When Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died in 2015, it was a tragic turn of events for a woman who operated at the highest levels of business and society. The Facebook chief operating officer and author of the mega-bestseller Lean In was an exemplar of success, the head of a global movement to promote women in the workplace. Then her husband, Dave Goldberg, collapsed while on vacation in Mexico, leaving Sandberg to fly home without him and tell the couple’s two young children they’d lost their father.
Sandberg has taken the hard lessons of the last two years and put them into another touchstone book: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, co-written with Wharton management and psychology professor Adam Grant. It’s a primer on emerging from tragedy with better tools and capacity for dealing with life. It’s also one of the most-sold and most-read nonfiction books on Amazon.
Sandberg has been more public recently, writing an op-ed piece in The New York Times about raising resilient kids and giving the commencement address at Virginia Tech. She also stopped by the Amazon offices in Seattle to talk with a standing-room-only crowd about how to grow from adversity.
Here are five takeaways from Sandberg’s comments.
1. Write through the pain.
In the days following her husband’s death, Sandberg wrote more than 100,000 words in her journal, saying in Option B: “I felt like I couldn’t breathe until I wrote everything down.” These days, at Grant’s suggestion, she has an evening practice of writing three things she did well during the day. “Now I go to bed thinking about what was good.” Still, Grant cautioned, sitting next to Sandberg during the Seattle visit, writing through the pain isn’t an easy path. “People who write about a traumatic event get more depressed at first,” he said, “but end up happier and healthier in the long term.”
2. Lean in to empathy — especially for yourself.
“When tragedy happens, we tend to blame ourselves, whether it’s our fault or not,” said Sandberg to the Amazon crowd. “And whether it’s our fault or not we have to have compassion.” After feeling burdensome to friends and starting too many conversations with apologies, Sandberg realized, “I need to treat myself with the same kindness as I would a friend.” That meant letting others help, taking enough time to heal and realizing that whatever emotion carried her from moment to moment was OK.
3. Make room for laughter.
Sometimes the emotion of the moment is happiness. Let it happen, said Sandberg. “Humor is a really effective tool. It takes a minute of control away from the death.” Sandberg recounted a story of attending a bat mitzvah in the months after losing Goldberg, and finding herself twirling to the music on the dance floor, only to burst into tears seconds later. She had to acknowledge joy and humor were allowed, even in the midst of grief. Before her husband died, “I never understood why there are so many jokes at a funeral,” she said. “Now I do.”
4. Ask your kids for advice.
When problems involve kids, we tend to want to soothe them and fix everything for them. Instead, Sandberg said, we should ask for their advice. Sandberg actively asked her children for their help in guiding their collective recovery. “We have to show kids they matter,” Grant added, suggesting this isn’t a practice that starts after a traumatic event, but before. Grant recounted going to Sandberg’s house for dinner when her children were younger. “Their then-5-year-old daughter asked me how my day was and their 7-year-old son quoted from my book," Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. These were clearly children used to being actively engaged by adults, shown that they matter. That shouldn’t begin — or end — when things get difficult.
5. Imagine the worst.
This one is counterintuitive. We all know we shouldn’t dwell on negativity, but “it’s actually psychologically healthy to think about what could be worse,” said Sandberg, who is 47. For instance, she recalled Grant telling her in the early days of grief, “Dave could’ve had that cardiac arrhythmia [that killed him] while driving your children.” Instantly, the worst-case scenario reframed everything. “OK, I’m good,” she said afterward. In essence, imagining the worst is just another way to embrace gratitude. It trains us to think about what we do have and what we could have lost, and it’s the training that’s critical. Sandberg said the question isn’t “How much resilience do I have?” It’s “How do I build it?” “Resilience is a muscle,” she said.
Alynda Wheat is a senior writer for Amazon. She has previously written for People, Entertainment Weekly and Fortune. This article was previously published in Prime Insider.
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