Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the bestselling book Lean In, was vacationing with her seemingly healthy 47-year-old husband Dave Goldberg when her life changed in an instant. While at the gym by himself, Dave died suddenly from an arrhythmia caused by an undiagnosed coronary artery disease.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy is Sandberg’s story of the aftermath of that horrifying day. If it were just a memoir, it would be moving and insightful and well worth the read. But it is more than that.
Option B is written in Sandberg’s voice, but it is co-authored with Adam Grant, a Wharton professor and organizational psychologist. Grant brings his knowledge of the vast expanses of psychological research relevant to topics such as resilience, recovery, grief, trauma, and thriving, as well as an impressive ability to make that research clear and relatable. Both authors are interested in challenges beyond the death of a loved one.
Drawing from other people’s stories, Sandberg and Grant also discuss the psychology of job loss, serious illness, sexual assault, natural disasters, war, and other potentially traumatizing events that rob people of their Plan A for life, forcing them to reckon with Option B.
The book, then, is also a work of social science and a self-help book of the highest order. Drawing from psychological research as well as the school of hard knocks, Sandberg and Grant offer sage advice that is at once hopeful but not saccharine, realistic but not grim.
As Sandberg describes what worked for her to get through her own hardships, she is always cognizant of the important ways in which we all differ. She recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for facing adversity, building resilience, or finding joy. Importantly, she is also aware of her good fortune in having tremendous financial and interpersonal resources that so many others lack.
The chapters are organized around psychological themes, such as self-compassion, self-confidence, post-traumatic growth, raising resilient kids, and finding strength in community and at work.
In the chapter titled “Kicking the Elephant Out of the Room,” Sandberg shares how the death of her husband was often the elephant in the room that friends would ignore. Other people simply said exactly the wrong things. But when Sandberg thought back to how she had reacted to the traumas that other people had faced before she’d lost her husband, she realized she had made many of the same mistakes. She now understands why people often botch their interactions with those in pain, and offers some of the best suggestions in the book about how to do better.
In a chapter on friendship, the authors introduce the “Platinum Rule,” which is even better than the Golden Rule; at the platinum level, rather than treating others as you would want to be treated, you treat others as they want to be treated.
Woven throughout Option B is the story of telling two children that their father died, and then helping them navigate the life that follows. Sandberg and her kids composed a set of family rules and posted them in a prominent place:
“We wrote together that it’s okay to be sad and they could take breaks from any activity to cry. That it’s okay to be angry and jealous of their friends and cousins who still had fathers. That it’s okay to say to anyone that they did not want to talk about it now. That they should know that we did not deserve this,” writes Sandberg.
The potential for new insights and personal growth after a devastating experience is an important theme in Option B.
“When I wrote Lean In, some people argued that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they don’t have a partner. They were right. I didn’t get it,” Sandberg writes.
She gets it now, but more so with regard to single mothers than single women who do not have children. She mentions, for example, that “cohabiting and same-sex couples usually don’t have the same legal protections and employment benefits as married couples,” without acknowledging that single people don’t either.
She recognizes that “single parents and widows deserve more support” when they are facing hardships, but once again, single people who are not parents or widows do not make her list. In the chapter, “To Love and Laugh Again,” though, Sandberg does concede that “being alone can be an empowering choice.” Pointing to the subtitle of my book, Singled Out, she notes that “singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after.”
It is not surprising when a book written by a powerful and well-connected person draws piles of praise. In the case of Option B, the accolades are hard-won and deeply deserved.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
Hardcover, 227 pages