Through her life and writing, Sheryl Sandberg is becoming our leading authority on the subject of agency. In her first book, Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, urged women to seize control of their professional lives. Her new book about surviving catastrophe--written with Wharton professor Adam Grant--acknowledges that, in the broader cosmic equation, human beings control very little. Woman plans. God laughs.
Surely Sandberg never planned a sophomore effort like Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. The book appears two years after her husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly while the couple was vacationing in Mexico. Sandberg, Goldberg, and their two children loved one another in the way that young families bound by trust often do; and the survivors felt Goldberg's death profoundly. The book's general principles of loss and recovery emerge from the raw specifics of that tragedy.
Grant, author of popular books on the intersection of creativity and generosity with business, is Sandberg's friend and sometime writing partner. (You can read Inc.'s interview with him here.) He flew out for Goldberg's funeral and--ever the endearing empiricist--comforted her with data. Grant described research attesting to children's resilience when they lose a parent and cited statistics on the preponderance of people who emerge from "acute grief" within six months after a spouse dies. Sandberg took some solace from others' personal tales of bereavement. But the rigor of research stretched like a bright lifeline out of her colorless fog of mourning.
Grant explained to Sandberg that resilience, defined as "the strength and speed of our response to adversity," is not a fixed personality trait but rather something that can be developed over time. (Adversity here applies not just to death but also to any devastating circumstance: for example, divorce, illness, or job loss.) The two set out to uncover best practices for strengthening the resilience muscle that Sandberg could apply to her own recovery. The goal was "post-traumatic growth." Not just coming back. Coming back stronger.
For Sandberg, not surprisingly, the book itself was part of that process. "After undergoing hardship, people have new knowledge to offer those who go through similar experiences," she writes. (Grant is an equal collaborator, but the book is in Sandberg's voice.) "It is a unique source of meaning because it does not just give our lives purpose--it gives our suffering purpose."
How to feel better.
Sandberg's story--interspersed with other tales of lives wrecked and salvaged--is the book's emotional core. But Option B falls more broadly under the baggy category of self-help. For those on the dark road there is plenty of good, evidence-based advice. For example, don't strain for positive thoughts: rather, imagine how much worse things could be. Practice journaling, which apparently can improve everything from grades to liver function. Make daily lists of small accomplishments. (In earlier experiments, Grant and a colleague "found that counting our blessings doesn't boost our confidence or our effort, but counting our contributions can.") Be more open with others. "Fine" is not an adequate response to "How are you?"
Sometimes, the data itself is devastating. More than 1.8 million children in America have lost a parent, the book reports. In a survey of such children, "when asked whether they would trade a year of their lives for just one more day with their late mother or father, more than half said yes."
Option B is unlikely to attract the brickbats aimed at Lean In: Women Work, and the Will to Lead, written in what must seem to Sandberg like another lifetime. Although many praised that book's clear-eyed indictment of the obstacles facing women in the workplace, others criticized its privileged perspective: recommending choices out of reach for women lacking Sandberg's education, financial means, and social status. Clearly chastened, Sandberg in Option B acknowledges repeatedly the multiplier effect of poverty, inequality, and isolation on loss. "The sad truth is that adversity is not evenly distributed among us," she writes. "Marginalized and disenfranchised groups have more to battle and more to grieve." She calls for policy fixes like wage parity and high-quality preschool.
Sandberg also expresses a new affinity and appreciation for the single mothers whom Lean In largely overlooked. Granted, she has far more resources than most. But the Sandberg-Goldberg team was singularly collaborative, to the extent that Sandberg still feels uncomfortable making unilateral decisions about her daughters' sleepovers and TV viewing. Ironically, the strength of their partnership may have left her weaker after its loss than women who struggle their whole lives to raise children alone.
While Sandberg remains a leader and mentor--a woman who lifts people up--in her mind she has become a burden to everyone around her. Once she taught others to lean in. Now she must teach herself to lean on. It is the hardest lesson to learn.
On work and hurt.
Option B is not about business. But given Sandberg's and Grant's backgrounds, the world of work is never far off. Sandberg talks of moving "like a ghost" around the Facebook campus, surrounded by people who knew but also did not know: how to act, how to feel, what to say. (There is a great deal about the social dimensions of grief that is useful for anyone anxious to alleviate another's pain.)
For a woman whose identity is so bound up with professional competence, Sandberg's newfound doubts about her performance must have been terrifying. Yet she is candid about her insecurity and instability. She is also sometimes quite funny, as when she juxtaposes business maxims and human truth. "I have long encouraged people to bring their whole selves to work," Sandberg writes, "but now my 'whole self' was just so freaking sad."
Sandberg draws on her experiences in the office to plead for universal policies like flexible time off and bereavement leave, which were already in place at Facebook. (In the aftermath of Goldberg's death the latter increased from 10 to 20 days.) Facebook here emerges as a model of compassion, and Mark Zuckerberg as the best of all possible bosses. If a leadership lesson lurks in the subtext of Option B, it may be that loyalty follows kindness, not charisma. Another is the reminder that, at the end of the day, human capital means human beings, who may be fragile, breaking, or broken.
Vulnerability has become a leadership buzzword. Option B is a book of radical vulnerability, in which a powerful executive describes herself facing hardship not with grim determination but with a quivering lip and tear-swollen eyes. The book may help sufferers heal. It may also help leaders lead.