After her husband died suddenly, Sheryl Sandberg grieved, as anyone would. What she did next was a little more unusual, and very much in the Silicon Valley-esque spirit of problem-solving. As she grasped for answers, Facebook’s chief operating officer reached out to a business school professor.
Adam Grant, a Wharton School expert on organizational psychology, is a friend of Sandberg’s, but also someone she knew would have insight into her situation grounded in data. And in her moment of grief, Sandberg needed grounding.
“I was so worried my kids’ happiness would be destroyed in the moment we lost Dave,” Sandberg says of her husband, Dave Goldberg, who at the time of his death worked as the CEO of SurveyMonkey. “I asked Adam, ‘What do I do? Tell me. What. To. Do.’”
‘The research was so helpful because something else that happens with death is this sense of complete loss of control.’ Sheryl Sandberg
In helping Sandberg find answers, Grant wound up becoming the co-author of her new book, Option B, about facing adversity and building resilience. It’s equal parts memoir, scientific explainer, and inspirational anecdotes of others who have struggled in difficult situations. In an almost hacker-ish way, it seeks to transform a painful, tragic experience into something of use to people.
Grant told Sandberg about a longitudinal study of children who had lost a parent but nevertheless had happy childhoods and became well-adjusted adults. “The research was so helpful because something else that happens with death is this sense of complete loss of control,” Sandberg says. “I have no control over Dave’s death—it happened so suddenly. And even when death doesn’t happen so suddenly, you can’t stop it.”
The book opens with Sandberg’s horrifying experience of finding her husband on the gym floor while on vacation with friends in Mexico; he was pronounced dead soon after. It closes with “To Love and Laugh Again,” in which she discusses the painful and still very real double standards women face when trying to date again. In these personal accounts, Sandberg shows a vulnerability and openness she hasn’t necessarily in the past—even more so than the parts of of her story she shared on the platform of which she is the second most powerful executive. A Facebook post is concise in a way that can make the message end up feeling more managed. In Sandberg’s book, she gives us a little more—think Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking meets business case studies.
Many of the anecdotes of others struggling with adversity are compelling, but in some cases with an asterisk. The emphasis on “overcoming” has a tendency to shift the burden onto the individuals in a way that tacitly equates not overcoming with personal failure. I would have liked to have seen more stories of people genuinely grappling with societal forces that kept them marginalized and disenfranchised, stories of persistence in fighting those forces in the world every day, even when some battles are inevitably lost.
Sandberg does acknowledge the roles of discrimination, poverty, sexism, and racism as contributing to adversity. But they function in the book’s anecdotes more as plot points than systemic realities people must fight every day. This disconnect sometimes results in jarring contrast with the resources Sandberg has at her disposal in her own process of overcoming, such as when she and her kids watch a SpaceX launch as Elon Musk’s guests.
The trappings of privilege recede in the book when Sandberg talks about the raw experience of grief, though she still approaches it with characteristic pragmatism. At one point, she digs into how to talk with someone who’s recently faced tragedy. Much too often, she writes, people are uncomfortable bringing up the painful experience they know someone else is going through—not because they don’t care about that person, but because they think doing so might upset them. But Sandberg realized she hated it when others did this to her. Friends asking, “How are you?” weren’t acknowledging anything out of the ordinary had happened. “I pointed out that if people instead asked ‘How are you today?’ it showed they were aware I was struggling to get through each day.”
Despite that advice, I still found I had to gather some courage sitting across from Sandberg at the end of a conference table in Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, her hands folded in front of her in what felt to me like some other-worldly poise. But I finally asked her. “How are you today?”
“I live with more sadness than I did two years ago before Dave died,” Sandberg says, the anniversary of his death approaching on May 1. “But I’m also more grateful”—and her voice cracks. “I’m grateful I’m alive. I’m grateful I’m sitting here talking to you, and my kids and I lived another day. There’s more meaning, for sure.”
It’s a moving moment, but I can’t sustain it. I ask another easy question about why the book is called “Option B.” The answer, which I already know from reading the book, is Sandberg grieves to a friend that her husband could not attend their child’s school function. The friend tells her, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.” It’s now a saying on posters hanging all over Facebook.