Editor’s note: Steve Jobs had a wonderful commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005: “How to live before you die.” This one is from Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, at UC Berkeley to the Class of 2016: “The lessons I learned only in death.” I hope you get time to read it. Here are excerpts:
A commencement address is meant to be a dance between youth and wisdom. You have the youth. Someone comes in to be the voice of wisdom—that’s supposed to be me. I stand up here and tell you all the things I have learned in life, you throw your cap in the air, you let your family take a million photos –don’t forget to post them on Instagram —and everyone goes home happy.
Today will be a bit different. We will still do the caps and you still have to do the photos. But I am not here to tell you all the things I’ve learned in life. Today I will try to tell you what I learned in death.
I have never spoken publicly about this before. It’s hard. But I will do my very best not to blow my nose on this beautiful Berkeley robe.
One year and 13 days ago, I lost my husband, Dave. His death was sudden and unexpected. We were at a friend’s fiftieth birthday party in Mexico. I took a nap. Dave went to work out. What followed was the unthinkable—walking into a gym to find him lying on the floor. Flying home to tell my children that their father was gone. Watching his casket being lowered into the ground.
For many months afterward, and at many times since, I was swallowed up in the deep fog of grief—what I think of as the void—an emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe.
Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void—or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning.
The child psychologists I spoke to encouraged me to get my kids back to their routine as soon as possible. So 10 days after Dave died, they went back to school and I went back to work. I remember sitting in my first Facebook meeting in a deep, deep haze. All I could think was, “What is everyone talking about and how could this possibly matter?” But then I got drawn into the discussion and for a second—a brief split second—I forgot about death.
The loss of a partner often has severe negative financial consequences, especially for women. So many single mothers—and fathers—struggle to make ends meet or have jobs that don’t allow them the time they need to care for their children. I had financial security, the ability to take the time off I needed, and a job that I did not just believe in, but where it’s actually OK to spend all day on Facebook. Gradually, my children started sleeping through the night, crying less, playing more.
Last month, eleven days before the anniversary of Dave’s death, I broke down crying to a friend of mine. We were sitting—of all places—on a bathroom floor. I said: “Eleven days. One year ago, he had eleven days left. And we had no idea.” We looked at each other through tears, and asked how we would live if we knew we had eleven days left.
As you graduate, can you ask yourselves to live as if you had eleven days left? I don’t mean blow everything off and party all the time— although tonight is an exception. I mean live with the understanding of how precious every single day would be. How precious every day actually is.
Class of 2016, as you leave Berkeley, build resilience.
Build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that you have the ability to get through absolutely anything. I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined.
The complete speech is here.