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How Wharton’s Adam Grant Came To Work With Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg & Wharton Professor Adam Grant

When Sheryl Sandberg felt the void from her husband’s death closing in on her two years ago, she called Wharton professor Adam Grant. Her husband, Dave, had died in a gym working out alone when he and Sandberg were on vacation. Soon, Grant and Facebook COO Sandberg found themselves in deep, highly emotional conversations.

On the surface, you wouldn’t necessarily think that a grieving widow would call a then 33-year-old Wharton professor for advice. But Grant is hardly your ordinary business school faculty member. The youngest tenured professor in history at Wharton and the highest-rated teacher, he’s been the “it” professor at the school for a number of years. He has earned the Excellence in Teaching Award at both the MBA and undergraduate levels, and he boasts an A-list group of consulting clients, including Google, the NFL, IBM, Goldman Sachs, GlaxoSmithKline, and the World Economic Forum.

And it’s just as usual for a leading B-school academic to pair with one of the most admired executives of her generation on a book project. But now Grant is the co-author of Option B, the book written in the first person by Sandberg about building resilience and moving forward after a severe setback in life. The book debuted at No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list the day it was published, April 24. An upcoming appearance in San Francisco at The Commonwealth Club on May 4 has been sold out for weeks. Already, Option B has gotten rave reviews from The New York Times and other media outlets. “It is a remarkable achievement: generous, honest, almost unbearably poignant,” according to the Times review. “This is a book that will be quietly passed from hand to hand, and it will surely offer great comfort to its intended readers.”

A MEETING OVER DINNER AT SANDBERG’S SILICON VALLEY HOME

Grant and Sandberg first met when Grant came to dinner at Sandberg’s house. Roughly four years ago, her husband had read Grant’s previous bestselling book, Give and Take, and invited the professor out to speak at SurveyMonkey where he was then CEO. Over dinner, Sandberg and her husband began speaking to Grant about the challenges women face and how Grant’s work could inform the issue.

As Sandberg writes in Option B, “We began writing together and became friends.  When Dave died, Adam flew across the country to attend the funeral. I confided to him that my greatest fear was that my kids would never be happy again. Other people had tried to reassure me with personal stories, but Adam walked me through the data: after losing a parent, many children are surprisingly resilient. They go on to have happy childhoods and become well-adjusted adults.”

Two weeks after her husband’s funeral, Sandberg received a letter from an acquaintance who was in her sixties and had also lost her husband. The woman told Sandberg that she wished she had some good advice to offer but didn’t. “Try as I might,” the widow wrote, “I can’t come up with a single thing that I know will help you.” That only made Sandberg even more distraught.

‘I THOUGHT ADAM WAS A TOTAL IDIOT’

She immediately called up Grant, read him the letter over the phone, and soon afterward, the Wharton professor was on a plane winging himself west to see her. “Hearing the despair in my voice triggered by the letter,” writes Sandberg, “Adam flew back across the country to convince me that there was a bottom to this seemingly endless void. He wanted to tell me face-to-face that while grief was unavoidable, there were things I could do to lessen the anguish for myself and my children. He said that by six months, more than half of people who lose a spouse are past what psychologists classify as ‘acute grief.’ Adam convinced me that while my grief would have to run its course, my beliefs and actions could shape how quickly I moved through the void and where I ended up.”

Not surprisingly, there were difficult conversations between the two. At one point, Grant challenged Sandberg—still profoundly grieving over the loss of her husband—with a question that astounded the Facebook executive.

“One day he looked at me and said, ‘You should think about how things could be worse?’,” recalls Sandberg in a podcast interview with The New York Times. “I thought he was a total idiot. And then he said, ‘Well, Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmias while driving the children.’ To this day, when I need it, I think about that. I sit here today and I am sadder but I appreciate life in a way I never did before. What if it had been worse?”

‘I SERIOUSLY THOUGHT ABOUT GIVING UP ON TEACHING’

Grant’s statement came from his own personal scrape with grief. In 2012, his closest family friend, author and columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, 53, died after his car was struck by a semi-trailer truck after Zaslow had lost control of his vehicle on a snow-covered road in Michigan. Shortly before the accident, Zaslow had been on the phone with Grant. “I played these endless loops in my head over and over again,” recalls Grant. “When I last talked to him, what if I had stayed on the phone ten minutes longer? Maybe he would not have been on the same icy road at the same time. My wife said, ‘You have to realize this could be worse. People have car accidents with families in their cars. You have to feel lucky that his children were not in the car with him.’”

Two years earlier, Grant had a face-to-face meeting with a 21-year-old student, Owen Thomas, who had been captain of the university’s football team and a much beloved figure on campus. It was Grant’s first year as a teacher on the University of Pennsylvania campus after earning his classroom chops at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “He reached out to me for career advice and not long after that he died by suicide,” says Grant.

It was later discovered, that Thomas was in the early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a disease that has been linked to depression and impulse control, primarily among NFL players. Thomas hung himself at his off-campus apartment.

“We were all shocked and I seriously thought about giving up on teaching. That was really hard and the whole campus grieved over that experience.”