Success permeates Silicon Valley literature, but its close companion, loss and failure, is rarely acknowledged in a truly human, un-sanitized way. In 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg contributed to the Valley’s most popular genre with her bestselling book Lean In, which encouraged women to pursue equality in the workplace and at home. She famously said, “The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.” The book was criticized for lacking empathy and turning a blind eye to the ways privilege plays into success. Even so, Sandberg’s message positioned her as a feminist icon.
Her second book, Option B: Facing adversity, building resilience, and finding joy, co-authored with psychologist Adam Grant and released on Monday (April 24), has the capacity to impact even more people than Lean In. The new book is borne out of the sudden death of Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg in 2015, but is a universal guide on how to deal with loss and failure of any kind. Quartz reporter Jenny Anderson describes Option B as “a handbook on how to be human“—something that Silicon Valley struggles to accept, with its life hacks, obsession with immortality, deep-seated fear of failure, and hubris.
Sandberg humbly backtracks some of her messaging in Lean In—conceding that leaning in is more difficult for single moms than she realized—and makes a personal case, backed up by Grant’s research, for embracing emotional honesty in the workplace and beyond. As such, her new manifesto rejects the behavioral norms that dictate life inside Silicon Valley and society more broadly. Our reflexive desire to cover up emotion is understandable, but not always helpful, especially in times of crisis. Sandberg and Grant write:
All over the world, there is a cultural pressure to conceal negative emotions. In China and Japan the ideal emotional state is calm and composed. In the United States we like excitement. … As psychologist David Caruso observes, “American culture demands that the answer to the question “How are you?” is not just “Good.” … We need to be Awesome. Caruso adds, “There’s this relentless drive to mask the expression of our true underlying feelings.”
In the Valley, where there is insurmountable pressure to create the next unicorn, there is a unique kind of pressure to hide one’s emotions. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen once remarked that everyone walks around “fake happy” all the time.
This same emotional repression existed in downtown Las Vegas where Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh sought to mirror Silicon Valley with his $350 million-backed Downtown Project. The entrepreneurial ecosystem embodied the best and worst aspects of the Valley, including an expectation that the only truly acceptable sentiment to express was happiness. As has been well documented, the trajectory of the Downtown Project didn’t go as planned: The early euphoria of the experiment spun into a series of code-red crises. Startups with millions of dollars in backing shut down overnight. Several suicides pushed the community to engage with collective trauma, over and over again.
Entrepreneur Jonathan Jenkins compared the pressure to conceal emotion in downtown Vegas to the concept of “face” in China, where he founded his startup OrderWithMe. “Everything’s great, we’re doing great,” he told Re/Code, mimicking the way conversations were expected to go. “But at the end of the day, you need a community, a safety net.” A preoccupation with success interfered with embracing the vulnerability required to develop authentic relationships.
The Downtown Project’s original stated goal was to become the “most community-focused large city in the world” in five years or less—but it did not anticipate the needs of a resilient community. There was not adequate human infrastructure or support systems in place for when the collective emotional high that fueled the project’s early stages would eventually seek equilibrium. In 2014, Re/Code journalist Nellie Bowles observed “there is little emotional support for the entrepreneurs.” It’s not surprising that many left Vegas for the built-in safety nets and support networks of other cities after their ventures failed.
Sandberg and Grant highlight the foundational aspects of resilient communities in Option B: “Collective resilience requires more than just shared hope,” they write. “It is also fueled by shared experiences, shared narratives, and shared power.”
Despite the many failures and losses, there were moments of collective joy and still much to be gleaned from the experience. One participant, Nina Tomaro, describes Downtown Project as a “personal growth incubator”—exactly the perspective prescribed in Option B. The project may have not have accomplished its goal of completing 20 years of urban revitalization in five years, but its participants essentially absorbed 20 years of life experience in five years, which was extraordinary. The intensity associated with this kind of experience can either be paralyzing or leveraged into what Sandberg and Grant call “post-traumatic growth”—having the courage to view loss as an opportunity to build a new identity.
A number of community members took ownership of their losses to forge new identities. Maren Kate Donovan bravely wrote about the sudden failure of her startup Zirtual, which shut down overnight, and her newfound quest for living a life of radical vulnerability. She expressed an interest in improving the end-of-life care space after experiencing “everything from the death of my company, to the death of a loved one, and some personal losses.”
Zach Ware, whose $10 million-funded transportation startup Shift shut down after a brief run, committed to a healthier lifestyle and has encouraged the same of the entrepreneurs he invests in through VTF Capital. Entrepreneur Rehan Choudhry, whose brush with death through a heart attack at the young age of 23 inspired him to create a festival, Life Is Beautiful, responded to losing control of his dream to new owners and operators by picking himself up again and starting a new company, A Beautiful Perspective. Former Downtown Project employee Lisa Shufro documented her pursuit to transform grief into joy in a Medium post “Delivering Resilience,” where she recalled a conversation with Choudhry:
On the day that Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize, Rehan asked me what Shiza Shahid, Malala’s mentor and women’s rights advocate, would speak about. Resilience, of course. Rehan paused, and said, “What if, in a weird way, what happened to Malala is the best thing that’s ever happened to her?”
“That could never be the case,” I said. “The best thing that’s ever happened to Malala is what she did next with that experience. She chooses to live through it, to journey through the reservoir each day to experience joy.”
Option B questions our tendency to cling to carefully crafted narratives. It challenges the notion that achieving success requires embracing an air of invulnerability—as Sandberg points out, none of us are invulnerable. Denying the aspects that make us human often means missing out on the very best life has to offer.