A Q&A with Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant about Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
April 19, 2017
Our General Manager, Sally Haldorson, recently sent Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant five carefully considered questions about their new book. They responded in kind.
You're going to be hearing a lot from Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant this week. Their new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, hits bookstore shelves today, and Sandberg will be appearing on Ellen and Good Morning America today, and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert tonight. I'm sure much more press will follow, as will legwork from the authors and others to continue spreading the word, and building community and resilience in a grassroots effort on the ground through OptionB.Org. The organization is "dedicated to helping you build resilience in the face of adversity—and giving you the tools to help your family, friends, and community build resilience too."
Our General Manager, Sally Haldorson, recently sent Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant five carefully considered, and sometimes personal, questions about the book. They responded in kind, and that conversation is below.
Sally Haldorson: In the chapter on “Bouncing Forward,” you write: “It is the irony of all ironies to experience tragedy and come out of it feeling more grateful. Since I lost Dave, I have at my fingertips this unbelievable reservoir of sadness. It’s right next to me where I can touch it—part of my daily life.” I've faced a number of tragic events in my life—most significantly, the death of my mother at age 12 and my husband’s diagnosis of and treatment for leukemia 2 years ago—but my son’s physical and mental disabilities are for me that well of grief I could drown in on any given day, and I expect that to be true for the length of my life. And yet, somewhere along this unwanted journey, I found a community of women who not only had special needs children themselves, but were multi-dimensional women who, despite their sadness, still pursued their best selves, continued to make and appreciate art, invested in their careers, education, and/or families in a way that channeled the strength they'd needed to summon for their special needs child into all aspects of their lives. These women live your definition of post-traumatic growth, or “Bouncing Forward”, and modeled for me a way to live a full life despite my grief. Throughout your book you continually advocate for connection, encouraging readers to reach out, as opposed to turn inward. Can you talk about how critical it is for people struck by tragedy to find community?
Sheryl Sandberg: I’m so sorry to learn about the tragedies that you’ve faced. I now know that it’s not just sudden loss that sucks us into that void where it feels like we can’t breathe. Illness, losing a job, and the end of a dream are extremely painful. Just as you’ve found, I’ve come to believe that our connections to others are what give us strength.
For the first few days after losing Dave, I was surrounded by family and friends. But as people started returning to their lives, I began to feel more isolated. Many people avoided the subject of his death altogether, fearing that the reminder would bring my grief to the surface. Nine days later, I went to my daughter’s soccer game. I saw an empty chair next to her friend’s grandmother, Jo Shepherd, and I was overcome by the feeling that this chair was for me. Decades earlier, Jo lost her husband. At the time, she had two small children, just like I did now. Within seconds, I knew she understood.
Two years later, every single one of the new friends I’ve made has lived through real tragedy. I am a member of a club no one wants to join. But that club understands my pain in ways that are difficult for others to grasp. I rely on my friends for comfort and advice, and just as you have, I also look to them for hope. This community—this club—has literally been a lifeline for me.
It turns out that community doesn’t just matter for building our individual resilience. It’s critical for collective resilience too. Adam and I learned that when communities come together, they have more strength to overcome adversity and they can actually work to prevent adversity. In Option B, we write about The Posse Foundation, which identifies underprivileged students who have shown unusual potential and sends them to college together in groups of ten on scholarship. They arrive with a community, so they no longer feel alone, and often work together to create positive stereotypes about their group instead of feeling trapped by negative ones. Posse has sent nearly 7,000 students to college with a graduation rate of 90 percent.
We also write about how companies can build resilience. At Facebook, since we are a young company, our management team takes an annual trip to an organization with “staying power.” Past examples include Pixar and the Marine Corps Base Quantico. At Quantico we learned that they formally debrief every mission and every training session and record the lessons learned in a repository for everyone to access. We made this a norm at Facebook, and it has helped us learn from our mistakes and make fewer mistakes… or at least different mistakes.
The bottom line is, we build resilience together in our companies, communities, friendships, and families.
Sally Haldorson: As the General Manager of our small company of business booksellers, I could (and will) pull any number of applicable lessons on failure and feedback from your chapter, “Failing—and Learning—at Work”, but the close of that chapter struck a particular chord with me. You write: “I was sure that many were suffering in silence as we often do at work. I decided to open up in the hope that it might help others with hardships in their lives.” You are emphatic that an organization (and its leaders) not only support employees while they are at work, but also in a way that enables them to survive tragedy or hardship in their personal lives because there is little separation between the work self and home self. You addressed this earlier in “Self-Compassion and Self-Confidence,” writing about what you’ve learned about difficulty since writing Lean In: “I didn’t get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home.” Some compartmentalization skills come in handy, but ultimately we carry our broken hearts with us to work. That said, many company leaders may judge this progressive approach (and your subsequent Facebook policies) to be way outside the norm. What do you say to critics who might question your philosophy as quantitatively inefficient and unproductive, or even… as a gendered emotional indulgence?
Sheryl Sandberg: I know how much of a difference it made for me for get support from Facebook. My boss Mark Zuckerberg literally planned Dave’s funeral. He told me I could come back to work whenever I was ready. Once I did, he understood completely when I stepped out of meetings to cry and comforted me when I struggled. I was dedicated to Facebook before, but I am even more deeply committed now.
Adam’s research shows how important this kind of support can be. He spent several years studying employee support programs, which some companies run to help people with life-changing events from loss to illness and medical expenses to recovering from natural disasters. Adam and his colleagues found that these programs strengthen our attachments to our companies. We feel gratitude that support exists and proud to work for a company with a heart. That’s definitely been my experience.
When a child dies, on average, parents get three days off. This is unacceptable. How can we expect people to care about their work if we don’t care about what matters most in their lives?
Supporting employees when their lives are shattered isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do.
Sally Haldorson: Sheryl spends a chapter emphasizing the role friends and other supporters played (or did not play) as a lifeline when her world went dark. Your advice served as a series of signposts to guide her towards a life lightened by hope. As I read, I reflected on the instances when I failed to support a grieving friend, or when I felt alone in my grief. I also pondered how being an introvert can potentially alter someone's response to giving or getting sympathetic attention. I'm reminded of that saying, "No one on their deathbed ever said, I wish I'd worked more," and I imagine the same principle applies loosely here, "No one on their deathbed ever said, I wish I'd given my friends less when they needed me most." Still it’s a common challenge: What and how much to say, and when to say it? You were able to find just the right way to give advice to Sheryl in a manner she could process. Is it possible for people close to someone who is going through personal tragedy to know just how much to give, or should we take comfort in knowing the act of giving is enough in itself?
Adam Grant: I don’t think we can ever know exactly what other people need. So many times in my life, I haven’t known what to say or do when people close to me are suffering (which is an especially uncomfortable feeling as a psychologist). Through working with Sheryl on this book, I’ve learned that the best place to start is by acknowledging their pain. Then do something. Act, don’t just speak. The mistake I’ve frequently made is saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” That puts them burden on the person in pain both to know what they need and to ask for it, which is hard. It’s usually more helpful to act and see how they respond. Whether it’s sending a thoughtful note or dropping off a fresh meal or helping to fold a load of laundry, friendship can be as much about what we do as what we say.
Sally Haldorson: “Option B still gives us options.” Sheryl writes these words in the final chapter, “To Love and Laugh Again,” reassuring readers that being stripped of our ideal life plan by tragedy doesn’t mean we are left with a life devoid of choice. But the subtitle of Option B reveals a key aspect of the advice found throughout the book: “facing,” “building,” and “finding” are all action words, and throughout her story there is a strong sense of agency, not dissimilar to the message conveyed in Lean In. Whether faced with tragedy, or with systemic discrimination, the book calls on people to be proactive, in whatever form—large, bold reclamations of a seat at the table, or small, supportive efforts like calling a friend for help. Still, when life hits you square in the solar plexus (or in the case of sexism, knocks you back with a lifetime of quick jabs) is when you feel your least powerful. Sheryl openly admits that the needs of her children compelled her to more quickly gather the pieces of her life back together, but still she needed help in even visualizing an Option B. How do Seligman’s 3 Ps—personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence—help prevent a grieving person from surrendering to their circumstances and to find the will to act with intention?
Adam Grant: So often, we become resilient for others. When others are depending on us, we find strength we didn’t know we had. For Sheryl, it was knowing how much her children needed her. After Dave’s funeral, most of her questions were about her kids, not herself. She asked me whether there was any hope for her children to be happy. Sheryl needed resilience because of love—she lost the love of her life. And she became resilient because of love—as a mother, she was determined to do everything in her power to help her children.
It can be much harder to help ourselves. We spend so much energy ruminating about the past that we can’t see the future. We overlook the fact that, although we can’t change our circumstances, we can change our actions. Indeed, that might be all we can do.
That often means changing our thoughts. Psychologist Marty Seligman found that many of us fall into the trap of seeing negative events as personal (“it’s my fault”), pervasive (“this is going to affect every area of my life”), and permanent (“I’m going to feel this way forever”). They’re e called the three Ps, and they rob us of hope that things will ever get better.
Fighting personalization starts with recognizing that not everything that happens to us is because of us. Five years ago, my friend Jeff Zaslow was killed in a car crash. For weeks my mind was stuck on an endless loop, replaying how the tiniest of decisions might have changed his fate. The last time I spoke to him was three months earlier by phone. If I had called a minute earlier or stayed on the phone a second longer, could he have ended up on the road at a different time? My wife Allison helped me see that I wasn’t responsible for what happened; tragedy was.
Breaking out of pervasiveness and permanence often means paying closer attention to our experiences. Thirty days after losing Dave, Sheryl wrote in a Facebook post that she would never feel pure joy again. We talked about how words like “never” and “always” are signs of permanence, and replacing them with “sometimes” and “lately” can shift perspectives. Then she made a New Year’s resolution to write three moments of joy every night before bed. As she found them, she saw that some of her actions in different parts of her life were bringing joy—playing the board game Settlers of Catan with her kids, watching Game of Thrones. Discovering that you do have some control becomes a reason to take more action.
Sally Haldorson: In the Introduction to Option B, Sheryl writes: “I thought resilience was the capacity to endure pain, so I asked Adam how I could figure out how much I had. He explained that our amount of resilience isn’t fixed, so I should be asking instead how I could become resilient.” Most people have some level of anticipatory anxiety with regard to inevitable tragedy. After struggling through the trauma of my son’s early childhood with was rife with periodic health emergencies, I went through a period of experiencing debilitating fear that I would not be strong enough to survive “the next shoe to drop,” that I’d never withstand more bad news. But when my husband was diagnosed with leukemia, I was surprised to find a ready reserve of strength to draw from which helped me—really, our whole family—stay positive during the long months (now years) of his treatment and recovery. For me, the idea of developing resilience, or maybe, resilience as practice, is essential to the message of Option B, but if you could point us toward one other key takeaway from the book that might assuage our fear and anxiety, what would you choose?
Sheryl Sandberg: For us, one of the biggest takeaways is that we can do more than bounce back; we can also bounce forward. We were surprised by how many people came out of tragedy with greater personal strength and having a deeper sense of gratitude and meaning in life. It’s called post-traumatic growth, and while it doesn’t replace sadness, it goes hand-in-hand with it.
My son was in his school’s basketball playoffs a few weeks ago. When his team lost, his friends were upset. He said “Mom, this is sixth grade basketball. I’m good.” That’s personal strength: knowing that once you’ve survived real adversity, you can survive a lot.
Personally, I feel more grateful for life. When my cousin Laura turned 50 recently, I called her and said to celebrate. No one likes the idea of growing old, but I am painfully aware of the fact that you either grow old or you don’t. Dave never got to celebrate his 50th birthday so I was truly grateful that Laura did.
I also feel more purpose in life than I ever did before. For me, Option B is the chance to honor the life Dave led. He spent so much of his time helping others, and I believe he would want some good to come from his death. I hope this work becomes part of his legacy.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer at Facebook, overseeing the firm’s business operations. Prior to Facebook, Sheryl was vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, chief of staff for the United States Treasury Department under President Clinton, a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, and an economist with the World Bank.
Sheryl received a BA summa cum laude from Harvard University and an MBA with highest distinction from Harvard Business School.
She is also the author of the bestsellers Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and Lean In for Graduates. She is the founder of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to build a more equal and resilient world through two key initiatives, LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org (launching April 2017). Sheryl serves on the boards of Facebook, the Walt Disney Company, Women for Women International, ONE, and SurveyMonkey.
As Wharton’s top-rated professor for five straight years, Adam is a leading expert on how we can find motivation and meaning, and live more generous and creative lives. He has been recognized as one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers and received distinguished scholarly achievement awards from the American Psychological Association and the National Science Foundation.
Adam received his B.A. from Harvard University with Phi Beta Kappa honors and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He serves as a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times on work and psychology. His keynote speaking and consulting clients include Facebook and Google, the NBA, Teach For America, and the U.S. Army and Navy.
Adam is a former Junior Olympic springboard diver. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their two daughters, and their son.