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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

At New Orleans appearance, a polished Sheryl Sandberg says "it gets better"

Posted By on Wed, May 10, 2017 at 12:00 PM

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In a 45-minute conversation at Academy of the Sacred Heart with crackly conservative intellectual Mary Matalin, Sheryl Sandberg spoke about bereavement and recovery as told in her new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

Sandberg is like a new sort of person: Facebook COO; alumna of Harvard (twice), the World Bank, the Treasury Department and Google; poised, without the hesitation and self-questioning that so often characterizes women's speech; at ease in front of a crowd of hundreds; spin-class slim at age 47; delicate pink pumps; voice like a piece of black velvet.

She is, in a word, dazzling. But in her May 9 talk, which was co-hosted by Garden District Book Shop, Sandberg clearly took great pains to be relatable — "I finally had to have someone take that fried chicken away from me," she said, of an afternoon meal at Cafe Reconcile — and she spoke candidly about the recent, sudden death of her husband as the result of an undiagnosed cardiac arrhythmia.

This death, and her subsequent recovery, is the subject of her new book. Co-written with psychologist Adam Grant, the book incorporates both personal accounts of recovery from trauma and data supporting the best ways to move past, or through, tragedy and grief. She began researching the book with Grant as a way of coping with her husband's unexpected passing.

"How do I know if I can get through this?" she asked Grant. "How much resilience do I have?"

Many of their findings will be familiar to those who have spent time on the therapy and self-help circuit. In her talk, Sandberg gave a cursory overview of the main points: Avoid blaming yourself for things that aren't really your fault. Make space for your emotions. Know that this feeling won't last forever. Give yourself permission to feel happy again. When kids are suffering, make sure they know how much they matter to you. Avoid having feelings about your feelings.

"I think of [this] as the second derivative: you're sad, and then you're sad you're sad," Sandberg said. "If you can get rid of that second level and say, 'Of course this sucks' ... you stop fighting the feeling."

The crowd, mostly comprised of Uptown-type women (long straightened hair, skinny jeans, Tory Burch flats), was rapt. During a Q&A, many women stood to tell their own stories of tremendous sadness and loss, such as the death of an infant child or the loss of a husband to addiction. Some became emotional as they thanked Sandberg for helping them overcome their own tragedies.

As she listened to these stories, it became apparent that Sandberg has mastered a technique that so many politicians flub. It's the triad of listening, sincere empathizing ("I'm so sorry that happened to you"), and pivoting back to the platform — in this case, the quiet promotion of the online communities surrounding Option B and her first book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

In the vein of that first book, Sandberg also took a moment to highlight the importance of advocating for the rights of women and people of color. She touched on her well-publicized mea culpa for parts of Lean In, which was criticized by some for its lack of awareness of the problems faced of single mothers and the disadvantaged. (It won't be surprising if similar criticism emerges about Option B. Though all trauma is relative, a wealthy woman losing her husband in no way compares to, say, growing up in abject poverty, or being stricken by a debilitating illness without health insurance. Sandberg writes from a position of privilege, perhaps unavoidably.)

But between the carefully crafted, big-tent tone of her remarks and her pitch-perfect response to even this friendly crowd, it made me think how unstoppable she would be, were she to set her sights on political office — especially if she can tap into the mobilization of women voters which has figured so prominently in recent months.

"I'm still fighting for women to get more leadership roles," she said, to the night's biggest applause. "Men have run the world for a long time. I'm not sure it's going well."

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