What I learned from Sheryl Sandberg’s class on resilience

Why are some people able to bounce back from adversity, while others never recover? This is a question that Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and management professor Adam Grant explore in their book on resilience, “Option B.” If you’re among the many employees experiencing professional or personal hardship, fear not. Their research concluded that your mental toughness is not pre-determined by fate, it’s a skill each of us can learn and master.

If you do not have time to read through a 240-page tome on resilience, there’s now also a free online LinkedIn course on the same subject taught by Sandberg and Grant. “It’s a skill set that we work on throughout our lives,” Grant said. “It’s something we can build long before we face any kind of tragedy or difficulty.”

Here’s what it taught me that we can apply to our careers:

1. Fight the voice telling you the bad feeling is permanent

I am prone to all-or-nothing thinking under times of extreme stress. During one job hunt, I had the persistent, nagging thought that I was never going to find a good job and I was always going to be stuck unemployed. Part of building resilience is learning to undo these patterns of thinking. In “Option B,” Grant and Sandberg say that you have to tell yourself that the hardship is not personal, pervasive or permanent in order to move forward.

The course uses Sandberg’s personal story of loss as a guiding lesson on how to strengthen our resilience muscles. In 2015, Sandberg’s husband SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg died suddenly from cardiac arrhythmia. Suddenly becoming a widow with two young children was a devastating experience Sandberg could not see past. She told her co-author Grant that, “I will never feel joy again.” Part of Grant’s advice to Sandberg was slowly learning to change those “never’s” to “sometimes” and “lately.”

“What the data shows is that people overestimate how bad it’s going to be and how long the misery will last,” Grant said. For Sandberg, that thinking worked. “No matter what you’ve been through, there will be another moment you will laugh. And knowing that help builds your strength to get there,” she said.

2. Pay attention to small joys

When you’re going through a hard time at work or at home, the feeling can become an all-consuming anxiety. We humans tend to see the bad before we can see the good. To recalibrate our anxious brains into becoming resilient ones, we have to make a conscious effort to start noticing the big and small joys around us. For Sandberg, this meant documenting three moments of personal joy before going to bed, so that she ends each night with what went well instead of being hounded by what went wrong. It’s a practice she started after her husband died.

“What I realized is that even before Dave had died, I went to bed every night worrying about what I did wrong. Now I’ve told lots of people to do this, and lots of my friends have written down three things they do well, and it is transformative,” Sandberg says. 

Practicing gratitude is backed by science as a way to build our emotional muscles. A 2017 study on psychological resilience among military veterans found that higher levels of gratitude and sense of purpose were linked to mental fortitude.

3. Break the challenge down into manageable parts

When you feel overwhelmed, any task can seem insurmountable. Getting a job can seem impossible. Finishing a big project can seem too hard. Resilient people, however, are able to break down the overwhelming challenge into manageable parts.

This is a lesson that Sandberg’s mother taught her when Sandberg was a 16-year-old learning to ski for the first time. When Sandberg got stuck on the mountain, her mother calmed her down by telling her that getting down from the mountain was just going to take ten turns. It worked.

“So, I counted out my ten turns. I went back to that after Dave died because everything felt like a mountain,” Sandberg says. “I realized, I couldn’t solve the whole problem. I didn’t have to get down the whole mountain, and so I started doing small things.” She made concrete actions to maintain a family unit for her children by creating new shared activities for them to do. They made meals and played games together weekly during a scheduled time.

Perseverance in the face of adversity is a challenge each of us will face in our lives. Mastering these periods in our lives with grace means learning to appreciate what you have and let go of the pressures telling you irrational fictions about your situation.

“Handling severe adversity brings real perspective which is about finding appreciation and recognizing, my life could be worse, and realizing how fortunate you are to have the good things that you do in your life,” Sandberg says.