I have not spoken about this publicly before, and it’s hard. But I promise not to blow my nose on this beautiful Berkeley robe.
One year and thirteen days ago, I lost my husband, Dave. His death was sudden and unexpected. We were in Mexico, celebrating a friend’s 50th birthday party. I took a nap. He went to work out. What followed was the unthinkable – I walked into a gym to find him lying on the floor. I flew home to tell my children that their father was gone. I watched his casket being lowered into the ground.
For many months afterward, and at many times since, I was swallowed up in the deep fog of grief — what I think of as the void — an emptiness that fills your heart, and your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe.
Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void — or in the face of any challenge — you can choose joy and meaning.
I’m sharing this with you today in the hopes that on this day in your life with all the momentum and joy, you can learn in life the lessons that I only learned in death. Lessons about hope, about strength, and about the light within us that will not be extinguished.
Everyone who has made it through Cal has already experienced some disappointment. You wanted an A but you got a B. Let’s be honest. You got an A minus but you’re still mad. You applied for an internship at Facebook, but you only got one at Google. She was clearly the love of your life but then she swiped left.
Game of Thrones, the show, has diverged way too much from the books — and you are mad because you read all 4,352 pages.
You will almost certainly face more and deeper adversity. There’s loss of opportunity: the job that doesn’t work out, the illness or crime which changes everything in an instant. There’s loss of dignity: the sharp sting of prejudice when it happens. There’s loss of love: the broken relationships that can’t be repaired. And sometimes there’s loss of life itself.
Many of you have already experienced the kind of tragedy and hardship that leave an indelible mark. Last year, Radhika, the winner of the University Medal, spoke so beautifully about the sudden loss of her mother. The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will. But I want to talk about today is what you do next. About the things you can do to overcome adversity, no matter when it hits you or how it hit. The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It is the hard days — the days that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.
A few weeks after Dave died, I was talking to my friend Phil about a father-son activity Dave would not here to do. We came in with a plan to fill in for Dave. But I cried to Phil, “But I want Dave.” Phil put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”
We all at some point live some form of option B. The question is: What do we do next?
As a representative of Silicon Valley, I’m pleased to tell you that there is data we can learn from. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that there are three P’s — personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence — that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship. The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events of our lives.
The first P is personalization — the belief that we are at fault. This is different from taking responsibility, which you should always do. This is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us.
When Dave died, I had a very common reaction, which was to blame myself. He died in seconds from a cardiac arrhythmia. I poured over his medical records asking what I could have, or should have done. It wasn’t until I learned about the three P’s that I accepted that I could not have prevented his death. His doctors had not diagnosed his coronary artery disease. I was an economics major; how could I?
Studies show that getting past personalization can make us stronger. Teachers who had students who failed, who believe they can do better, revisit their methods and have future classes that excel. College swimmers who underperformed in a race but believed they can do better do. Not taking failures personally allows us to recover and even to thrive.
The second P is pervasiveness — the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life. You know that song “Everything is awesome?” This is the flip: “Everything is awful.” There’s nowhere to hide from the all-consuming sadness.