Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, the founder of LeanIn.Org, and a philanthropist. In 2014, she gave a beautiful commencement address to the Harvard University. Read the full text here below
Congratulations everyone, you made it. And I don’t mean to the end of college. I mean to class day. Because if memory serves, some of your classmates had too many scorpion bowls at the Kong last night and aren’t with us today. Given the weather, the one thing Harvard hasn’t figured out how to control, some of your other classmates are someplace warm with a hot cocoa. So you have many reasons to feel proud of yourselves as you sit here today.
Congratulations to your parents. You have spent a lot of money, so your child can say she went to a small school near Boston. And thank you to the class of 2014 for inviting me to be part of your celebration. It means a great deal to me and looking at the list of past speakers was a little daunting. I can’t be as funny as Amy Poehler, but I’m going to be funnier than Mother Teresa.
25 years ago, a man named Dave, I did not know at the time, but who would one day become my husband was sitting where you are sitting today. 23 years ago, I was sitting where you are sitting today. Dave and I are back this weekend with our amazing son and daughter to celebrate his reunion. And we both share the same sentiment. Harvard has a good basketball team? Standing here in the yard brings memories flooding back for me. I arrived here from Miami in the fall of 1987 with big hopes and even bigger hair. I was assigned to live in one of Harvard’s historic monuments to great architecture, Canaday.
My go-to outfit and I’m not making this up was a jean skirt, white leg warmers and sneakers, and a Florida sweatshirt. Because my parents who are here with me then as they’re here with me now told me everyone would think it was awesome that I was from Florida. At least we didn’t have Instagram. For me, Harvard was a series of firsts. My first winter coat, we didn’t need those in Miami. My first 10-page paper, they didn’t assign those in my high school. My first C after which my proctor told me that she was on the admissions committee and I got admitted to Harvard for my personality, not my academic potential.
The first person I ever met from boarding school I thought that was for really troubled kids. The first person I ever met who shared a name with a whole building or so I met when the first classmate I met was Sarah Wigglesworth, who bore no relation at all to the dorm, which would have been nice to know at that very intimidating moment. But then I went on to meet others. Francis Straus, James Weld, Jessica Science Center B.
My first love, my first heartbreak, the first time I realized I love to learn and the first and very last time I saw anyone read anything in Latin. When I sat in your seat all those years ago, I knew exactly where I was headed. I had it all planned out. I was going to the World Bank to work on global poverty, then I would go to law school, then I would spend my life working in a nonprofit or in the government.
At Harvard’s commencement tomorrow as your dean described, each school is going to stand up and graduate together, the college, the law school, the med school, and so on. At my graduation, my cuss cheered for the PhD students and then booed the business school. Business school seemed like such a sellout. 18 months later, I applied to business school. It wasn’t that I was wrong about what I would do decades after graduating. I had it wrong a year and a half later.
And even if I could have predicted I would one day work in the private sector, I never could have predicted Facebook because there was no internet. And Mark Zuckerberg was in elementary school, already wearing his hoodie. Not locking into a path too early, gave me an opportunity to go into a new and life-changing field. And for those of you who think I owe everything took good luck, after Canaday I got quadded. What’s up, Adam?
There is no straight path from your seat today to where you are going. Don’t try to draw that line. You will not just get it wrong, you will miss big opportunities. And I mean big like the internet. Careers are not ladders. Those days are long gone, but jungle gyms. Don’t just move up and down. Don’t just look up, look backwards, sideways, around corners. Your career and your life will have starts and stops and zigs and zags.
Don’t stress out about the white space, the path you can’t draw because there in lies both the surprises and the opportunities. As you open yourself up to possibility, the most important thing I can tell you today is to open yourself up to honesty, to telling the truth to each other, to being honest with yourselves, and to being honest about the world we live in.
If you watch children, you will immediately notice how honest they are. My friend Betsy was pregnant and her son with their second child son, Sam was five. He wanted to know where the baby was in her body. So he asked mommy, “Are the baby’s arms in your arms?” And she said, “No, no, Sam. Baby’s in my tummy, whole baby.” “Mom, are the baby’s legs in your legs? “No, Sam whole baby’s in my tummy.” “Then mommy, what’s growing in your butt?”
As adults, we are almost never this honest and that can be a very good thing. When I was pregnant with our first child, I asked my husband, Dave if my butt was getting big. At first, he didn’t answer, but I pressed. So he said, “Yeah, a little.” For years, my sister-in-law said about him what people will now say about you for the rest of your life when you do something dumb and that guy went to Harvard.
Hearing the truth at different times. Along the way would have helped me. I would not have admitted it easily when I sat where you sit. But when I graduated, I was much more worried about my love life than my career. I thought I only had a few years, very limited time to find one of the good guys before they were all taken or I got too old. So I moved to D.C., I met a good guy and I got married at the nearly decrepit age of 24. I married a wonderful man, but I had no business making that kind of commitment. I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be.
My marriage fell apart within a year, something that was really embarrassing and painful at the time. And it did not help that so many friends came up to me and said, “I never knew that I. Never thought that was going to work” or “I knew you two weren’t right for each other.” No one had managed to say anything like that to me before I marched down an aisle when it would have been far more useful.
And as I lived through those painful months of separation and divorce, boy did I wish they had. And boy did I wish I had asked them. At the same time in my professional life, someone did speak up. My first boss out of college was Lant Pritchett, an economist who teaches at the Kennedy School who’s here with us today. After I deferred law school for the second time, Lant sat me down and said, “I don’t think you should go to law school at all. I don’t think you want to go to law school. I think you think you should because you told your parents you would many years ago.” He noted that he had never once heard me talk about the law with any interest.
I know how hard it can be to be with each other, even your closest friends, even when they’re about to make serious mistakes. But I bet sitting here today you know your closest friends’ strengths, weaknesses, what cliff they might drive off. And I bet for the most part, you’ve never told them and they’ve never asked. Ask them. Ask them for the truth because it will help you. And when they answer honestly, know that that’s what makes them real friends.
Asking for feedback is a really important habit to get into as you leave the structure of the school calendar and exams and grades behind. On many jobs if you want to know how you’re doing, you’re going to have to ask and then you’re going to have to listen without getting defensive. Take it from me, listening to criticism is never fun, but it’s the only way we can improve.
A few years ago, Mark Zuckerberg decided he wanted to learn Chinese. And in order to practice, he started trying to have work meetings with some of our Facebook colleagues who are native speakers. Now you would think his very limited language skills would keep these conversations from being useful. One day he asked a woman who was there, “”How it was going, how did she like Facebook?” She answered with a long and pretty complicated sentence. So he said, “Simpler, please.”
She spoke again, “Simpler, please.” This went back and forth a couple of times, so she just blurted out in frustration. “My manager is bad.” That he understood. So often the truth is sacrificed to conflict avoidance or by the time we speak the truth, we’ve used so many caveats and preambles that the message totally gets lost. So as you ask each other for the truth and other people, can you elicit it in simple and clear language? And when you speak your truth, can you use simple and clear language?
As hard as it is to be honest with other people, it can be even more difficult to be honest with ourselves. For years after I had children, I would say pretty often, “I don’t feel guilty working” even when no one asked. Someone might say, “Sheryl, how’s your day today?” And I would say, “Great. I don’t feel guilty working” or “Do I need a sweater?” “Yes, it’s unpredictably freezing and I don’t feel guilty working.” I was kind of like a parrot with issues.
Then one day on the treadmill, I was reading this article in the Sociology Journal about how people don’t start out lying to other people, they start out lying to themselves. And the things we repeat most frequently are often those lies. So as sweat was pouring down my face, I started wondering, “Well, what do I repeat pretty frequently?” And I realized, I feel guilty working. I then did a lot of research and I spent an entire year with my dear friend Nell Scovell writing a book talking about how I was thinking and feeling. And I’m so grateful that so many women around the world connected to it. My book of course was called 50 Shades of Grey.
I can see a lot of you connected to it as well. We have even more work to do in being honest about the world we live in. We don’t always see the hard truths and once we see them, we don’t always have the courage to speak out. When my classmates and I were in college, we thought the fight for gender equality was one it was over. Sure, most of the leaders in every industry were men, but we thought changing that was just a matter of time.
Lamont library right over there, one generation before us didn’t let women through its doors. But by the time we sat in your seats, everything was equal. Harvard and Radcliffe was fully integrated. We didn’t need feminism because we were already equals. We were wrong. I was wrong. The world was not equal then and it is not equal now.
I think nowadays we don’t just hide ourselves from the hard truths and shut our eyes to the inequities, but we suffer from the tyranny of low expectations. In the last election cycle in the United States, women won 20% of the Senate seats and all the headlines kept screaming out, “Women take over the Senate. Women take over the Senate.” I felt like screaming back, “Wait a minute, everyone. 50% of the population getting 20% of the seats, that’s not a takeover. That’s an embarrassment.”
Just a few months ago this year, a very well-respected and well-known business executive in Silicon Valley invited me to give a speech to his club on social media. I’d been to this club a few months before when I had been invited for a friend’s birthday. It was a beautiful building and I was wandering around looking at it, looking for the women’s room when a staff member informed me very firmly that the ladies room was over there. And I should be sure not to go upstairs because women are never allowed in this building.
I didn’t realize I was in an all-male club until that minute. I spent the rest of the night wondering what I was doing there, wondering what everyone else was doing there. Wondering if any of my friends in San Francisco would invite me to a party at a club that didn’t allow blacks or Jews or Asians or gays. Being invited to give a business speech at this club hit me as even more egregious because you couldn’t claim that it was only social. Business wasn’t done there.
My first thought was, “Really? Really?” A year after Lean In, this dude thought it was a good idea to invite me to give a speech to his literal all-boys club. And he wasn’t alone. There was an entire committee of well-respected businessmen who joined him in issuing this kind invitation. To paraphrase Groucho Marx and don’t worry, I won’t try to do the voice. “I don’t want to speak in any club that won’t have me as a member.” So I said no. And I did it in a way. I probably wouldn’t have even five years before.
I wrote a long and passionate email arguing that they should change their policies. They thanked me for my prompt response and wrote that perhaps things will eventually change. Our expectations are too low, eventually needs to become immediately. You need to see the truth and speak the truth. We tolerate discrimination and we pretend that opportunity is equal. Yes, we elected an African American president, but racism is pervasive still. Yes, there are women who run fortune 500 companies, 5% to be precise, but our road there is still paved with words like pushy and bossy. While our male peers are leaders and results-focused.
African American women have to prove that they’re not angry. Latinos risk being branded fiery hotheads. A group of Asian American women and men at Facebook wore pins one day that said, I may or may not be good at math. Yes, Harvard has a woman president and in two years, the United States may have a woman president. But in order to get there, Hillary Clinton is going to have to overcome two very real obstacles, unknown and often an understood gender bias and even worse, a degree from Yale.
You can challenge stereotypes, both subtle and obvious. At Facebook, we have posters around the wall to inspire us. Done is better than perfect. Fortune favors the bold. What would you do if you weren’t afraid? My new favorite, nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem. I hope you feel that way about the problems you see in the world because they are not someone else’s problem. Gender inequality harms men along with women. Racism hurts whites along with minorities. And the lack of equal opportunity keeps all of us from fulfilling our true potential.
So as you graduate today, I want to put some pressure on you. I want to put some pressure on you to the hard truths, not shy away from them and when you see them to address them. The first time I spoke out about what it was like to be a woman in the workforce was less than five years ago. That means that for 18 years from where you sit to where I stand, my silence implied that everything was okay. You can do better than I did and I mean that so sincerely.
At the same time, I want to take some pressure off you. Sitting here today, you don’t have to know what career you want or how to get the career you might want. Leaning in does not mean your path will be straight or smooth. And most people who make great contributions start way later than Mark Zuckerberg. Find a jungle gym you want to play on and start climbing. Not only will you figure out what you want to do eventually, but once you do, you will crush it.
Looking at you all here today, I’m filled with hope. All of you were admitted to a small school near Boston, either for your academic potential, your personality or both. You’ve had your firsts, whether it’s a winter coat, a love or a C, you’ve learned more about who you are and who you want to be. And most importantly, you’ve experienced the power of community. You know that while you are extraordinary on your own, we are all stronger and can be louder together.
I know that you will never forget Harvard and Harvard will never forget you, especially during the next fundraising drive. Tomorrow, you all become part of a lifelong community, which offers truly great opportunity and therefore comes with real obligation. You can make the world fairer for everyone, expect honesty from yourself and each other, demand and create truly equal opportunity. Not eventually, but now. And tomorrow, by the way you get something Mark Zuckerberg does not have, a Harvard degree. Congratulations, everyone.