Sheryl Sandberg has had a difficult two years. While she has been working as the chief operating officer at Facebook, which recently reported one of its strongest quarters ever, she was dealt a devastating blow.
In May 2014 her husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly.
He and Sandberg were on vacation in Mexico. Goldberg had gone to the gym and had a heart arrhythmia while he was on the treadmill. He fell, and by the time he arrived at the hospital, it was too late. He was gone.
Sandberg has had to figure out how to continue living her life, one she never would have chosen — option B. She’s had to figure out how to reconnect with colleagues and cope with the grief and anger that sometimes overwhelms her.
As part of her recovery she coauthored a book, “Option B,” with Adam Grant. In it, they offer researched-backed ways to handle tragedy, and Sandberg offers her own learnings.
We sat down with her to discuss her book, including:
- Why you should think twice before asking someone “How are you?”
- How she built a strong working relationship with Mark Zuckerberg and how he helped her.
- Why she decided to be so public about her family’s experience.
- Why extended bereavement, or “grief leave,” should be as important as maternity and paternity leave.
- The pep talk Silicon Valley investor Chamath Palihapitiya gave her to keep her career on track.
- Tips for building resilience, which Sandberg says you can strengthen like a muscle with practice.
You can listen to the lightly-edited interview below.
The following is a transcript of the lightly-edited interview.
Alyson Shontell: Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook, a company she scaled from basically no revenue to one that generates $US8 billion in a single quarter. She’s the best-selling author of “Lean In” as well as a new book, “Option B,” which details how she’s recovering after suffering the loss of her husband, Dave, who in May 2014 died suddenly. He was in his late 40s.
Thank you so much, Sheryl, for taking the time. It’s really a pleasure to speak with you.
Sheryl Sandberg: I’m so glad to be with you. Thank you for having me today.
Shontell: I wanted to open with a question that a lot of people tend to mess up when they’re speaking with someone who’s been through something terrible. How are you doing today?
Sandberg: Thank you for asking, and thank you for asking that way. Better.
Grief comes and goes; it ebbs and flows. I think one of the lessons of this for me is that there’s no one way to grieve. Everyone does it in their own way, in their own time, and we all process life and its challenges and its ups and downs as they come.
But, for me, acknowledging that people are going through hard things is one of the big lessons of a horrible experience. After my husband died, I found the standard American greeting of “How are you?” to be a really hard question to answer. You know?
“How are you?”
No one says that.
Adam Grant and I wrote this book, and Adam did the research on it. The response to the standard American greeting of “How are you?” is “I’m great.” And anything else is jarring.
When people are really suffering, and we know they’re suffering, that question can be a very difficult one. Inadvertently, I think without anyone meaning it, it communicates a lack of empathy.
“How are you?” “Well, I just had chemo this morning.”
“How are you?” “Well, my child’s about to die.”
It’s very hard for people to answer that question and not have the pain they’re going through acknowledged.
So “How are you today?” has this implicit … “I get it, you are going through something hard and you are living day to day.” And it’s a much kinder question.
Shontell: It’s a great thing to shine a light on. It’s certainly a mistake that I was making before.
Sandberg: Me too — me too. I want to be clear about that. I made this mistake many times.
Shontell: I was reading your book and I just kept thinking, “Oh, my God — this is so raw.” I don’t know how — or even why — you had the courage to write some of what you were able to write. You had your wedding vows in there, you had how you found your husband.
There’s a misconception about you — that you wanted to be a public figure. But the first version of your book “Lean In” actually didn’t have any of your personal career story in it, because you didn’t want to be out there. But you decided you had to be.
Sandberg: That’s actually right. I remember when I first got promoted at Google, they asked me if I wanted to be on the website and I said no, and the other women said no, and all the men said yes.
So they came back to me and the other woman and they said, “Well, all the women said no and all the men said yes, so now it looks like we only promoted men, so we’re putting you all on the website. We’re taking away that choice.”
But it’s true, and when I first wrote “Lean In,” I wrote the first third of the book to hand in, and I thought it was fantastic. It had four pages on the Masai matrilineal tribe that showed the research on how matrilineal tribes, the characteristics we normally associate with men, are associated with women. Again, I thought it was fantastic. It had five pages on a study of college kids playing video games.
My editors and Dave told me, “This is a terrible book that no one will read because you’re not putting yourself in it.” So I did put myself in it. Then when Dave died, if I could have unwritten “Lean In” I would have done it. Because writing “Lean In” is what made his death more public, because we had shared more of ourselves, and that was not some place I wanted to be.
Then that early grief was so devastating, and it wasn’t just that I felt so much grief at the beginning — it was that it was so isolating. I used to drop my kids off at school and people would say “Hi” and I’d walk into work and everyone would chit chat and all of that essentially stopped. People just looked at me like a deer in the headlights because they didn’t know what to say, and they were afraid to say the wrong thing. Which I understood, because I had done this before, so they didn’t really say much at all.
I was coming to the 30-day period after the burial, which is the Jewish period of mourning for a spouse called “sheloshim,” and I felt worse and worse. So I wrote a post on what I would say if I was to be honest with everyone about how I felt. Then I went to bed the night before thinking, “There’s no way I’m posting this, this is too raw, and open and revealing.”
Then I woke up the next morning and I just felt so horrible. I thought, “This is not the end of mourning. I could not feel less like it’s the end of mourning.” I just said to myself, you know what, it’s not going to get worse, but it just might get better. And I hit “post.” That sharing was one of the better things I did, because it really changed the reaction of the people around me.
A friend of mine at work told me that she’d been driving by my house but never coming in. She started coming in and I needed her. Strangers started posting what they were going through to strangers. It didn’t take away the grief and it certainly didn’t bring Dave back, but it did make me feel less alone. I think that’s really the path that led me to eventually write this book.
The elephant in the room, and dealing with anger
Shontell: One thing you talk about is the elephant in the room, something that’s so surprising when you’re going through something like this — and you seem to have found this — is that some of the people who are the closest in your life, who you love the most and have the closest relationship with, just don’t say anything about what you’re going through. They don’t want to bring it up — they don’t want to upset you. And you seem to have found that as well.
Sandberg: Absolutely. I used to make this mistake before. I used to think that if someone was going through something hard, if I brought it up I was reminding them. You can’t “remind me” I lost Dave. You can’t remind someone that their child is sick. You can’t remind someone their dad went to jail or their mum is in trouble or they just lost their job. It’s not possible to remind anyone of that.
They know that, and so when people didn’t say anything, I just felt like there was this huge elephant following me everywhere. It’s not just death — again, it’s all of those examples I just shared. I think one of the lessons for me is that acknowledging pain is so powerful. Not sugar-coating it, not “I know you’re going to get through this” — because sometimes you’re not — but “I know you’re scared and I know this is hard, and we’re going to get through it together.” The power of acknowledgement and the power of we. Not, “You’re going to get through this.” “We’re going get through this.”
Shontell: How do you deal with the anger? That is a trait that people don’t realise might come up when you’re going through something like this, but anger is a common feeling when you’re going through grief.
Sandberg: Yeah, I had read about this. I had heard that when people lost people, there was anger. But I definitely experienced it a lot more than I was prepared for it. Anger was not something I’d ever really felt in my life and I was not prepared for it.
Someone would say the wrong thing and I would burst into tears. Someone would say the wrong thing or the right thing at the wrong time and I would be like, “That’s not helpful.” One of my closest friends, I did that to. I said, “That’s not helpful” and then I felt bad immediately and I said, “I’m so sorry.” She put her arms around me and she said, “I’m angry too. You can be as angry as you want with me,” she said, “I’m going nowhere. I’m angry too.”
Still, to this day, when I do have those ebbs and flows of grief and it comes back, there is anger to it and I’m angry that someone took Dave from me or the world took Dave from me.
My rabbi told me to “lean into the suck” — not what I meant when I said “lean in,” but very good advice, and it is. It’s leaning into the negative, leaning into the anger, leaning into the sadness and getting rid of what I think of as the second derivative. “OK, I’m angry, of course I’m angry, my husband died. I’m not going to be angry on angry.” Or, “OK, I’m sad, I don’t have to be sad.” Trying to get rid of at least the second derivative of it has been very helpful advice for me.
Returning to work
Shontell: Let’s talk about your recovery and returning to work, because your career has been such a big part of your life. How long was it before you were able to get back to the office?
Sandberg: The grief councilors I spoke to advised me to get my kids back to their normal routine and back to school as quickly as possible. So 10 days after Dave died they went back to school and I went back to work, in a pretty modified schedule. I was at work when they were at school, and I drove them and picked them up every day, so I left pretty early.
Let’s start with — I’m really lucky to have that flexibility, and most people don’t. Most people get very little, like three days or no paid time off for a bereavement, and I think that’s something we absolutely need to address.
Facebook had really good policies before, but we’ve extended them even further. I’ve had lots of conversations with other companies, I’m hopeful that other companies will also think about how long it really takes to just even deal with the logistics of a death. When I came back, yes, it was soon and it was hard, and it was soon and hard for my kids to go back to school. I think for us, being home was worse.
Definitely my kids said school was super hard and they took cry breaks, and they had moments where they couldn’t get through it. But it was definitely better to get out of the house, to see their friends, to have something else to focus on. For me too, getting out of the house, and even if I couldn’t fully focus in a meeting, if I had 10 minutes of focusing, that was 10 minutes I wasn’t thinking about Dave and that was a relief.
There’s a woman I talked to for the book, whose story is in there, who said that she went to work the day after her husband died and she just said she couldn’t be at home. She literally could not be in her home that she shared with him. She wasn’t working at Facebook at the time, but she felt incredibly judged by coworkers.
You would think you wouldn’t want to be there, but we just have to respect that they are some people who are going to want to come back right away, and some people are going to want to hide in their homes. Some people are going to want to not be in their home. We have to respect anyone’s process as they go through this.
Shontell: One thing that you mentioned there is, there are people who do want to come back to work and need the distraction, and then there are others who need the time to grieve. You just said that you helped extend Facebook’s bereavement policy. Do you think that companies should have a grief leave, the same way that they have maternity leave and paternity leave, that widespread?
Sandberg: Yes. That’s what we have [at Facebook]. We have bereavement leave and we’ve doubled it. We used to offer 10 days for immediate family and five days for extended family. So immediate family, a parent, a child, et cetera. Extended family, a grandparent. Now it’s 20 and 10No one’s thinking we recover in 20 days but 20 full days off is a good time to get yourself a little more ready to come back if people want to take it, and 10 days is a nice amount of time.
We also offer paid family medical leave that you can take really for any reason and unlimited sick leave. I also think we need to take into account the full range of needs people have. Maternity and paternity should be equal and long. We’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t have paid maternity leave. Paternity leave is just as important. Paid family medical leave so that you can take care of a parent, a child, a grandparent, whatever you need to do. I think we’re shortsighted when we don’t invest in our employees as companies, and as an economy, because we invest in them and they invest back in us.
I think we need far better corporate policies and I think we need far better public policy. I also think we need to take a hard look at what companies do for the family when someone dies. [Like] financial assistance for someone who is working here and they pass away. Their family is very expensive. I’ve gotten a lot of notes from people who said, “I read your book. My spouse died and I was cut off from everything in his or her company 24 hours later.” That’s just bad corporate policy. I think we have a responsibility, not just to the people who work for us, but to their families.
A friend in Mark Zuckerberg
Shontell: Well, one person that seems to have helped you quite a bit through this is Mark Zuckerberg. Some of the things you described doing with Mark as a companion, I can’t even imagine doing that with my boss ever. I guess you two are more of peers. He and his wife Priscilla took you to a beach after Dave died to help you take your mind off it. There would be times that you’d call him after work when you felt like you made a fool of yourself in a meeting, and he’d say, “Oh, no Sheryl. You would have done that before.” It sounds like he was really a good friend to you. I’m curious about how you got to that point in your relationship with Mark, and how he’s helped you here?
Sandberg: Mark is just a remarkable person and a remarkable human being. Priscilla is just the most warm, loving, lovely person. Together they’re an incredible couple. I think Mark and I, from the beginning, we knew we’d have to work together very closely. We set out to have a very close working relationship.
It became a friendship very quickly, even before I took the job. Mark and Priscilla and Dave,and I went out for dinner. I was thinking about taking the job, and Mark was so well-known, so we went to a restaurant where no one would notice us or see us. The four of us spent time together and we became friends early. I’m lucky for that, that we had both the personal friendship as well as the deep professional relationship.
A lot of what Mark did as a friend was super important. A lot of work Mark did in the office, I hope everyone can have personal friendships, but even if you don’t have the depth of friendship we had, building someone back up, telling them they made a good point in a meeting, telling someone with cancer, “I still believe in you and think you can contribute here,” — anyone can do that just as a boss or just as a colleague. I think people have a lot to learn from the example Mark set. To be honest, I don’t know how he knew this. I didn’t know this. He did a bunch of stuff that I certainly never thought to do for people I worked with who were grieving. It’s a pretty incredible story.
Getting ‘back on the motherf—ing path’
Shontell: One question I also had for you was, have your career ambitions changed at all? Does work still have the same importance and meaning in your life now that your whole life has been turned upside down?
Sandberg: It does. This is part of the story I told [in my book] about Chamath [Palihapitiya], who was an early employee no longer at Facebook, saying, “You need to be ambitious still.” Definitely at the beginning I thought if I could get through the day, that was about all I could do. I definitely wanted to keep my job. I knew I wanted to still work. Anytime I pictured myself at home alone without Dave that was a bad, bad thought. That really mattered.
A lot of people feel that way both for financial reasons and for fulfillment reasons, that they want to be able to hang on to the other parts of their lives. When one thing falls apart you don’t want everything to fall apart.
For me, my job really is more meaningful. My friends told me when people passed away that Facebook became more important to them, but experiencing it myself was a totally different thing. What we do here really matters to me and I think matters even more.
Shontell: The Chamath story that you’re referencing … Chamath was an early Facebook employee and he’s now gone on to be a very successful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. He came over to your house and said he was going to take you for a walk. Then he said, “Get back on the mother-f—–g path.” What did that do for you? Where were you before and what is that ambitious path he is talking about for you?
Sandberg: I think everything I was saying is, “I’m going to live through the day. I’m going to get my kids to bed tonight. I’m going to make it home from work in one piece.” What he said was, “Well, what are the big things you’re working on at Facebook and what are your big goals and dreams?”
I just looked at him like, “Big goals and dreams? Get through it?”
He said, “No, no. You still should have dreams.” He said, “Dave would want that. Dave would not want your dreams to die with him.” It was permission that I could still have other parts of my life and still dream big for my company, for my kids, for myself.
Shontell: We have a lot of millennial readers, so what were the steps you made in your 20s to make yourself able to succeed so much by your 30s?
Sandberg: I think it really was about getting on a rocket ship, being willing to take risks and do something that I hadn’t done before like work in technology, and finding the ways to start believing in myself. One thing that’s worth thinking about if you’re in your 20s and you’re a woman particularly, but we have men too, are “Lean In” circles. There are 33,000 all over the world. We grow by almost 100 a week. We hear over and over again how much they work because they give women an explicit place to be ambitious and to support each other. None of us get through anything alone.
I’m a big believer that we have to commit to things and make them a regular habit in order to make them work. An explicit place, particularly for women, to dream big is really important.
Resilience is like a muscle that you can strengthen with practice
Shontell: You talk a lot about resilience, and resilience being a muscle that you can build up. What are the best tips or advice that you have, as someone who’s had to build this muscle over the past two years? How do you do that?
Sandberg: Two things that I think matter are gratitude and joy.
Gratitude — it’s ironic but going through the worst thing of my life, this huge tragedy, made me more grateful. It never occurred to me Dave wouldn’t hit age 48, or wouldn’t live to be 50, as he would have turned this year. I will never make another joke about growing old again, ever. No one else should either. Because we either grow old or we don’t.
Every day, every week, every month, every year is a gift. That doesn’t mean we can remember it all the time, but when things are hard, remembering how lucky we are to be just alive brings a lot of meaning into our lives.
Joy. Adam [Grant] suggested that I write down three moments of joy every day. At first, they were really small. “I had coffee; it tasted good. My son gave me a hug without being asked.” Maybe hinted but not asked, right?
By paying attention to those moments of joy, I write them down before I go to bed, they became much more meaningful to me, and I notice them throughout the day. I realise that before Dave died, I went to bed every night worried about what was wrong and what I was going to mess up on the next day. I don’t think I was living to its fullest. I don’t think I was grateful for that day or looking for the joy.
Now, I’m trying. I can’t say I do it every day, but I am trying to be grateful for each day and look for joy.
Shontell: Thank you so much, Sheryl, for sharing all this with us. The world is rooting for you.
Sandberg: Thank you.
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