5 unexpected things we learned on Sheryl Sandberg’s Desert Island Discs

By Kitty Knowles 31 July 2017
Sheryl Sandberg Desert Island Discs. Pic: BBC.
Sheryl Sandberg Desert Island Discs. Pic: BBC.

Listen up - and hear Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sing.

It’s true, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is fantastic on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs.

The social media mogul shares touching memories around her youth and inspiring family; about her rise through Harvard to the US Treasury, Google and beyond; and her work at Facebook – fielding questions about terrorism and encryption.

Most moving, is how open she is in sharing her grief following the death of her husband, Dave. (She cries on air – and you’ll cry too).

Of course, you’ll learn important nuggets of wisdom about aiming high, and managing your work/life. And the businesswoman’s music selection is pretty great (Beyoncé, Elton John).

But Sandberg also gives insights that are bigger than that, and you’ll leave knowing how to actually be a better human.

Here are just five unexpected things we learned from Sheryl Sandberg’s Desert Island Discs…

1) White chocolate can be ‘soap’

Sandberg’s family life is fascinating.

She had an inspirational grandmother who worked as a maid and dropped out of school to work sewing little flowers onto bras – yet still graduated to go on to Berkeley University.

She had a kind mother known for allowing strangers to cry on her shoulders, and a father who was a doctor and taught her not to chase money but to help people.

Both parents actively helped those facing racial and religious discrimination in the Soviet Union, leading Sandberg to become politically-engaged even as a young child.

“I grew up knowing how to go to the store and buy bars of white chocolate that looked like soap, because prisoners weren’t allowed to get food but they were allowed to get soap,” she explains.

2) It’s all about ‘the girls’

Whether bigging up Beyoncé and the brilliant ‘ban bossy‘ campaign, or showing generations of girls they’re capable of ruling the world, Sandberg’s life revolves around female empowerment.

Most inspiring though, is her description of her own best friends she warmly refers to as ‘the girls’.

Her voice chokes in one heartfelt moment as she describes how they’ve supported her through marriage, divorce, the birth of both her children – and her late husband’s death.

“When I just couldn’t take it, I just sent an email: ‘Someone come’,” she recalls.

“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 would fight about who would.”

(To date Queen’s You’re My Best Friend plays on Sandberg’s phone when her best mates call).

3) Scarlett letters and self-doubt

You wouldn’t expect one of the world’s most successful businesswomen to feel self-doubt. But Sandberg has, cripplingly so.

“Every test I thought I was going to fail, when I did well, I thought I had fooled them,” she says of her time at university.

But it’s the ‘mistakes’ she’s made, and the hardships she’s faced that have helped her overcome it to be stronger and better than ever.

Marrying and divorcing before the age of 25 might have felt like failure at the time (she described wearing “a big scarlet letter D”) but it was also this that kickstarted her into learning to think for herself, to understand what she wanted from life.

Learning that women were underestimating themselves helped her realise she no longer wanted to underestimate herself either.

Even grief taught her how to help others better, she explains: “It’s a hard thing to do, but you get there by focusing on what’s real, and acknowledging the pain. Before I lost Dave I got this wrong.”

“Before I would say ‘I know you’re going to be ok’, but now I know the voice in their head is saying ‘How do you know?!'”

“Now I say ‘I know you don’t know if you’re going to be ok, and neither do I. But you will not go through this alone, I will be there with you’.”

4) The good & bad of Facebook

Sandberg is no fool, she knows every Facebook post “is not about peace, love, and kindness”.

Her explanation of why Facebook needs its 45,000 strong army of moderators and how artificial intelligence can help tackle terrorism is fascinating. Questioned on whether Facebook should share encrypted WhatsApp messages with government makes for complex discussion.

But, as she recalls meeting founder Mark Zuckerberg, it’s also clear how inspired Sandberg is, by Facebook and its mission. “The idea of putting your real self, your real face, your real friendships online, was completely new.

“I was convinced it was going to make people understand each other better,” she says.

5) A wrinkle in time (but no fuzzy socks)

In the tradition of Desert Island Discs, Sandberg also shares what she’d take with her to such an island.

Her favourite book, the future-gazing science fiction novel A Wrinkle In Time, seems appropriate for the head of one of the world’s biggest technology companies.

You might be more surprised by the ‘luxury item’ she nearly took – a pair of snug fuzzy socks.

Luckily Sandberg decided these wouldn’t be practical on hot sand and swapped these out in favour of her journal.

“If I were on a desert island with nothing to do, and no one to talk to, and no community, writing would be what I’d do,” she says.

Listen to Sheryl Sandberg’s full interview over on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs