Sheryl Sandberg Reflects on Her Husband's Death and How She Bounced Back
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Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of LeanIn.org, delivered Virginia Tech’s commencement speech for the graduating class of 2017 on Friday, May 12. You can watch it in the video (her remarks start at 1:12:23) and read her “as prepared” transcript below.
President Sands, esteemed faculty and staff, proud parents, devoted friends, squirming siblings … congratulations to all of you. And most of all, congratulations to the Virginia Tech class of 2017!
I’m honored to be with you on this beautiful day. I’m a long way from Silicon Valley… but being somewhere with “Tech” in its name feels just like home.
I’m delighted to be joined by my friend and colleague Regina Dugan. Regina used to run DARPA -- for real! -- the agency at the Pentagon that develops breakthrough technologies. She now runs the team at
Facebook that develops breakthrough technologies. In Hokie terms, she’s our Bruce Smith. And she is just one of so many alums doing amazing things around the world.
Today, class of 2017, you join them. I’m thrilled for you. And I’m thrilled for your family and friends -- all the people who pushed you and believed in you, from your first day to this day. Let’s take a moment to thank them.
Commencement speeches can be pretty one-sided. The speaker -- that’s me -- imparts her hard-earned wisdom… or at least tries to. The graduates -- that’s you -- listen like the thoughtful young people you
are. Then you hurl your caps in the air, hug your friends, let your families take a million pictures of you -- (maybe even post them on Instagram) -- and head off into your amazing lives… maybe swinging by Sharkey’s for one last plate of wings before you go.
Today’s going to be a little different. I’m not going to talk about something I know and you don’t. I want to talk about something the Virginia Tech community knows all too well. I want to talk about resilience.
This university is known for many things. Your kindness and decency… your academic excellence… your deeply-felt school spirit. I’ve spent time at a lot of colleges -- for work, not because I’m trying to relive my 20s. Few people talk about their school the way Hokies talk about Virginia Tech. There is so much pride and unity on this campus, and such a strong sense of identity.
I’m going to prove this by asking one simple question:
What’s a Hokie? [I am!]
What you might not realize is that that Hokie spirit has made all of you more resilient. I’ve spent the last two years studying resilience, because something happened in my life that demanded more of it than I ever needed before.
Two years and eleven days ago, my beloved husband Dave passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Sometimes I can’t believe it actually happened. I woke up on what I thought would be a normal day.
And out of nowhere, my world changed forever.
I know, I know -- beautiful day, proudest moment of your lives, and I’m up here talking about death. I promise there’s a reason -- and even one that’s not so sad.
What I’ve learned since losing Dave has fundamentally changed how I view the world and how I live in it every day. And I want to share that with you, because I believe it will help you lead happier, healthier and ultimately more joyful lives.
Each of you walked a unique path to reach this day. Some of you faced real trauma. All of you faced challenges of some kind. Grief, loss, heartbreak, disappointment, illness -- all of these are so personal when they strike -- but they are also in some ways so universal.
Then there are the shared losses. The Virginia Tech community knows this. You’ve stopped for a quiet moment by the 32 Hokie stones on the Drillfield, as I did with President Sands this morning. You’ve joined your friends for the “Run in Remembrance.” You know that life can turn in an instant. And you know what it means to come together, to pull together, to grieve together and most importantly, to overcome together.
After Dave died, I did something that I’ve done at other hard times in my life: I hit the books. With my friend Adam Grant, a psychologist who studies how we find meaning in our lives, I dove into the research on resilience and recovery.
The most important thing I learned is that resilience is not something we have or we don’t. When Dave died, I kept asking Adam, “How do I know how resilient I am? How do I know if my kids are resilient?”
It turns out those were the wrong questions. We don’t have a set amount of resilience -- it’s a muscle that any of us can build.
We build resilience in ourselves. We build it in the people we love. And we build it together, as a community. That’s called “collective resilience,” and it’s an incredibly powerful force -- one that our country and world need so badly right now. It’s in our relationships with each other that we find our will to live, our capacity to love and the power to make lasting change in the world.
Class of 2017, you are particularly suited to the task of building collective resilience because you are graduating from Virginia Tech. Communities like this don’t just happen. They are formed and strengthened by people coming together in very specific ways. You’ve been part of that here, perhaps without even knowing it. As you go off and become leaders -- and you will lead, you are destined for it -- you can make the communities you join -- and the communities you form -- stronger.
Here’s where you start.
You can build collective resilience through shared experiences. You’ve had some of those: jumping to “Enter Sandman,” enduring the walk across the Drillfield in the winter (like Jon Snow at the Wall), finding new loves and then NEW new loves, supporting each other through triumph and disappointment. You may not have realized it, but every class, every meal, every all-nighter has added another strand to a vast web connecting you to each other and to Hokies everywhere.
These ties do more than connect -- they support. Nearly 30 years ago, a very talented young man from an underprivileged background made it to college, but left before graduating. He said, “If I had my posse with me, I never would have dropped out.” That insight led an amazing woman named Deborah Bial to create the Posse Foundation, which recruits high-potential students in teams of 10 to go from the same city to the same college. Posse kids have a 90 percent graduation rate from some of the best schools in the country.
We all need our posses -- especially when life puts obstacles in our path. Out there in the world, you will have to build your own posse -- which will sometimes require asking for help.
This was not easy for me. Before Dave died, I tried to bother people as little as possible -- and “bothering people” is how I thought of it. Then I lost Dave, and suddenly I needed my family and friends more than ever. My mom -- who along with my dad is here with me today -- stayed with me for the first month, literally holding me until I cried myself to sleep each night. I had never felt weaker. But I learned that it takes strength to rely on others. There are times to lean in and there are times to lean on.
Building a posse also means acknowledging our friends’ challenges. Before I lost Dave, if a friend was facing something hard, I would say how sorry I was -- once. Then I usually wouldn’t bring it up again because I didn’t want to remind them of their pain. Losing Dave taught me how absurd that was -- you can’t remind me I lost Dave. But like I had done with others, people often avoided the topic with me. It was like a giant elephant was following me around everywhere I went.
It’s not only death that ushers in that elephant. Want to silence a room? Say you have cancer, your father went to jail, you just lost your job. We often retreat into silence when we need each other the most. Of course, not everyone will want to talk about everything all the time. But saying to a friend, “I know you are suffering and I am here to talk if you want to” can kick an ugly elephant right out of a room and keep isolation from adding to your friend’s pain.
If you are in someone’s posse, don’t just offer to help in a generic way. Instead, show up. Before I lost Dave, when I had friends facing hardship, I often asked, “Is there anything I can do?” I meant it kindly but now I know that question kind of shifts the burden to the person in need. And when people asked me, I didn’t know what to say. “Can you make Father’s Day go away?” Here’s a better way to do it.
When my friend Dan Levy’s son was sick in the hospital, a friend texted him, “What don’t you want on a burger?” Another friend said she was downstairs in the hospital lobby for the next hour for a hug whether he came downstairs or not.
You don’t have to do something huge. You don’t have to wait until someone tells you exactly what they need. And you don’t have to be someone’s best friend from the first grade to show up. If you are there for your friends, and let them be there for you -- if you laugh together until your sides ache, hold each other while you cry and maybe even bring them a burger before they ask -- that won’t just make you more resilient, it will also help you live a deeper and more meaningful life.
We also build collective resilience through shared narratives. That might sound light -- how important can a story be? But stories are vital. They’re how we explain our past and set expectations for our future. And they help us build the common understanding that creates community in the first place.
Every time your friends retell their favorite tales -- like, I don’t know, when Tech beat UVA in double overtime -- you strengthen your bonds to each other.
Shared narratives are critical for fighting injustice and creating social change. A few years ago, we started LeanIn.Org to help work toward gender equality -- helping women and men form Lean In circles -- small groups that meet to support each other’s ambitions. There are now more than 33,000 Circles in over 150 countries. It wasn’t until I lost Dave that I truly understood why Circles are thriving -- because they build collective resilience.
Not long ago, I was in Beijing and had a chance to meet with women from Lean In Circles across China.
Like in a lot of places, it can be hard to be a woman in China. If you’re unmarried past 27, you’re called sheng nu -- a “leftover woman.” And I thought the word “widow” was bad! The stigma that comes with being single can be intense. One woman -- a 36-year-old economics professor -- was rejected by 15 men because she was -- wait for it -- too educated. After that, her father forbade her younger sister from getting a graduate degree.
But more than 80,000 women in China have come together in Circles to write a new, shared narrative. One Circle created a play called The Leftover Monologues, which celebrates being “leftover” women and takes on topics often unspoken, like sexual harassment, date rape and homophobia. The world told them what their stories should be, and they said, actually, we’re writing a different future for ourselves.
We are not leftover. We have value, we have strength and we write our own story together.
Building collective resilience also means trying to understand how the world looks to those who have experienced it differently - because they are a different race, come from a different country, have an economic background unlike yours. We each have our own story but we can write new ones together, and that means seeing the value in each other’s points of view and looking for common ground.
Anyone here a little anxious about their future? Unsure of where life is taking you? Yeah, sometimes me too. You know what helps you combat that fear? A very big idea captured in one tiny word: hope.
There are many kinds of hope. There’s the hope that she wouldn’t swipe left. Sorry. There’s the hope that your stuff will magically pack itself as you sit here. Sorry. There’s the hope that I’d be done speaking by now. Double sorry. But my favorite kind of hope is called grounded hope -- the understanding that if you take action you can make things better.
We normally think of hope as something individual people hold in their heads and in their hearts. But hope -- like resilience -- is something we grow and nurture together.
Two days ago, I visited Mother Emanuel church in Charleston. We all know about the shooting that took place there nearly two years ago, claiming the lives of a pastor and eight worshippers. What happened afterward was extraordinary. Instead of being consumed by hatred, the community came together to stand against racism and violence. As a local pastor Jermaine Watkins beautifully put it: “To hatred, we say no way, not today. To division, we say no way, not today. To loss of hope, we say no way, not today.”
That was the theme of maybe the most touching Facebook post I’ve ever read -- and let’s face it, I’ve read a lot of Facebook posts. This one was written by Antoine Leiris, a French journalist whose wife Hélèn was killed in the 2015 Paris terrorist attack. Just two days later -- two days -- he wrote a letter to his wife’s killers. He said, “On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son. But you will not have my hate.” And my 17-month-old son “will play as we do every day, and all his life this little boy will defy you by being happy and free. Because you will not have his hate either.”
Strength like that makes those who see it stronger. Hope like that makes all of us more hopeful. That’s how collective resilience works -- we lift each other up.
This all might seem very intuitive to you Hokies. These qualities of collective resilience -- shared experiences, shared narratives, shared hope -- shine forth from every corner of this university. You are a testament to courage, faith and love -- and that’s been true, not just for these past 10 years, but for more than a century before that. This university means a lot to you, graduates… but it also means a lot to America and to the world. So many of us look to you as an example of how to stay strong and brave and true.
That is your legacy, Class of 2017. You will always carry it with you -- that capacity for finding strength in others and helping them find strength in you.
Virginia Tech has given you a purpose, reflected in your motto, “That I May Serve.” An important way that you can serve is by helping build resilience in the world. We have a responsibility to help families and communities become more resilient, because none of us do this alone. We do it together.
As you leave this beautiful campus and set out into the world, build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that you have the ability to get through absolutely anything. I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined.
Build resilient organizations. Speak up when you see injustice. Lend your time and passion to causes that matter. My favorite poster at work reads, “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” When you see something that’s broken, go fix it. Your motto demands that you do.
Build resilient communities. Virginia Tech founded the Global Forum on Resilience four years ago, and it’s doing outstanding work in this field. Be there for your family and friends. And I mean in person -- not just with a heart emoji. Be there for your neighbors; it’s a divided time in our country, and we need you to help us heal. Lift each other up and celebrate each and every moment of joy. Because one of the most important ways you can build resilience is by cultivating gratitude.
Two years ago, if a friend had told me that I would lose the love of my life and become more grateful, I would never have believed them. But that’s what happened. I’m more grateful now than I was before -- for my family and especially my children. For my friends. For my work. For life itself.
Before I lost Dave, it never occurred to me that he would not grow old, that we would not grow old together. Now I know how precious life is and I know better than to take it for granted.
A few months ago, my cousin Laura turned 50. Graduates, you may not appreciate how turning 50 can feel not-so-great -- but I bet your parents do. I called her that morning and I said, “I am calling to wish you a happy birthday. But I am also calling in case you woke up this morning with that feeling of ‘oh my God, I’m 50’ thing. This is the year that Dave will not turn 50.” Either we get older, or we don’t. No more jokes about growing old. Every year -- every moment -- is a gift.
And you don’t have to wait for special occasions, like graduations, to feel and show your gratitude to your family, friends, professors, baristas -- everyone. Counting your blessings can actually increase them.
People who take the time to focus on the things they are grateful for are happier and healthier.
My New Year’s resolution last year was to write down three moments of joy before I went to bed each night. This very simple practice has changed my life. I used to go to bed thinking about everything that went wrong that day. Now I go to sleep thinking of what went right. And when those moments of joy happen throughout the day, I notice them more because I know they’ll make the notebook. Try it. Start tonight, on this day full of happy memories -- but maybe before you hit Big Al’s.
Graduates, on the path before you, you will have good days and hard days. Go through all of them together. Seek shared experiences with all kinds of people. Write shared narratives that create the world you want to live in. Build shared hope in the communities you join and the communities you form.
And above all, find gratitude for the gift of life itself and the opportunities it provides for meaning, for joy, and for love.
Tonight, when I write my three moments of joy, I’ll write about this. About the hope and amazing resilience of this community. And maybe you’ll write that I finally stopped talking.
You have the whole world in front of you. I can’t wait to see what you do with it.
Congratulations and go Hokies!