There’s something comforting about Sheryl Sandberg’s voice on the phone. It’s calm, self-assured, and sweet.
Yet there are also tremors of vulnerability in the Facebook COO’s voice, hints of the grief and longing she has grappled with ever since the sudden death of her husband Dave Goldberg in May 2015.
“Living with this is a daily thing,” she says. “There are days I do better and days I do worse. There are days I keep the promises I make to myself to feel grateful, and there are days I don’t. In the better moments, even when I feel grief, I can remember that my kids are still alive. I can remember that Dave would have wanted them to be happy. I can remember how lucky I am to have friends and family. I would never say that those are all the moments, because they’re not.”
Sandberg and I are discussing her new book, part memoir and part operating manual for surviving the hardest moments in our lives. It lays bare some of Sandberg’s most painful experiences, the kind that were no doubt harrowing to relive.
I cried a lot reading Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. So much that I began marking the margins in ink with small tear drops so I could go back to the most moving passages. There were too many to track.
So perhaps I was inclined to hear humanity in Sandberg’s voice; others say they sense calculation and distance. Here’s my advice: Suspend your skepticism of Sandberg, if only to read Option B. It has essential wisdom on how to treat people who are grieving, on how to find resilience in your darkest moments.
Sandberg likes to talk about kicking “elephants” the things we all know but are too embarrassed to say out of the room. So let’s address the biggest one every review of Option B has to face: Why should you take advice on life’s worst experiences from a billionaire tech executive?
Sandberg doesn’t have the soulfulness of Oprah Winfrey, who uses her brand to nudge followers along the path of spiritual enlightenment. Nor is she from Momastery founder Glennon Doyle Melton’s school of being disarmingly honest.
Rightly or wrongly, people have come to expect that level of intimacy when a public figure brands their personal experiences, which is what may have lead to suspicion about Sandberg’s motives.
That wariness isn’t helped by the glaring blindspots on display in her first book, Lean In, a tome on workplace equality that didn’t truly grasp the nature of women’s challenges outside of corporate boardrooms.
Sandberg also happens to help lead the tech company responsible for transforming the way we communicate and get information. When Facebook is hit with complaints about viral fake news influencing elections, or live video gone horribly wrong, the Facebook groups founded by Sandberg, Lean In and now Option B, subtly defend the company. They’re offering a powerful counter-narrative about how the platform helps people make life-changing connections.
In short, Sandberg is a complicated public figure. You’d be right to have reservations about her writing and its ultimate purpose. But none of that skepticism changes what Sandberg and her co-author Adam Grant, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist, have done with Option B. They’ve taken her deeply personal story and pressed it into service. Her account is the book’s workhorse.
It’s the terrible fate that makes you curious enough to read thousands of words about the social science research that just might help you cope with tragedy.
This impulse of hers to share what she’s learned with the hope that it helps others seems to be innate, even irrepressible. It’s earnest and eager, qualities that aren’t cool these days, but ones that are necessary if alleviating suffering becomes part of your life’s mission.
As someone who studies trauma and resilience research closely, I know that people who experience tragedy often yearn to find greater purpose and meaning in what they’ve endured. Still, I was stunned by Sandberg’s willingness to dive headlong into sharing tender emotions and memories so soon after Goldberg’s death.
When I asked her why she took this on in the midst of learning the contours of her own anguish, parenting two young bereaved children, and helping to run Facebook, Sandberg recalled the terrifying confinement of grief.
“[I]t wasnt just this really overwhelming grief, but it was, you know, a real feeling of isolation,” she says. “The easy conversations I used to have with parents when I dropped off my kids at school … felt gone. And people kind of looked at me like I was a deer in headlights. So as much as I was trying to overcome grief, I was also feeling more and more and more alone.”
Thirty days after Goldberg’s death, she turned (of course) to Facebook with the equivalent of a primal scream. “You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe,” she wrote. “Or you can try to find meaning.”
Once she saw friends and strangers connecting in the comments and in real life to comfort her and each other, Sandberg realized she could be a conduit. Her suffering could amount to more than private moments of hell. The legacy of Goldberg’s life and death could become invaluable to people struggling with their own pain.
“Really I would give anything to go back and live one day with Dave Goldberg knowing what I know now,” she says. “But I cannot do that, I dont have that choice. If I can just give a little bit of that working with Adam [on the book], that has meaning for me, and I think when you face the abyss of grief, the void, the boot on your chest, you want something positive to come out of it.”
Really I would give anything to go back and live one day with Dave Goldberg knowing what I know now. But I dont have that choice.
So writing Option B became an urgent next step.
Sandberg borrowed the name from a good friend who, in the weeks after Goldberg’s death, lovingly told her: “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out Option B.”
By marrying anecdote and scientific research, the book provides a pathway for doing just that. Sandberg and Grant explain that resilience isn’t something we come by automatically when we face tragedy. It’s more like a muscle that needs strengthening and conditioning, and they point to practical and proven tools like journaling, gratitude lists, and cognitive behavioral therapy that help reframe how we respond to adversity.
Some may balk at the book’s invocation of positive psychology founder Martin Seligman, whose research on pessimism and optimism is sometimes criticized for focusing on your attitude toward hardship. After all, a positive mindset only goes so far when you’re subjected to chronic societal, institutional, or family trauma, such as police violence, incarceration, and emotional or physical abuse.
Sandberg seems to get that. She peppers the chapters with policy prescriptions that reflect how suffering can take a disproportionate toll because of gender, race, ethnicity, and income, among other factors.
The book is also filled with anecdotes and insights from people of diverse backgrounds who demonstrate the many ways we can respond to heartbreak with resilience.
It’s clear Sandberg has learned from criticism of Lean In, and understood the value of looking far and wide for relatable, realistic perspectives.
Option B covers a lot of ground. It moves from advice on how to talk to a grieving person to research on gratitude, self-compassion, and post-traumatic growth to insights about reclaiming joy in the shadow of loss, how to raise resilient children, what resilient communities look like, and why we need more emotionally honest workplaces.
That ambitious scope, however, may be the book’s greatest weakness. It can occasionally feel like a grab bag of observations, scientific findings, and heartfelt stories.
There is relatively little discussion of mental health conditions that you might experience after loss or trauma, like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. You won’t find much on talk therapy or courses of medication, strategies that are just as valid in helping to create resilience as writing a gratitude list or allowing yourself to feel small doses of joy, both coping skills that Sandberg recommends.
The book closes with an invitation for readers to join the Option B community in order to “connect with others who are coping with challenges like yours.” It should also include that website’s link to its roundup of organizations that support trauma survivors, in addition to the numbers for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and Crisis Text Line.
This book has the power to help heal, but in doing so, can bring you to the edge of your own fears. Sometimes, no matter how meaningfully meant, words on a page aren’t enough to help us take a step back from that terror.
Still, there is much to praise about Option B‘s emphasis on translating scientific research into advice people can explore and adopt. What’s doubly impressive about Sandberg’s decision to write it: she must have known it required opening herself up to feedback that far exceeds the usual literary criticism.
One writer, for example, lauded the book but argued that Sandberg tackled the problem of grief “almost as if it were a failing business to be turned around.” Expect to hear a lot more of that kind of commentary. It’s an easy criticism to make, and it devalues what Sandberg has accomplished.
We love when Silicon Valley and its ambassadors make our lives more convenient; we’d rather not see the seams of their handiwork. What we want instead, especially from women of Sandberg’s stature, is a never-ending well of authenticity.
When women become technical, wonky or dispassionate, (ahem, Hillary Clinton), we seem to have less use for them. Suddenly they are suspect. But consider how we were willing to forgive Steve Jobs, who was so famously unfeeling that he invariably parked his car in Apple’s disabled spots, and then elevate him as a cultural icon and genius.
When I ask Sandberg about skepticism of her efforts, she deflects for a bit. She talks about the success of the Lean In movement and the tough lessons she learned from that book, then lands on the anecdote she wants to share.
A friend’s child who is quite sick has recently spent a lot of time on Option B reading people’s stories and realizing he doesn’t have to feel isolated.
If that child,” she says, “… if he felt less alone because weve helped build something that helped connect him to people not everyone has to love it, but I would make that decision every day.
That’s good enough for me. I hope it’s good enough for you too.