Sheryl Sandberg gets real about heartbreak in Virginia Tech graduation speech
Sitting through a commencement speech is a roll of the dice: Your speaker might be boring or condescending, you might be sweltering from the sun or soaked by the rain, you might even be too hungover to care about what happens before victoriously waltzing across the stage to collect your diploma.
Commencement speaker Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and coauthor of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, took a big gamble Friday and dedicated her speech at Virginia Tech to heartbreak and resiliency.
It’s not the most obvious theme for college grads eager to celebrate the future, but since suddenly losing her husband two years ago, Sandberg has been on a mission to share with the world what she’s learned about heartbreaking, tragedy, and resilience.
And that’s something Virginia Tech knows more about than perhaps any other campus in the country. Ten years ago, a senior at the school fatally shot 32 people and then himself. It’s heavy stuff for what’s supposed to be a carefree occasion, but Sandberg addressed the crowd with equal parts real talk, humor, and optimism.
“I know, important day … and I’m up here talking about death. But I promise you there’s a reason.”
“I know, important day … and I’m up here talking about death,” she said during an untimely downpour. “But I promise you there’s a reason … Because what I’ve learned since losing Dave [Goldberg] has fundamentally changed how I view this world and how I live in it. And I want to share it with you, on this day because I think it’s going to help you lead happier, healthier, and more joyful lives and you deserve all of that.”
Sandberg urged the newly-minted grads to focus on building “collective resilience” through shared experiences and stories as varied as supporting friends through triumphs and disappointments to reminiscing about legendary Virginia Tech sports victories to confronting injustice together. Basically, no opportunity to strengthen bonds with someone you know, or even a stranger, is too small to pass up.
And for students who feel anxious about the future, Sandberg recommended hope.
“There are many kinds of hope,” she said. There’s the hope that she wouldn’t swipe left. Sorry. There’s the hope that your stuff will magically pack itself as you sit here. Sorry. There’s the hope that I’d be done speaking by now. Double sorry. But my favorite kind of hope is called grounded hope — the understanding that if you take action you can make things better.”
Citing people who’ve endured unthinkable tragedy and refused to give into hate, like the community devastated by the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, or a French journalist who lost his wife in the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, Sandberg focused on how such hope in the face of impossible odds makes us all more hopeful.
And, of course, she acknowledged the school’s own capacity for resilience, calling the campus a “testament to courage, faith and love.”
With five minutes left, the intense emotions that dominated Sandberg’s remarks caught up with her. “When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that you have the ability to get through absolutely anything. I promise you do,” she said, choking up with tears. “As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined.”
It might not have been the most lighthearted commencement speech, but if we’re honest about both the joy and pain of growing up, Sandberg’s message is one we all need to hear.