Understanding Sheryl Sandberg’s fight for resilience
On Being logo. Photos courtesy of Lily Percy.
Allison Griner is a freelance journalist and a 2013-2014 fellow with the International Reporting Program. Follow her on Twitter at @alligriner.
Radio producer Lily Percy had heard all the preconceptions. She’d even believed some of them herself. Elitist, faux-feminist, shortsighted with regards to race and class — the criticism lobbed at author and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg seemed endless.
So Percy and her colleagues had a challenge on their hands. Their public radio show, On Being, had landed the first major interview with Sandberg about her new book, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy,” co-authored with organizational psychologist Adam Grant. Using less than 52 minutes of airtime, they had to break down public perceptions of Sandberg — in the hope of revealing a more nuanced side of the controversial tech titan.
“One of the things that we struggle with — especially with people who are very, very big public figures — is that there’s a distance between us and them, ” Percy told ivoh in a recent interview. “We almost feel that there’s no way that person can understand us, and we can’t really understand them.”
Bridging that distance is part of Percy’s job at On Being, a show that styles itself as a long, intimate conversation about the human condition. And Sandberg was hardly the show’s most controversial guest. When reached by telephone, Percy was in the midst of preparing an interview with yet another pop-culture lightning rod: Glenn Beck, the conservative entrepreneur once famous for his polarizing, on-air tirades.
But in booking these guests, the show’s mission is not to be combative, nor to court controversy, Percy explained. Rather, On Being’s host and creator Krista Tippett has made it her mission to tackle “difficult topics and themes, but in a way where warmth and trust were implicit.”
Last year’s tumultuous presidential election made that mission all the more vital. Percy recalls that Tippett started talking to Beck by phone after the election, and she was struck by the public suspicion that continued to dog him.
“She was like, ‘In many ways, what’s happening here is what’s happening in our country: We’re not listening to each other. We’re not giving each other the benefit of the doubt,'” Percy said.
That was an obstacle Percy herself had to overcome when it came to Sheryl Sandberg. Never did Percy think she’d pick up one of Sandberg’s books, much less her greatly lambasted literary debut “Lean In.” In it, Sandberg offered insight into the barriers women face when aspiring to leadership positions, but the book’s title soon became shorthand for an exclusionary, highbrow form of feminism.
“Everything I saw describing [Sandberg] and the book in the media was about how she’s entitled and she’s telling people what to do. There was all this baggage,” Percy said. “So I also avoided it, based on the perception I gleaned about it from her media interviews and the backlash that happened.”
That is, until about six months ago. In her personal time, Percy is part of a book club, where members nominate readings based on what they’ve got lying around on their shelves. And “Lean In” came up as the group’s latest pick.
It was a moment of reckoning for Percy. She says she found that she had been doing something in her personal life that she would never even consider professionally: judging someone prematurely.
“As a journalist, you would always research and go further and investigate,” she said. “And yet, some ideas, we just accept them in life, and we see them as true.”
As she leafed through the book, Percy discovered she was enjoying Sandberg’s writing — to the point, she says with a laugh, that she now recommends “Lean In” to friends. To Percy, the book’s intent wasn’t to be prescriptive, but to simply spark conversation.
“I’m Hispanic, and I didn’t grow up with class privilege, and I didn’t grow up with a lot of things [Sandberg] grew up with, admittedly,” Percy said. “But I’m also white, so I also know that there are passes and privileges that I’ve gotten from being a white Hispanic.”
Those thoughts led her to feel greater empathy for Sandberg. “I always try to remind myself that no matter what class or race or gender a person has — you cannot dismiss any of those things — you have to remember that we are still people who, at the end of the day, go through the same emotions.”
It was grief, plain and simple, that motivated Sandberg to embark on her latest work, “Option B.” In 2015, Sandberg was on vacation with her husband, fellow tech executive Dave Goldberg, when he collapsed after suffering a cardiac arrhythmia. He later died at the hospital.
What Sandberg felt in the aftermath of that tragedy was something that transcended her station in life, Percy explained.
“[Sandberg] is white. You can’t deny that. She’s also rich. You can’t deny that. And she is in a place of power and privilege just by the fact that she’s the COO of Facebook. You can’t deny that either. But the reality is — no matter how much power, influence, privilege she has — when she lost her husband, none of that mattered,” Percy said.
Sandberg’s co-author, psychology professor Adam Grant, was a longtime friend of the family, and he used his expertise to help Sandberg grapple with her grief. Their conversations, as told from Sheryl’s perspective, form the basis of the book.
On Being generally does not do book interviews, Percy acknowledged. The reason behind that is simple: Press tours for high-profile releases tend to be exhausting. After doing one interview after another, authors can end up repeating themselves, instead of throwing themselves into the conversation at hand.
But On Being’s mission is to give listeners the practical tools needed to navigate the struggles in their everyday lives — a mission that aligned with that of “Option B.” In the book, Sandberg and Grant explain resilience not as an inherent quality, but as one that can be learnt and exercised at will.
“Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity — and we can build it. It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone,” they write in their introduction.
Tippett had previously interviewed Grant back in 2015, and it was he who approached On Being about organizing his and Sandberg’s first joint interview. Though they were in three different cities, across three different time zones, they aligned their schedules so that they were all in a recording studio at the same time to talk.
The result was an emotional conversation. Sandberg and Grant exchanged stories about the days, months and years following Goldberg’s death, and Sandberg’s voice often quivered, as if she were on the verge of tears.
Each interview for On Being always starts with a variation on the same question, about the guest’s spiritual background. The answers can be highly revealing, Percy observed.
“When you start off by having someone recall a memory, it does something in a person’s body,” she said. “Some people have gone to darker places. Some have gone to really light places. But, there’s always truth revealed in the answer. And it allows the person to decide, in that moment, how personal they’re going to get.”
On Being released both an edited and an unedited version of the interview — something Percy believes is unique in the world of public radio. The unedited version can extend longer than on-air scheduling might allow, and it includes all the awkward starts and stops of unrehearsed conversation.
The point of releasing two versions, Percy said, is to be transparent and build listener confidence. “We struggle with trusting media organizations nowadays, and I don’t think that’s wrong,” Percy said. The unedited version is “just one more way where we can say, ‘Look at this lovely conversation we had, and you get to hear all of it.'”
As far as Percy knows, no interviewee has ever balked at the idea of the unedited tape being released. On rare occasions, an expert might ask that a factual error they made be removed, so as not to mislead the audience. And even then, Percy says the producers mark the edit with a beep or a noise, and they add a disclaimer to the start of the show.
The effect is that listeners feel like they’re privy to real-life conversations, ones that they can replicate in their own lives, Percy said. “Ultimately what you’re doing is modeling a conversation that maybe I could have with my father or with my uncle or my best friend, that I have not been able to have. You’re modeling those conversations for people.”
And that’s been exactly the case for Percy herself. When she heard Sandberg talk about feeling ignored in the wake of Goldberg’s death, it made her think of a friend who was also facing personal struggles.
Instead of feeling helpless, Percy followed Sandberg’s advice: Don’t avoid the topic altogether, in case the person needs the opportunity to talk. And offer to do something specific for the person. So that’s what Percy did. She sent her friend a message: “I’m at the grocery store. Send me a list of what you need today.”
And Percy’s goal is that others feel more empowered, too. “My hope for this show was that people would think of the people in their own lives and the ways in which they themselves could help, in whatever opportunities they saw.”
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