‘Option B’ Co-author Adam Grant
Finding Resilience after Major Setbacks
In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, “Option B” co-author Adam Grant explains how the book set out to help people deal with tragedy and ended up also serving as a beacon for those trying to help others suffering from grief.
Finding Resilience after Major SetbacksBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 633 )
When the book “Option B” was published in the first half of the year in the United States, it drew great fanfare, in part because of the prominence of one of its authors, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and the sharing of her personal experience. Sandberg lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, in 2015 while celebrating a friend’s birthday at a resort in Mexico.
She wrote a Facebook post not long after, trying to share and work through her emotions, triggering such a strong response from people that it led to a full-blown book.
Her co-author, Wharton Business School professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant, is also renowned in the management studies field.
His specialties are work motivation and positive psychology, and he is devoted to helping people find passion and meaning. He became the youngest tenured professor ever at Wharton, achieving the feat before turning 30.
Now 36, Grant is extremely popular with his students, not only ranking among the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers but also having been recognized among the world’s 40 best business school professors.
Aside from “Option B,” he has also written “Give and Take” and “Originals – How Non-Conformists Move the World.”
Grant is the type of professor who writes his mobile phone number on the blackboard on the first day of class and tells students to call him at any time if necessary, no matter what problem they’ve run into.
Sandberg and Grant are close friends, with Sandberg describing him as an “informed optimist” who offers insights and advice that help people overcome their doubts and fears and find allies in the most unlikely of places.
In a telephone interview with CommonWealth Magazine ahead of its publication of “Option B” in Taiwan, Grant delves into what he thinks about the response to the book so far, how the book has changed Sandberg and him, and how to talk to people suffering from grief.
Excerpts of the interview are as follows:
Q: How has the response been to “Option B”? Do you think you’ve gotten what you wanted the book to be?
A: Yes, I think so. The reason we wrote it was after Sheryl lost her husband, we spent a lot of time talking about building resilience in her kids and creating an environment that would help with resilience at work.
The feedback has been really meaningful. We get stories every day from people who have said there was an insight in this book that was “helpful for me with adversity that I was facing.” I think even more common is when people write and say, “I’ve always struggled to know how to help other people” when they lose someone close to them or when they’re sick or they lose their job or something bad happens in their life, there are insights in this book that “help me” become a better friend, or a better family member, or a better colleague.
It’s not just a book about how to build your own resilience but also a book about how to help other people effectively. That’s been very gratifying.
We really thought that most of what we were doing was writing about how people can find strength when facing adversity or hardship themselves. We very much now realize that this is a book that people read when they don’t know how to talk about something someone else is facing or they want to show up as better friend, or a better partner, or a better co-worker. That was really a big surprise for us.
I think the other thing that was unexpected was we’ve heard from quite a few readers who have said they’ve read the book as a family after the family faced a tragedy. There was one that really stuck with me. I had a very distant acquaintance who said her father had lost his wife (their mother) maybe 20 years earlier and never said a word about it to them. I guess he read Option B and then he opened up, and he said “I was trying not to be a burden to all of you but I’ve realized that if you wanted to talk about it you probably didn’t feel it was OK because I was so quiet about it and I want you to know that if you do want to talk about it, I’m here.” She wrote to say that it opened up a conversation in her family that they had not had for 20 years, which I thought was amazing.
Q: How do you see Ms. Sandberg transforming during the writing of this book?
A: I think a few things happened. One is that Sheryl became much more comfortable talking about the challenges and the difficulties in her own life. She’s described how she often felt pressure to tell people that she was fine, that everything was OK. I would say that she’s a giver in so many relationships. She’s always helping other people, giving them feedback and advice and introducing them to people who can help them, and this is a situation where she had to be comfortable letting other people give to her, and she really did change in that way. She learned how to ask for help. She learned how to admit that sometimes, no, she was not feeling OK. She never wants to be a burden to anyone else, and I think she learned that with the people who love you and the people who care about you, it’s not a burden to tell them how you’re doing. It’s a chance to let them be a good friend, or a good colleague. So, I think that was a shift.
The other transformation that stands out for me is she said she came out of writing this book with more of a focus on finding joy than she had before. She wrote in that Facebook post that she would never feel real joy again. And I told her she was wrong. I said “you will, you will.” She said, “How do you know? I don’t believe you.” I tried to give her what we knew from psychology and some examples of her own – “well, actually I just saw you feeling joy last week.” But it was really hard for her to believe it. Writing the book, she noticed [that] when she stopped writing down those moments of joy every day, she stopped having as many of them. She’s like: “Look, I really need to take this seriously. If I want joy to be part of my life, it needs to be a discipline; it needs to be a priority for me.” It won’t always just happen naturally. Sometimes you have to work at it. She appreciates life and the small things that brighten your day in a way that she didn’t as much before.
Q: What kind of impact did the book have on you?
A: Well, I think on the joy thing – that was interesting for me. I always thought that joy was something that was nice to have. It’s fun to have joyful experiences. But I never thought about it as something that was really important. I thought it was like a luxury, not a necessity. But I came out of the research that we did and what I learned from Sheryl’s experience believing that moments of joy don’t just add to happiness, they’re also sources of strength. Having something to look forward to, having an experience you find to really be exciting, is actually part of what makes life worth living, and what gives you the resilience to face difficult experiences, knowing that there are still good things to come.
The other thing I would say that struck me is that so often, we become resilient for other people; when other people are depending on us, we find strength that we didn’t know we had. That was a big discovery over and over again, that resilience is often something we build when we care about other people and we know that they need us.
Picturing Your Future Self
Q: In your previous book, Give and Take, you emphasize positive psychology. How can we bring this belief to people who are coping with grief?
A: I think that one of the things people often do, is when something bad happens, they project it out into the future and think it is going to feel this awful forever. It seems like it’s permanent, it’s never going to go away.
One of the most effective ways to change that belief is to do what you might call ‘mental time travel,’ to think about your future self and your past self.
The way you apply this to your past self, is you think about hardships that you’ve faced before. You think about what was it like, what was a really difficult experience I went through 3 or 4 or 5 years ago, and did it feel then like it was never going to get better and did it get better and the answer is usually yes and yes. And when you remember that, you can say, OK, I’ve conquered adversity before, or I’ve faced adversity before and I still found meaning and joy in my life. And I can do it again. Then you can do something similar in the future, which is you imagine yourself 10 and 20 years ahead, and you ask what would my future self tell my current self? What is the me that I want to become? What would that person say to the current me? Sometimes that’s a hard question to answer. This self-compassion technique tends to be a great approach in the sense that you can say, all right, let me give myself the support, the understanding, the advice that I would give to a good friend who is going through this tragedy, or this challenge, and I think this often helps people come to a different understanding or a different perspective.
Q: But if that’s the first time in their life that somebody they deeply love passes away, and they face this very, very deep grief? What can we say to them?
A: I think what you’ll probably end up doing – No. 1 you will find it useful to connect them with people who have gone through similar experiences who can talk about what it was like and how they got through it. That’s often helpful. There’s a lot of research on how in addition to the pain of loss, there’s aloneness from isolation. Just coming together and connecting with people even if they haven’t had the same experience, but if they’ve had a similar experience, there can be a bond that comes through that and those people are often the best sources of support and advice.
I think the other thing worth thinking about, I guess the simple way to say it, is that everyone goes through difficult experiences in life and this is part of self-compassion, too, is to say, “Look. This is part of the human experience. I’m not the only one to ever suffer in this way. There are many people who have suffered and come out on the other side not happier but in some ways stronger or more grateful. I can’t change what happened. But I can make some choices about how I deal with what happened.”
Q: I'm wondering if you saw the movie Manchester by the Sea? It's a movie about an actor who has lost his children in a fire, and he cannot overcome the tragedy and sadness. (Grant answered he did not.) What would you say to people who cannot overcome sadness and should we always be positive?
A: No. No. Of course not. We should be realistic. Very often when something terrible happens, the most effective response is not to try to change your emotions, but you accept your negative emotions.
When something terrible happens, it turns out it’s much healthier instead of trying to change your emotions right away, you accept your negative emotions.
“Yes, it’s devastating. Yes, I am grieving. Yes, I feel depressed.” What it does is once you can label the emotions, it helps you understand it better, and it actually allows it to pass more quickly as opposed to trying to suppress it where it keeps coming back.
I think that there's a time horizon where you say you don't want people to be depressed for 10 years after a tragedy. And so at some point when they decide that they’re ready to try to move forward, that’s when it’s time to say, “All right. Let’s try to figure out what we can do to change the circumstances here.” I’ll tell you that this is something that people are far better at usually in the East than the West. In America, there's just so much pressure to think positive. It's not helpful; it's actually hurtful, because then people feel like they have to hide their emotions, and they don’t ever get to process their emotions if they're always expected to be happy. I think that one of the things we see a lot is that in many Southeast Asian cultures is that the importance of acceptance is understood and embraced. And people say if you're feeling bad when something difficult happens to you, that's OK, and you’re allowed to express that. We don't need you to be happy every minute of every day.
Compiled by Yueh-lin Ma
Edited by Luke Sabatier