Living with “Option B”: Sheryl Sandberg’s New Book

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With the rise of social media, everyone’s life on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat etc. looks perfect. Everyone appears to be living an “Option A”, idyllic kind of life. But life is never perfect. “We all live in some form of Option B. This book [Option B] is to help us all kick the shit out of it.”

Option B triumphs where Lean In never did. Partly due to Sheryl Sandberg’s writing partner, the great Professor Adam Grant at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Where Lean In encouraged women to pursue their ambitions, and basically promised women that they too could have it all. Option B is a more nuanced and thoughtful book.

Option B has the depth that Lean In never did. A recognition that we are not all handed the same deck of cards, and not everyone can lean in all the time. Sometimes health problems, familial obligations, or deaths prevent us from doing so.

Following the death of Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, she was living through a nightmarish Option B. This was compounded by the fact that people weren’t sure how to react to her. Their discomfort was palpable.  People would greet her with the standard meaningless greeting of “how are you?”. She felt like responding, “My husband just died, how do you think I am?” But held back.

Sandberg and Grant write that “All over the world, there is cultural pressure to conceal negative emotions. In China and Japan, the ideal emotional state is calm and composed. In the United States, we like excitement (OMG!) and enthusiasm (LOL!).” American culture demands that we answer positively. We need to be awesome. “Admitting that you are having a rough time is almost inappropriate.”

To counteract this, they encourage us to practice self-compassion. “Self-compassion comes from recognizing that our imperfections are part of being human.”

In addition to practicing self-compassion, Sandberg and Grant recommend that we count our blessings. And That we count our contributions. And that we count our moments of joy.

For example, after the death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg journaled every night. At first, she was skeptical because she was barely functioning. But she found journalling helpful in managing her grief. Originally she wrote down three things she was grateful for. She later turned to writing down three things she accomplished each day (like getting dressed, focussing in a meeting…). Eventually, she transitioned to writing down three moments of joy, which she continues to do to this very day.

Paying attention to moments of joy takes effort. This is because we are wired to focus on the negatives.

But by focussing on the joyful moments, we can become happier. Happiness is the frequency of small positive moments, and not the intensity.

To bounce back after negative events, we need to avoid three behaviours. (1) personalization – the belief that we are at fault. Sometimes it is not you, it is really them. (2) pervasiveness – the belief that an event will affect all areas of our lives. (3) permanence- the belief that the aftershocks will be forever. Studies have shown that we recover faster when we realize that hardships aren’t entirely our fault, don’t affect every aspect of our lives, and won’t follow us forever.

Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside. It comes from gratitude for what’s good in our lives and from leaning in to the suck. It comes from analyzing how we process grief and from simply accepting that grief. Sometimes we have less control than we think. Other times we have more.

I learned that when life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.

(Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)

Sheryl Sandberg’s Perfect Commencement Speech

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Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech to the graduating class of Berkeley is powerful. In her speech, she describes the lessons learnt from the death of her husband, stating that: “It is the hard days—the times that challenge you to your very core—that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.”

Life is filled with peaks and valleys: a moment of failure here, a period of success there, followed by a time of stagnation. But, it is in those moments of failure that professional longevity can be found. Studies have shown that the greatest predictor of success is not grades, not money, not looks, but resilience. So it is in Sandberg’s call to building resilience within ourselves that makes her commencement speech so perfect.

Everyone who has made it through Cal has already experienced some disappointment. You wanted an A but you got a B…

She was the love of your life… but then she swiped left.

Game of Thrones the show has diverged way too much from the books—and you bothered to read all 4,352 pages.

You will almost certainly face more and deeper adversity. 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…

And when the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. 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 very best version of yourself.

 

The Year of Yes

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In the Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes discusses how saying “yes” to opportunities transformed her life. She explains that “[l]osing yourself does not happen all at once.” Rather it happens one no at a time.

Women are often encouraged to say no to prioritizing their wellbeing and to say yes to commitments that render them invisible. She poignantly writes:

I don’t think it ever occurred to me before how much and how often women are praised for displaying traits that basically render them invisible. When I really think about it I realize the culprit is the language generally used to praise women. Especially mothers.

“She scarified everything for her children…She never thought of herself… She gave up everything for us… She stood in the shadows, she was the wind beneath our wings.”

Greeting card companies are built on that idea…

But [should mothers be praised] for cultivating a sense of invisibility, martyrdom and tirelessly working unnoticed and unsung?… Praising women for standing in the shadows?

Going unnoticed, going unsung, standing in the shadows also applies to women in business. Instead of being encouraged to lean in to the spotlight, women often face social sanctions for displaying loud opinions, speaking about their accomplishments, showing ambition, and taking on leadership roles.

Shonda includes a story about how she attended an event to celebrate powerful women. Most women downplayed themselves. She forced herself to own her accomplishments and state them. She asks, “how can it be boastful to state a fact?”

I agree. Women should not feel ashamed for talking about themselves, making their ideas heard, and reaching for their goals. By saying yes to each opportunity, women can step away from the shadows and lean in to their careers.

 

The Reality of Lean-In

In Lean-In, Sheryl Sandberg promised women that if they just leaned-in to their careers, they too could sit at the power table. Anne Marie Slaughter (legal scholar and former Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department) breathes reality into Sandberg’s lean-in mantra.

In Unfinished Business, Slaughter argues that the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune play major roles in our successes and failures in work. She rightly points out the whole truths to the dogmas that pervade our society.

You can have it all if you are committed enough to your career.. and you are lucky enough never to hit a point where your carefully constructed balance between work and family topples over.

You can have it all if you marry the right person… who is willing to defer his/her career to yours; you stay married; and your own preferences regarding how much time you are willing to spend at work remains unchanged after you have children or find yourself caring for aging parents.

You can have it all as long as you sequence it right… as long as you succeed in having children when you planned to; you have an employer who both permits you to work part-time or on a flexible work schedule and still sees you as leadership material…

Luckily she provides some rules to help guide our decisions: stay in the (work) game. Plan to lean-in and to lean back. Make deliberate choices about work; never leave a job in a crisis. And build strong support networks to help you get through the rough times.

Harvard professor Robert Waldinger echoes Slaughter. He urges us to lean into our relationships. A Harvard study of men over 75 years of their lives found that “over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.… The good life is built with good relationships.”

Timelines and the Planning Fallacy

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We frequently plot our goals onto timelines. But, in doing so, we often succumb to the planning fallacy.

In the book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that people have a tendency to underestimate how much time is needed to complete a task, like in a home renovation. “When forecasting the outcomes of risky projects…[we] make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities.” That’s why it is crucial that we attach our goals to realistic timelines. Realistic timelines can be ascertained by comparing our goals with a reference class of past, similar projects.

In Lean In Sheryl Sandberg suggests that we set our goals according to an 18-month timeline. A year is often not enough time. We tend to over-estimate what we can accomplish in a year. But, two years feels too far away.