Staff Writer
Kicking The Elephant Out Of The Room

When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband Dave suddenly two years ago, she was faced with the daunting prospect of adapting to a whole new reality, one she had never planned for; of raising her children without him. She recalls how, just weeks after, a friend was helping her prepare for a father-child event and said: “Option A is not available, so let’s kick the **** out of Option B.”

This became the crux (and the title) of her new book, co-authored with Adam Grant. “On some level, we all live Option B,” says Sheryl. Whether it be be missing out on an opportunity, coping with the death of a loved one, or even losing your home or country, “nobody’s life is exactly as they planned it.”

If anybody has lived Option B, it’s Malala Yousafzai. After being attacked by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education, Malala and her entire family were forced to relocate to the UK and start over. She now travels the world as a human rights advocate, and in 2014 became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Sheryl and Malala sat down with Adam at a recent Intelligence Squared panel in Westminster to discuss the various ways in which we all live Option B, and how to find joy and build resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Practising gratitude every day

For Sheryl, it is important to always think about what could be worse. When you’re grieving, people are always trying to cheer you up, but sometimes what you need to find calm and perspective amid turmoil is to focus on what you still have. Sheryl recalls how, after the death of her husband, she learned to be thankful for her children’s health, something which she admits she had slightly taken for granted before. Finding gratitude in small and basic things is now a daily ritual; each evening, she writes down three moments of joy at the end of every day. So now, instead of going to sleep worrying about what she did wrong, or anticipating what might go wrong the next day, those moments become her focus.

Malala finds gratitude in having her family around her, and in being able to attend school and sit her exams, when girls all over the world still don’t have that right. “Sometimes we consider happiness and joy a special moment, like a party or a trip,” she says. “But now I realise that as long as something tragic isn’t happening, there is joy.”

The elephant in the room

In the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death, Sheryl remembers an intense feeling of isolation. “People looked at me like I was a ghost,” she says. “All these real hardships in our lives, they usher this huge elephant into the room… These are the moments when we need each other the most, but we talk the least.”

When something terrible happens, people will initially say “I’m so sorry,” but then they’re often loathe to bring it up again because they don’t want to remind them — when truthfully, that person is living with it 24/7. “I promise you’re not going to remind them,” Sheryl says. “So this respectful silence doesn’t work as often as we think it should.”

Another thing she realised is that well-meaning people who ask “is there anything I can do?” are unwittingly placing the burden of answering that question on the person in need. So instead of asking, Sheryl says, do something specific, no matter how small or imperfect. “We’re too often afraid of saying the wrong thing, so we don’t say anything. We’re too often afraid of doing the wrong thing, so we ask ‘what can I do’ and don’t do anything.”

“When you walk into a bookstore, you’ll notice that there’s a huge ‘self help’ section,” says Adam. “I would love to see bookstores create a ‘help others’ section. So much of building resilience is not just about how we get through our own hardships, but also how we show up for others.”

Stronger together

Often, asking for help feels like a sign of weakness, even when it can actually become a source of strength. But that outlook is, at least partially, a product of Western culture, and if we look elsewhere, we can see how counterproductive it really is.

“In Pakistan, if something happens in your house, we expect everyone to show up at your house and be with you and support you,” says Malala. “You have to be there and show support, it’s a social responsibility… This idea of being with people to celebrate their joy, and cry with them in their grief, is very important in our culture.” Going through something alone is hard, but going through something as a group can make it easier, even in everyday situations. Right now, Malala is studying for her A-Levels, and she says that while it’s stressful, sharing that anxiety with her friends has been helpful, as they all feel exactly the same way.

“One of the objectives I had in writing Option B was to kick a lot of elephants out of a lot of rooms,” says Sheryl, “so that we can be there when we need each other the most.”

There are plenty of these huge “elephants” on the global stage, says Sheryl, from girls being denied education, to domestic violence, to religious persecution. These elephants thrive on silence, and rely on people feeling unable to make things better. Speaking out is the only answer, and Sheryl and Malala believe that if we learn to break through walls of silence and connect with people in our own lives, then we stand a better chance of helping those in need all around the world.

    We'd love to hear from you.