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The Best Bits of Sheryl Sandberg's Commencement Speech

The author of Lean In is inspiring us again, this time on how to deal with loss, disappointment, and man-buns.

On May 14, 2016, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spoke for the first time about the death of her husband Dave—and added her name to the list of commencement addresses likely to be turned into gift books.

Sheryl had plenty of advice for the students of UC Berkeley, which she celebrated for its progressive history. "In the 1960s, you led the Free Speech Movement. Back in those days, people used to say that with all the long hair, how do we even tell the boys from the girls? We now know the answer: manbuns."

Her speech is peppered with jokes like this, but what most strikes me is the frankness and intimacy with which she talks about her own grief. "Today I will try to tell you what I learned in death," she tells the crowd. "I have never spoken publicly about this before. It’s hard."

A bit over a year after her husband's death, Sheryl acknowledges that pain changes us. "But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again."

It's a lesson for love; it's a lesson for work; it's a lesson for life, really.

"There’s loss of opportunity: the job that doesn’t work out, the illness or accident that changes everything in an instant. There’s loss of dignity: the sharp sting of prejudice when it happens. There’s loss of love: the broken relationships that can’t be fixed. And sometimes there’s loss of life itself. The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will…You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive."

She remembers breaking down soon after Dave's death, when she changed plans with their son Phil to adjust for Dave's absence. “Option A is not available," he told her. "So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”

The reality is, Option B never feels good. No matter how many silver linings, or doors opening, or fish in the sea there are, the point is they're not what you wanted. What you wanted is gone. But Sheryl says it's what we do then that determines the course of our careers, and our lives.

She shares psychologist Martin Seligman's "three Ps"—which I've written down because by the end of the speech I decide they're basically a magic recipe. Forget the seven stages of grief; identifying (and then putting aside) these things sounds like a way to overcome nearly anything.

Personalization: "Not everything that happens to us happens because of us." You're not a bad person for missing that promotion, or missing that job. He didn't cheat on you because you weren't good enough. Your child isn't sick because you're a bad parent. "Not taking failures personally allows us to recover," says Sheryl, "and even to thrive."

Pervasiveness: when something goes wrong, everything seems kind of ruined. It's easy to lose perspective and drop the ball on other things. Sheryl says gratitude is the key to resilience—remembering the other things around you, and "how precious every day actually is."

Permanence: because sometimes it feels like a loss or a failure will never go away. "It felt like the crushing grief would always be there," Sheryl says. She talks about the "second derivative" of her feelings: anxiety about her anxiety, grief that she was feeling so much grief. "We should accept our feelings—but recognize that they will not last forever."

And it's okay to ask for help. "We find our humanity—our will to live and our ability to love—in our connections to one another," Sheryl says. Part of building a life that can withstand the storms is making real time for the people who matter to us. "Not just in a message with a heart emoji."

"You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience," Sheryl says. She says we build it like a muscle—in ourselves, our organizations, and our communities—to draw on in times of strife. "Just as our bodies have a physiological immune system, our brains have a psychological immune system."

It helps us turn Option B into something worthwhile. "In that process you will figure out who you really are."