Why Everyone's Talking About Sheryl Sandberg's Powerful Commencement Speech

Did plan A just fall through? You need to hear Sandberg's awesome pep talk.
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Did plan A just fall through? You need to hear Sandberg's awesome pep talk.

As the class of 2016 graduated across the nation last weekend, they were ushered into the world of unsupervised adulthood by graduation speakers who ranged from poets to pundits to politicians. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, author of Lean In, mother, and widow, delivered a powerful speech at the UC Berkeley graduation. She spoke about grief and resilience in the wake of the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, a little over a year ago.

The speech isn’t a memoriam to Goldberg, though Sandberg was open about his devout support of her. CBS reports, “Her husband, she said, pushed her to negotiate with Mark Zuckerberg for higher pay; took on the lion's share of childcare responsibilities when their first child was born; changed jobs in order to better meet the family's needs; constantly helped Sandberg with her "guilt management" for missing time with her children for work; and, in general, was deeply comfortable with the fact that his wife had a higher profile than he did. ” 

But at the podium, clad in a navy and gold graduation gown, instead, Sheryl spoke about what happened when Dave’s sudden death left her facing a life without him—or as she refers to it, a “Plan B” lightyears removed from the life she formerly envisioned.

The truth Sandberg strikes is that we all, at one point or another, face the upheaval that follows a heart-stopping tragedy or unexpected hardship. A sudden trauma, a detrimental end to a relationship, an acute illness, the too-early death of a friend, senseless violence, a struggle with mental illness—these are the moments of suffering that shatter our visions. These moments can leave us free-falling, unmoored.

What happens in those moments? The tremendous and terrifying thing is that, it’s up to us. As Sheryl learned, “when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”

"The easy days ahead of you will be easy," she warned. "It’s the hard days — the days that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are."

Sandberg went on to share with the embarking graduates Martin Seligman’s three "P’s"—personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. These would be what help them hone their emotional immune systems over time. Personalization refers to a tendency to take failures personally. Sheryl experienced survivor's guilt, illogically wracking her brain for what she could have done to prevent her husband’s arrhythmia. 

Sandberg's reflections ring true to me. After experiencing trauma in my own life, I took things so personally my subconscious put on an impressive nightly production, reenacting the event with a dozen different routes to failure. I couldn’t heal until I stopped claiming personal responsibility for forces that were well outside my control.  

The second "P," pervasiveness refers to the trap of believing that the moment of impact affects your entire life. In the wake of tragedy, Sheryl gradually made space for good things in her life: a loving family, good friends, healthy children. Gratitude is the kryptonite that keeps sorrow from coloring your whole life. 

Pervasiveness means that forgetting your child’s lunch doesn’t affect who you are as a parent. Or, to borrow again from Sheryl’s speech, flubbing a spreadsheet on your first day at a new job doesn’t dictate your entire career trajectory.

Permanence, the last thought trap, is the overwhelming feeling that the sadness and grief will last forever. There are “reservoirs of sadness” that never really leave, but there are also moments of lightness after a trauma. Permanence means stopping the vicious cycle of negativity. Sandberg says, we “project our current feelings out indefinitely—and experience what I think of as the second derivative of those feelings. We feel anxious—and then we feel anxious that we’re anxious.” Take a step back, and recognize that the painful, negative emotions do not last forever.

All together, fighting the three "P’s" buoys us in the face of minor disappointments and major tragedies, alike. 

After a particularly tough year of unexpected challenges, I remember sitting at a New Year’s party afraid of the new year—what it might bring, what I might lose, whom I might become. That’s the thing about the moments that turn our world upside-down, you discover yourself. 

"You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience," she said. "Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the best version of yourself."

I think that might be optimistic. (Though, surely graduation is the right occasion for optimism!) It’s possible to become the best version of yourself, but sometimes grief and trauma can expose unrecognizable facets of ourselves. Suffering changes people; we don’t simply rebound to the people we were before. We can't.

My response to trauma deepened my friendships, gave me a greater appreciation for my family, and challenged my faith in ways I never could have anticipated. Life isn’t lived according to Plan A, and maybe by the end we all wind up on Plan Q, or T, or Z. We “lean in” to grief and disappointment, and find that we’re not the people we thought we were. So we cherish the light moments, and as Sandberg put it deftly, “kick the shit out of option B.” 

Image: Facebook