For the uninitiated, Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, one of the world’s most powerful and richest women, and also wrote the influential book Lean In, a sort of pragmatic, work-oriented feminist text (which originated from a TED talk). This isn’t a follow-up to Lean In but is a book about personal resilience, written in the shadow of a personal tragedy for her: her husband died suddenly following a cardiac arrest in the gym when they were on holiday. She found him and then had to fly home to tell her children. This book is shaped round the techniques and approaches and research that she explored for herself in trying to deal with this tragic situation; or, as she puts it, when Option A goes to pot, you need to kick the crap out of Option B.
It is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for Sandberg, and she is commendably open about her life, her difficulties and her challenges. She is also more cognisant of her privileged position than she was in Lean In (something which she was criticised for), and draws widely on an array of interesting research – this may in part be due to the presence and sounding board of her co-author, Adam Grant (a psychologist, lecturer and author himself). Some of the personal details she shares are extremely moving.
And yet, and yet. There is something carefully curated (to quote Decca Aitkenhead’s article about interviewing Sandberg) about the whole thing. Strangely, at times, there is a bit of guts or heart or anger missing; there’s also a hell of a lot of Facebook in there – I know it’s her work environment and her job, so it’s bound to feature, but does it have to feature quite this much, this often, in so many ways? And, for all the recognition of her privileged position, she doesn’t hold back on all the various opportunities, counselling, advice, support, camps, networks etc that she and her children are able to draw on (at one point, she and her children cry at a SpaceX launch, itself an example of corporate resilience apparently). I’m aware that some of this may just be a typically British reaction to quite an American book (it took me a couple of minutes to recover from the fact that apparently ‘journalling’ is a verb; not, say, writing a journal), but I think it’s more than that: it is a bit too neat and tied up. Sandberg is a fixer, a do-er and she seeks out research and evidence and examples that can give her certainty in an uncertain world. Acknowledging more of that uncertainty, and that there aren’t answers to some of it, might have made for a more empathetic and honest book.
So, curiously for a book centred around one personal tragic event, the stories that move most are those of other people. Ones that stayed with me were the woman who founded a non-profit working with ex-offenders before her work life and romantic life broke up and collapsed after she made some personal mistakes; and she had then got back up, started again and achieved even more. Or the famous Uruguayan rugby team who got stranded in the Andes mountains – there are some lovely words from some of those who made it out of there, and how they balanced hope with realism. These, and other examples, felt rawer and more real (and more imperfect) than Sandberg’s rigorously researched formula. It is these stories, along with the odd practical nugget of advice and wisdom, that will be what stays with me from the book.