Main content

10 things we learned from Sheryl Sandberg’s Desert Island Discs

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, the world’s most popular social network. She studied economics at Harvard, has worked at Google, the US Treasury and the World Bank, and is a bestselling author. In a frank, wide-ranging and emotional interview she speaks to Kirsty Young about family, love, leadership and coping with grief.

Surprising self-doubt

Despite her success, Sheryl struggled with self-doubt throughout college and her early career. “Every test I thought I was gonna fail,” she says. “When I did well, I thought I’d fooled them. I didn’t feel that I had earned it and owned it, and it wasn’t until much later I felt that.” Writing Lean In, her 2013 book about empowering women at work, and starting the Lean In organisation helped her because “I spent so much time telling other women to feel more self-confident, I learned it myself.”

Girls can run the world

For her first song, Sheryl opts for Beyoncé’s Run the World (Girls). “All over the world, we expect men to lead and women to do for others,” she says. She thinks Beyoncé’s message that she’s the boss, and that women can and should be in charge, is incredibly important for both girls and boys to hear.

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘We tell little girls not to lead’

Sheryl Sandberg, business leader, on women and leadership.

Grief – and taking back joy

When Sheryl’s husband Dave died suddenly of a heart attack in 2015, her biggest fear was how the loss would affect her son and daughter. She says she tried not to sugar-coat what had happened and to make it OK for them to grieve, but also to encourage them “to take back joy”. Sheryl describes Dave as “a smart, loving, just… wonderful man” who they still talk about “all the time”.

Profound isolation

In the days and weeks that followed Dave’s death, Sheryl experienced such “profound isolation” that she decided to write a Facebook post setting out how she felt. It received a huge response. “It didn’t bring Dave back and it didn’t take away the grief,” she says, “but it took away the feeling that I was alone, because people started talking to me again.”

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Build their self-confidence’

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, on how to help the bereaved.

Chocolate disguised as soap

While she was growing up, Sheryl’s parents were involved in helping Jewish people, if they were being discriminated against, to escape the Soviet Union. As a child, Sheryl would go to the shop to buy white chocolate that looked like soap, so it could be sent to people in Soviet prisons.

A completely new idea

Working in Silicon Valley during the first tech boom, Sheryl witnessed close up the incredible transformation in how information is organised and shared with the growth of the Internet. She says that when Facebook started, “The idea of putting your real self, your real face, your real friendships online was completely new. And I was convinced that it was going to make people understand each other better.”

Tackling terrorism online

Sheryl recently met with UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd to discuss tackling terrorism. Among its initiatives, Facebook is working with other tech companies to use artificial intelligence to stop terrorist content from being uploaded. This involves identifying and “fingerprinting” malicious videos so that they can’t be shared between platforms.

A significant ringtone

Whenever one of her six closest friends calls, Sheryl has You’re My Best Friend by Queen as the ringtone. The girls are all incredibly close, and she considers herself very lucky to have them. When she was struggling to cope after her husband died, Sheryl emailed them all, simply saying: “Someone come.” She says, “They have jobs. One of them has five kids. They are busy. But I knew they weren’t going to fight over who wasn’t coming, they were going to fight over who would.”

Acknowledge the pain

In her most recent book, Option B, Sheryl recommends that when someone has suffered a catastrophic loss, you shouldn’t ask them “How are you?” but “How are you today?” She tells Kirsty it’s important to support friends facing illness or loss by “focusing on what’s real and acknowledging the pain”, and reassuring them that you’ll be with them throughout: “We can show up.”

The most important line ever sung

Sheryl says of the Counting Crows song “Long December”: “This line may be the most important line to me that was ever sung: ‘A long December and there’s reason to believe / Maybe this year will be better than the last.’”