What carried Sheryl Sandberg's commencement address at University of California - Berkeley Saturday was less the requisite advice for graduates and more the grief the Facebook COO has carried since losing her husband a little over a year ago.
"I'm not going to tell you today what I learned in life. Today, I'm going to try to tell you what I learned in death," Sandberg told a crowd of thousands of students graduating from the school. "I've not spoken publicly about this before and it's hard, but I promise not to blow my nose on this beautiful Berkeley rose."
Sandberg's husband, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Goldberg, died of a heart condition when he was just 47 last May 1, while the couple were vacationing in Mexico. Sandberg, who is now raising the couple's two children as a single parent, told the crowd that what matters in the face of tragedy or adversity is how you survive.
"I learned that in the face of the void, or in the face of any challenge, you can choose joy," she said.
She spoke candidly about her grief - about how she blamed herself for her husband's death; about sitting a bathroom floor 11 days before the anniversary of her husband's death, talking with a friend through tears about how she and her husband had no idea he would have only 11 days to live; about the psychologist friend who mentioned to her that it could have been worse.
"This was completely counterintuitive to me. I would have thought that getting through something like death was about finding every positive thought I could," she said. "'Worse?' I said to him. 'Are you crazy?'
"He looked at me, he said, 'Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia driving your children.' The minute he said it, I felt overwhelming gratitude that my children were alive."
Loss of a partner has "severe financial consequences" for most people - especially for women, she noted. She added that many don't get the time off work they need to care for their families as sole heads of households. She commented she was fortunate to have the security she needed.
She distilled her story into advice she described as following "the three Ps": You can't personalize failures or tragedies, she said, meaning that you can't take them as reflections on your core character: "Studies show that getting past personalization can make us stronger." You can't let tragedies or failures pervade every part of your life, and you have to recognize that they aren't permanent. The deepest grief doesn't last forever, unabated.
Highly quotable (and tweetable) nuggets of advice punctuated the speech, sometimes adding poignancy, other times seeming forced. "When you see things that are broken - and you will see things that are broken - go fix them," she said, referring to broken things that may include a boardroom that is insufficiently diverse.
When she told graduates to think about living as though they had only 11 days to live, she was careful to qualify that by saying she did not mean they should party all the time. She made a joke that, of course, on the night of graduation, you are basically expected to be partying at a local bar.
Her overall message, though, was notably darker than what's typically said in a commencement speech, and Sandberg's pain was clear throughout. "I have a huge reservoir of sadness," she admitted. "I never knew I could cry so often or so much."
"My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude, not just on the easy days like today, but on the hard days, when you will need it."