recommendations. You also wrote about how going through this experience and becoming a single mother has transformed your perspective since writing Lean In. You and I both do a lot of work around women. How did your perspective change and what are some of those unique challenges that women face in these situations?
SS: I'm so glad you asked, and I know that it's so close to your heart and mine. You know, I wrote about different forms of family in Lean In, and I certainly always was focused on this, but I wrote a whole chapter called "Make Your Partner a Real Partner," and even though I wrote that, some people don't have a partner. I think the very nature of that implies that a lot of people do, and I think that could have been really hard to read. I don't think I got it, and I've said that publicly. I never knew Father's Day was such a horrible day for some people. Father's Day is a horrible day for me to live through to this day, every year, I just wish it would go away. When the Girl Scouts that my daughter is in has a father-daughter dance, it just breaks my heart for months leading up to the father-daughter dance. It never occurred to me to think about the people without fathers on Father's Day and people without mothers on Mother's Day. And I don't think it occurs to many people. It breaks my heart to think about how you could go through what I went through with all the grief and worry about paying medical bills, and worry about losing your job and losing the roof over your head. We need to do better by people, particularly people who are facing challenges.
MS: You write about how worried you were about your children and how you were going to be able to help your children get through this. You also write about research showing that children are naturally resilient. What have you learned and what does the research show about raising resilient children?
SS: A lot of the path to me writing this book starts with me worrying about my children. I went to Adam and I asked, "What do I do to get my kids through this?" I had no experience parenting by myself and I certainly had no experience with bereavement, and so it really starts there. Kids are, in many ways, much more resilient than we think they can be. Kids need resilience. A lot of kids are growing up in poverty without getting the basic healthcare, education and support they need, and those kids need a lot more help. There are kids who just need resilience for the everyday challenges of life. I really love that chapter of the book. Mattering is something we discuss in the book - teaching kids they matter, listening to them. Giving kids control, not doing everything for them but letting them fail sometimes, and most importantly, letting them know they are not alone.
MS: I was really taken by how brave you are in this book in sharing such personal, revealing details about your journey, which we don't tend to see in people who are public figures, and I think it's so important. I remember when interviewed Maya Angelou, she talked about how it's actually going through difficult times that helps you learn the most about yourself, and you write about this notion of post-traumatic growth. How has this experience changed you? I thought it was really interesting when you talked about how when you returned to work, you had to almost completely rebuild your self-confidence and you struggled with self-doubt. How has this experience has changed you?
SS: My friend Jeff said it's like you've gone through a portal - you're going to be different, it's just a matter of how. I'm definitely different. I understand that at work, it's really important to offer people time off, but it's also really important to build them back up. You know, whenever anyone was facing something hard at work, I would say to them, "Don't worry, we'll cover it for you, don't worry, I don't want you to feel pressure." But the problem is if you are back at work and you want to be back at work, even to try to distract yourself from the pain at home, being told, "Don't worry, you can't do it," does not make you feel any better. And I have no idea how Mark Zuckerberg at his age who has really no experience in bereavement as far as I could tell knew what to do. He would say, "You know, I think you made a really good point today," or "That's the kind of mistake you would make before." He built me back up. I didn't know how to do that. But now, when someone is suffering, I would say, if you need time off, if you want the project off you, all of that, of course. But if they're at work, I go out of my way, if they do something great, to tell them.
I'm more grateful. That doesn't mean I'm not sadder, I am. This week would have been my 14th wedding anniversary.It comes on the big days, it comes on the small days, it's like there is this underlying sadness that will not go away, but I'm also more grateful. I used to make jokes about getting older: "Oh my God, I'm getting so old." I would never make that joke again, and if anyone makes it around me, I stop them. My friend Laura turned 50 on Valentine's Day and I called her and said, "I'm calling to say happy birthday, but I'm also calling because in case you woke up this morning with "Oh my God, I'm 50" - which is what I would have woken up with - this is the year Dave won't turn 50. And there are only two options: we either grow older or we don't. And so I'm celebrating your birthday today, and I want you to celebrate too." Gratitude for life. This great irony of going through this huge tragedy and coming out more grateful is an amazing thing. Now, I would give anything to go back and live this with Dave. You know, what would I do if I could have one day with him? How much I could appreciate that day? I don't get that. But I can try to do that with my kids tonight, and I can try to do that in the office today, and I can try to share that through Option B in his name.
MS: You write about how one of the greatest things that you can ever do for someone grieving is to give them permission to feel joy and laugh again.
SS: Yes. I really want to talk about this, especially for women. There are two things that I really want to make sure we talk about, and the first is the role of self-compassion for women. A lot of recovering from hardship is how much do you blame yourself, how much do you blame yourself for making the mistakes you actually made or mistakes that weren't your fault. And women are much harder on themselves than men, and you already know that, I already know that, but giving women the permission to forgive themselves. Look, sometimes the death is not our fault, or the mistake or the hardship, sometimes it is, but either way, we are human and we make mistakes and recovery depends upon self -compassion.
There's this great TED video, this TED Talk that we put up on the Option B website, it's unbelievable. This woman, she gets divorced, she goes on a date, and she's all excited, and the guy leaves like 10 minutes later. So a friend says to her, "Well you know, you've got big hips and you're boring, of course he left." But the truth is that a friend didn't say it to her, she said it to herself. No friend would say that to anyone! But we keep telling ourselves things like that all day, right? And so when you hear that story, that a friend said that, you're horrified, but then when you hear the story as she said it to herself, you're like, of course she did. Right? Self compassion for women in adversity is so important.
And the other thing is what you were getting at, which is joy. I think when we think about helping people get through hardship and tragedy, we think about holding them as they cry, drying their tears, bringing them dinner when they're in the hospital. All of these things are so important, but there's another side to it which is helping them rebuild, helping them come back to work and telling them they're going to be okay and that they can do their job or they're even good at their job. Giving them permission to date, if they want to - we give that to men, but really we judge women so harshly. Giving them permission to laugh. Because when you face certain hardships… there's survivor's guilt for cancer survivors, for people like me who survive a spouse, we feel that, and again, women do it more than men. I needed permission, permission. I got permission to date from my mother-in-law and brother-in-law of all people. I got permission to laugh and to feel joy from my brother-in-law. My brother-in-law, he lost his only brother, called me crying and said, "All Dave ever wanted was for you and your children to be happy. Don't take that away from him in death. Adam had a tip of writing down three moments of joy every night. Without those nudges I would have just wallowed in guilt and never let myself feel okay, because it was like, How can I feel okay? Dave is gone. If we want to help people recover and rebuild, we need to give them permission to recover and rebuild and we particularly need to give this to women. And I feel so strongly about it.
MS: When you wrote Lean In, you also launched the Lean In Community, and you have just launched the Option B website as a companion to this book. What is your hope and objective for the Option B website and community?
SS: I want to kick a whole lot elephants out of a whole lots of rooms. And it's not just I it's we. My team is amazing including Rachel Thomas who runs the foundation. You know, the foundation really expanded. Before we were Lean In. I renamed it in Dave's honor the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, and now we have two initiatives, LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org, and we're dramatically growing them both. We are growing the Lean In activity which is going so well with 33,000 circles around the world, but we're also launching Option B and growing that community - it's to help people connect around lots of issues, it's not just death and loss. And we're already hearing from people how much it matters. I have a really close friend who has a son who's around high school age, who's quite ill - and he asked his parents to stay up late the other night and read the website, because he was like, "Oh my God, I didn't know other people were facing this." So trying to bring people together, trying to provide them with resources is so important.
Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared at Forbes.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, CNN.com, AOL Build, the Women's Media Center and The Huffington Post. She is the co-founder and executive director of the women's website and non -profit organization Feminist.com, the co -founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com, and the founder of What Will It Take, a movement to ignite and empower a new generation of women leaders. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice and What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.