Sheryl Sandberg opened her speech to the UC Berkeley Class of 2016 talking about the amazing accomplishments of previous Berkeley graduates. “And those are just the women,” she said to laughter.
While we might have half-expected Sandberg’s commencement address to focus on gender equality and the pay gap, it was refreshing and moving to hear her open up about her life, its hardships, and the power of resiliency for overcoming the really bad times.
The Facebook COO and Lean In author tells the class that although they may have been expecting her to tell them what she learned in life, she’s instead going to tell them what she learned in death—something which she says she has not spoken of publicly before.
She begins with the basic, raw details: She and her husband were in Mexico a little more than a year ago when she discovered him unconscious on the hotel’s gym floor, dead from cardiac arrhythmia. She flew home to deal with the aftermath—breaking the devastating news to their children, making funeral arrangements, carrying on—consumed with grief. She shares, “I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface, and breathe again.”
Throughout the talk, she makes adversity relatable. While she recognizes that some may have faced a huge tragedy like her own, she also acknowledges that getting a B instead of an A or not getting the internship you wanted are also obstacles. She doesn’t belittle or undermine dating woes or landing-the-job-you-want drama. To overcome these things and all manner of life’s challenges, Sandberg calls upon the importance of resilience. On good days, it’ll feel easy to be grateful for what you have and where you’re going; on bad days—maybe it’s as big as getting fired or as small as not being acknowledged for landing a client—finding joy and meaning will be essential to survival.
Regardless of what adversity comes your way professionally or personally—and the only sure thing is that it will come—your goal should be to ultimately bounce back, better and stronger. “It’s the hard days,” Sandberg notes “that determine who you are.”
It’s the day you get yelled at in a meeting. It’s the day you (temporarily) give up on your dream job because the bills you have to pay take priority over quitting everything and starting from scratch. It’s the day you have a performance review so awful that your job feels insecure.
You’re not always going to get to work with the most desirable option, and explains Sandberg, when option A is unavailable, you’re going to have to “kick the shit out of option B.”
Certainly, Sandberg’s loss and resilience tell a much bigger story than a graduate struggling to gain footing in the working world, but regardless of the adversity—be it big or small, personal and intimate or professional and strange—the only winning response is to be resilient.
(While you’re welcome to watch the entire commencement, you can also fast forward to 1:23:00 to see Sheryl’s speech from the beginning.)
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Stacey Lastoe started writing short stories in the second grade and is immensely grateful to have the opportunity to write and edit professionally. Her work has appeared in YouBeauty, Refinery29, A Practical Wedding, Runner's World online, and The Billfold among other publications. She enjoys running and eating in equal measure and lives with her husband and dog in Brooklyn. All three of them are avid New York Mets fans. Say hello on @stacespeaks.More from this Author