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For Sheryl Sandberg: Rethinking the drive to optimize

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, lost her husband Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, just over a month ago when he died at age 47. He was exercising at a resort while vacationing with Sandberg and their young children. Apparently he sustained blunt force trauma to the head as a result of a fall off a treadmill.

Sandberg wrote a Facebook post recently about the end of the first thirty days of mourning (in Judaism, a specific mourning period referred to as shloshim) and the beginning of the rest of her life. Many friends sent me a link to this post, sensing it would resonate with me. I connect with how she lays out what is real for her now. She acknowledges the raw pain, her uncertainty that she will feel pure joy again, and the time she has spent “lost in the void.” “When I can,” she says, “I want to choose life and meaning.” This carefully worded statement is different than saying, “I choose life and meaning.” It reveals the possibility that sometimes she might not be able to choose life and meaning (or perhaps even to want to choose them).

I believe we humans need to be able to accept the times we can make a choice that provides hope, and the times that we struggle to make that choice, and the times that we can’t make it happen. Each of these moments is genuine. Our acceptance of a moment, whatever the moment is, has the power to reveal the possibility of a next moment, and perhaps to help carry us there, depending on how receptive we are able to be.

“I have learned how ephemeral everything can feel—and maybe everything is,” says Sandberg. “That whatever rug you are standing on can be pulled right out from under you with absolutely no warning.”

Despite my clear understanding that tragedy can happen to anyone at any time, I am amazed to find I still harbor a sense that the super-successful among us should be able to optimize themselves right out of harm’s way. That someone like Sheryl Sandberg, with her extraordinary achievement and wealth, would be standing on a special sort of rug that protects her and everyone she loves from bad stuff.

Yet there they were on vacation, seemingly at the pinnacle of success, and this happens. A person on top of the world can still fall off a treadmill and die. A life I imagine to be optimized in every possible way, characterized by the best and safest and most effective of anything a person could choose, can still be turned upside down. Even the most protective rug can be pulled out from under someone’s feet.

This is hard to understand when we live in a time of extreme optimization, surrounded by an excess of choice and able to measure almost anything quantitatively (this New York Times article, “A Sucker is Optimized Every Minute,” lays it out in plain terms). We are obsessed with data. We have apps and Fitbits and Big Data collected by companies and organizations and the government, and we consult the data for every possible type of decision – what to eat, how to exercise, when to sleep, how to talk to our children, what color to use on a logo design, how to market a new product, what music to play in a coffee shop, what to read and when, how to choose a college…the list is endless.

Why obsess on how to make every moment, every task, every area of our existence, as optimal as possible? Of course I optimize, myself, and feel compelled to do anything better if I can. However, I have the sense that underneath the day-to-day advantages of optimization we are looking for The Answer, the “get out of pain free” card that will guarantee us a long life, good health, financial stability, mental acuity, and departure on our own terms when we have fulfilled all of our goals and dreams. Even if we doubt it exists, perhaps subconsciously we think we could prove it’s possible if we optimize everything we do. It’s a human impulse, similar to the impulse that leads gamblers to keep trying, and trying, and trying, until the money is way past gone. Every hand presents a new moment that could change everything. Statistically, the win is always possible.

However, the loss is also possible, at any moment. Although someone like Sheryl Sandberg has a statistically miniscule chance of being shot by a stray bullet, let’s say, or being hit by a car while walking, or being trampled at a concert, no one has a guarantee. Dave Goldberg, a man with a royal flush of statistical advantages, is gone much too soon. His wife, children, family, and friends will never be the same. A person who is 99.9% protected from all things will find that the 0.1% opens up like a chasm if you end up in it. The wife of Dave Goldberg is as devastated by the sudden loss as is the wife of police officer Paul Duncan, as is the wife of Eric Garner, as is my brother’s wife. All of their children must cope with the loss of a father. None of this is optimal, for any of them.

In her post, Sandberg refers to her recent experience of how we struggle to say the “right” thing to someone in crisis. Why is this so challenging right now? One reason, I believe, is because those of us living in relative comfort in “first world” societies aren’t used to crisis. We no longer live with the vulnerabilities of the past – rampant illness, spotty or nonexistent medical care, and the lack of safety measures commonplace today. I see evidence of this in the lists of children in my father’s genealogy book from the 1800s, where the birth and death dates show that many did not live past the age of five. Perhaps these families were more readily able to support others, since they had been through crisis or at least had seen it all around them.

We, on the other hand, are unaccustomed. When a crisis -- ours or someone else's -- reveals the ephemeral nature of our lives, we are often thrown. That vulnerability, the sense that every day could be your last day or the last day of someone you love, is deeply unsettling. It’s logical that we have trouble facing it, and that we often fixate on the language of hope, even when that language might not provide comfort for a person we are trying to help.

Believe me, I don't want to go back in time to the 1800s. However, in the absence of constant exposure to crisis, we need a new training regimen on how to help one another through. We need to read and send Emily McDowell’s empathy cards, we need to ask more questions, we need to be more present. We need to set aside what Big Data tells us about the optimal response and commit to the time, focus, and listening it takes to figure out what will comfort a particular person in a particular moment. Our lives move fast, and paying attention in this way necessarily slows us down. But it’s as important as getting out of the way when an ambulance is barreling down the road. Lives depend on these actions.

Sheryl Sandberg, my heart goes out to you. I wish you strength to face what each day brings, people who take the time to sense and hear what you need, and acceptance of the moments to come, even the ones that find you lost in the void. When those moments come, reach out your arms; with so many others of us lost nearby and searching for Option B as you are, you may find a hand to hold onto.

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