Strengthening the Resiliency Muscle

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton professor Adam Grant’s Option B has been characterized as a book to help you get through tough times—which it will. But it’s also about how we can better support the people around us in their dark times, and ultimately, how all of us can be more resilient in our everyday lives. As Sandberg and Grant explain, we don’t have a fixed amount of resiliency, we don’t need to face and overcome tragedy to grow it, and our resilience helps both ourselves and others.

In Option B, moving personal stories (Sandberg’s passages on the death of her husband will leave you gut-wrenched, unsurprisingly) are interspersed with compelling, at-first seemingly counterintuitive research—and practical tips to help anyone be more empathetic. Say you’re at the office watercooler with someone who has just suffered a major loss or setback, and is living day to day, for instance: Instead of, “How are you?” ask, “How are you today?” This is one way of acknowledging that they’re going through something, while making space for however they might feel in that moment—which might be happy even if they are not so happy overall.

Here, Grant and Sandberg let us in on the things we all say and do with the best of the intentions that we’d all frankly be better off changing—and share their insights for cultivating resiliency.

A Q&A with Adam Grant & Sheryl Sandberg


What did you find most compelling in your research for Option B?


Everyone knows about post-traumatic stress, which affects about 15 percent of the population. But few have heard of post-traumatic growth, which is far more common. After facing tragedy, many people don’t just bounce back; they bounce forward. They come out with new perspective—feeling stronger (if I got through this, I can get through anything) and more grateful (life is more fragile and more precious than I realized). They create new and stronger relationships. They see new possibilities and find deeper meaning. The growth doesn’t replace sadness; it comes alongside it.

In writing this book together, we came to believe that along with post-traumatic growth, it’s possible to experience pre-traumatic growth—to learn the lessons without facing tragedy. Here’s one example: We have a friend who started writing letters to each of her friends on their birthdays, telling them how much they mean to her. She’s taking the lessons of gratitude and collective resilience that we write about in Option B and putting them to use now.


In your own lives, what turned out to be most surprising about going with Option B—facing challenges you never imagined?


One of the biggest lessons for both of us is that we don’t have a fixed amount of resilience. It’s a muscle we can build. And even more powerfully, we become resilient for others. When the people close to us are struggling, we find strength that we didn’t know we had. After facing hardship, one of the ways we grow is to help others, especially in the same kinds of situations where we’ve been hurt. It doesn’t just give our lives meaning—it gives our suffering meaning, which is a gift.


What are five ways people commonly react when others are struggling that we should just stop doing? What should we do instead?


If you go to a bookstore, there’s a huge self-help section, but there’s no “help others” section. We want Option B to be in the help others section. So many people don’t know what to say or do—and many end up saying or doing the wrong thing. We’ve made these mistakes many times ourselves:

1. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” It shifts the burden to the people who are suffering, asking them to know what they need and be comfortable asking for it. Instead, just do something. If someone close to you is in the hospital, show up and text them, “I’ll be in the lobby for the next hour if you want to come down for a hug.” If someone has gone through a breakup or divorce, bring over dinner and a movie (ideally not a romantic one).

2. “You’ll get through this.” Often, pain comes with isolation—the sense that people will move on with their lives and you’ll be left to suffer alone. The pronoun “you” can deepen that feeling. It’s much more comforting to say, “We’ll get through this together.”

3. “You’ll be okay. I just know it.” If someone is sick, there’s no way to know that for sure. Platitudes might make you feel better, but they don’t do much good for others. Instead, say, “I see that you’re in pain, and I’m here with you.” That’s more real and meaningful.

4. “Everything happens for a reason.” Few people want to be told that a loved one was supposed to die or something terrible was supposed to happen to them. A more supportive response is, “I don’t know why this happened, but I know you’re going to make something meaningful out of it.”

5. “Of course you can’t focus at work. How could you, with everything that’s going on in your life?” People mean well when they say this, but it often destroys the confidence of those who are suffering. It confirms for them that they’re falling apart at work right when they feel like they can’t afford for anything else to go wrong in their life. It’s better to say, “Take as much time off as you need, but I still believe in you.”


How can we increase our own resilience?


When something bad happens, we often fall into the trap of three Ps: We see it as personal (this is my fault), pervasive (this is going to ruin every part of my life), and permanent (I’m going to feel this way forever).

  • We can reject personalization by remembering that not everything that happens to us happens because of us.

  • We can conquer pervasiveness by keeping a journal—capture three things that went well or three moments of joy each day. Psychologists find that this reminds us that not every part of our lives is affected by setbacks.

  • We can overcome permanence by thinking of other times when we felt this awful, which helps us realize that this too will pass. “I will never feel pure joy again,” becomes, “right now it seems like I will never feel pure joy again.”


What about passing on resiliency to children?


To be resilient, children need to know that they matter. Mattering is the belief that other people notice you, care about you, and rely on you. Most parents are good at the first two: We know how important it is to pay attention to our kids and offer them unconditional love. But we forget about the third part: Kids need to feel that others can count on them.

When we’re going through challenges in our own lives—a disagreement with a friend, a failure or mistake at work—we can ask our kids for advice: What should I do? What would you do in this situation? It shows them that we trust their judgment, and allows them to practice thinking through how they would handle different kinds of setbacks.

Sheryl Sandberg is a business leader, philanthropist, and COO at Facebook. She is the bestselling author of Lean In and founded LeanIn.Org to support all women in achieving their goals. Adam Grant is a psychologist, Wharton professor, and bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take. He studies how we can find motivating and meaning, and live more generous, creative lives. Together, Grant and Sandberg are the authors of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. To learn more, see the Option B Facebook community page and site.