Nilofer Merchant (@nilofer) is one of the world’s top-ranked business thinkers, an innovation expert, and the author of The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.
What We Discuss with Nilofer Merchant:
- How bias — from others as well as ourselves — works to stifle innovation and the spread of good ideas.
- The process by which ideas are created and spread and how we can exercise our own abilities to make our ideas heard — even if we’re at the bottom of the totem pole.
- Why we conform to expectations that were largely created decades ago and don’t really have a place in the modern workforce.
- Where “left-field” ideas often originate and why they’re often missed.
- What we can do to make the generation and capture of ideas more inclusive.
- And much more…
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Power and status have dominated the news cycles of late — from the inner workings of Hollywood to the hallowed halls of government. But what effects do power and status have on ideas and organizations?
If you’re like most, you want the ability to make a difference, but lack the credentials in your current hierarchy to make your voice heard by the higher-ups. Today, The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World author Nilofer Merchant joins us to explore how you can make a difference and spread your good ideas no matter what rung of the ladder you occupy. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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More About This Show
Bias is real. It exists within any organization, institution, congregation, group, or troop human beings can dream up. And as much as we might like to deny it, it exists within us too. It’s so pervasive to our species that we’re even biased against ourselves under certain circumstances. We find excuses to deny that our ideas are worth bringing into the conversation when we feel somehow unworthy of the audience in front of us.
Recent research has shown that 61 percent of us hide our original ideas in such a way because we have a bias against ourselves — we feel powerless in the shadow of a hierarchy, the top of which we believe we’ll never see.
“It’s not just underseen and underserved groups like women and people of color and so on,” says Nilofer Merchant, author of The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World. “It’s actually all of us…45 percent of white men do it, too.”
When we subject ourselves to self-bias, we cover for it in a multitude of ways whenever we face power. A young person with perfect vision might wear glasses to appear more experienced to his or her colleagues. Someone with religious views that don’t match those of their peers might hide any sign of their faith until they’re in private. A new father might turn down paternity leave at a workplace that encourages it because he doesn’t want anyone to doubt his commitment to the company.
“We’re conforming to expectation which, by the way, no one’s even said — but is the norm — so we cover to whatever norm is,” says Nilofer.
When we look to what the norm appears to be for power, we’re usually looking at models that are so old as to be barely recognizable to the modern framework.
“People do it not because they’re stupid or because they want to hide themselves, but because that’s how power works,” Nilofer says. “What you’re doing is you’re looking around the table and thinking, ‘Who has power? How do they behave?’ And then you start to emulate that behavior. That’s all. We’re just doing it to get our shot for ideas, and at some point we realize that we can’t remember our own ideas because we’ve kind of given them up along the way.”
It makes sense that, by covering certain parts of our identity in a group setting, we feel less than complete when it’s time to bring ourselves and our ideas to the table. As a result, our level of engagement and fulfillment plummet.
Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about how status directly affects power, the problem with work being designed around efficiency and productivity over creativity and innovation, how a Harvard professor used crowdsourcing to solve problems once deemed unsolvable (and from whom these solutions mostly originated), what we can do to make the generation and capture of ideas more inclusive, how we can hone our own “onlyness,” and much more.
THANKS, NILOFER MERCHANT!
If you enjoyed this session with Nilofer Merchant, let her know by clicking on the link below and sending her a quick shout out at Twitter:
Click here to thank Nilofer Merchant at Twitter!
Click here to let Jordan know about your number one takeaway from this episode!
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Resources from This Episode:
- The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World by Nilofer Merchant
- Nilofer Merchant’s Website
- Nilofer Merchant at Medium
- Nilofer Merchant at Instagram
- Nilofer Merchant at Facebook
- Nilofer Merchant at Twitter
- Nilofer Merchant at TEDxHouston 2012
- The Four Horsemen of Power at the Bargaining Table by Adam D. Galinsky, Michael Schaerer, and Joe C. Magee
- The Agentic-Communal Model of Advantage and Disadvantage: How Inequality Produces Similarities in the Psychology of Power, Social Class, Gender, and Race by Adam D. Galinsky, Derek D. Rucker, and Joe C. Magee
- TJHS 36: David Burkus | How to Become a Networking Superconnector
- Authenticity, Transformation, and the Future of Inclusion: A Conversation with Christie Smith, Deloitte
- The Gallup 2017 Employee Engagement Report is Out: And the Results…Nothing has Changed by Jeff Corbin, theEMPLOYEE App
- Your Elusive Creative Genius by Elizabeth Gilbert, TED 2009
- Drawing on the Crowd for Innovative Problem-Solving, Harvard Business School
- The Black List: Where Filmmakers & Writers Meet
Transcript for Nilofer Merchant | Make a Difference from Anywhere (Episode 112)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:00] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with my producer, Jason DeFillippo. Power and status has been on everyone's mind these days from the news cycle to the inner workings of Hollywood and even the government. But what effects do power and status have on ideas and inside organizations? If you're like most people, you wish you had the ability to make a difference, but you don't have the credentials or a seat at the table, or maybe you can't get past the gatekeepers or maybe you're not even high enough in any hierarchy to get your ideas heard. I wanted to explore this topic further. So today, we're talking with my friend, Nilofer Merchant. Innovation and the spread of ideas is her jam. And in this episode, we'll explore bias in the workplace when it comes to innovation and the spread of ideas. This is a fascinating topic because it isn't just something other people do to us. It's something we often end up doing to ourselves.
[00:00:50] We'll also discover the process by which ideas are created and spread, and how we can exercise our own abilities to make our ideas heard, even if we're at the bottom of the totem pole. If you want to know how I managed to book all these great guests and manage their relationships over years, well I use systems, I use tiny habits that take just a few minutes per day. I want to teach them to you for free. Check out our Six-Minute Networking Course over at jordanharbinger.com/course, and don't forget we've got worksheets just like we do for every episode. So if you want to get those practicals, those takeaways, go grab the worksheets in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. All right, here's Nilofer Merchant.
[00:01:30] I would love to start in a place where you began one of your talks and where the book also began, which was that you were plunked into, if I can use that phrase into an arranged marriage situation, which after reading the rest of your book is almost a little bit laughable because of the level of independence and encourage and sort of get up and go, and capability that you have. It's kind of ridiculous that you were ever in that situation, which I think makes the story even more interesting.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:02:00] Yeah. So despite living in the United States since I was four and a half years old, I had always expected to get an arranged marriage that was sort of my fate in my family. And one day I come home, the family is like all the -- and when I say family, I mean aunties and uncles and cousins are like full in the house and they're all celebrating the fact that I'm about to marry this very wealthy man, and they're super excited that I'm not, because it becomes pretty clear the early kind of conversation points is I had asked for them to also tell the guy that I wanted to get an education and I had specifically asked my uncle who was in the room to do that and I'd gotten him and said, “Hey, so did you do it?” And he's like, “No, your mom won't let me. She has other priorities. She wants a house. So let's take care of her and then you can ask later. It'll be fine.” And unbeknownst to my family, I had a really Western influence in my mind. So I had grown up doing in high school, like future business leaders of America was like a actually a club that I belong to, which sounds so incredibly geeky when I say it out loud. FPLA is the acronym.
[00:03:10] So I had grown up also with a business mindset and a sort of Western thinking mindset. And so I really want an education even though knowing in my family, it was something just for the boys. So at one point, I had applied to a four year school. I had gotten in, I had done it, affirm it. So at this point I'm trying to slip stream that two parts of my life together, the part where I get to make my family happy and the part where I also get what I need.
[00:03:34] So then after this little moment, my uncle says it's not going to happen. I wait a few minutes, talk relieves, and then I could try to make the case to my mom. And she's thinking, “No way.” So she basically shuts me down pretty hard. And I'm saying to her as I'm packing a box by the way. So I grabbed like a local box, I put the books I just brought home from college. I find one outfit. This is how much I'm preplanning, what's about to happen. I find one outfit and I put it in the box, no toothbrush. So I don't expect it to actually get that far. I actually think she's going to stop me at the door. And I turned to her and I say, “I'm the product. You can't do this deal without me.” So this is my total FPLA influence in my life. “You can't do this deal without me, so just change your mind.” And I don't expect to even make it to the door. And then by the time I make it to the driveway, I'm like, “Uh-oh, this is not going as I planned.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:28] Oh, so you did you expect her to run out like, “Okay, I’ll take your life goals into consideration.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:04:33] Right, right. I mean, who's going to let the kid walk out the door? Where is she going? Why would you let her walk out? That makes no sense to me. So she doesn't stop me. And at the end of the driveway, I have to figure out like, “What the heck am I doing next?” Because I don't have a plan. This is not plan.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:49] Well, considering you brought your textbooks and one outfit, I think you're already blew the plan when she's like, “Oh really? Organic chemistry, all right.”
Nilofer Merchant: [00:04:58] Totally, that's exactly. It's like, “Oh, okay. Clearly she doesn't mean it.” So maybe I didn't execute that beautifully. But anyway, so I get to the driveway and I realized, okay, donut shop, donut shop, as it where. So this is what I've learned this many years later. First of all, my mother never relented, and I've also learned that in times of high stress, I will always choose carbs.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:18] Nice.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:05:19] Those are my two life lessons from this story. And she never relented, and so I ended up literally becoming homeless, penniless, entirely disowned from the entire community, and it's been 30 years late.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:34] Wait, so she never, never relented? Like you have not, you never -- this has never been repaired, this relationship?
Nilofer Merchant: [00:05:40] Yes. So I am the black sheep of the family and because I wanted an education and I did not do as my family expected of me. And it took me many more years to realize the lesson from it which was -- and the lesson I would played out over and over in business, which was in that moment, they weren't seeing me as the individual Nilofer for with her own distinct history and experience and visions and hopes, they saw me instead as little more than a silhouette in the shape of an Islamic Indian woman, and that particular silhouette, that distinct, that the sickness was lost and all I was like a stock character, and in this case a stock character with no power. And even though, I would go on to become a business woman that would do really interesting things. It was in those rooms and businesses where I would go, “Oh, in this room, people don't see people because they don't have an MBA.” And then in later rooms, like I'd be on boards and it would be really clear that the only person who got the microphone was allowed as person in the room, mostly guys, but you know, the loudest person in the room. And so in any particular room it could be because someone was partner or CEO, it could be because someone was super young. It just different groups of people were always left unseen, simply seen or screened out by the silhouette of who they were rather than the soul of their ideas. And so that's actually how I came to this understanding about onlyness in the first place.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:14] How did this later influence your work on Onlyness ? I mean, because it sounds like, okay, it's really convenient to go, “Oh, this thing happened to me when I was younger dot, dot, dot onlyness, but it seems like this type of severe, I didn't realize your relationship never got repaired. So this, I would assume a broken relationship with your family kind of underlies your whole life in a way, maybe I'm overstating this.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:07:37] I think the big thing is to the -- my walkaway just for myself is to realize there are moments when I'm working with people on they’ll say, “Oh it's unchangeable,” or “I don't have the courage to do that.” And they're sort of facing this choice about do they look at the choice that's right for them, or are they continuing to kind of figure out how to still fit into what other people expect of them? And I'm always a guiding of, no matter how hard you think it is, it's going to be harder to give up your own soul, your own life, your own self. And when I say that decision, I say it with this deep experience, no matter how hard it is to make that tough choice, it's going to be a lot less hard and giving up yourself and I think that's the -- when you talk about sort of foundational stories to someone's life and why every person thinks they don't have the courage to make the right call. I actually didn't feel like at that moment I had courage either and it was only in making the call but I developed a certain muscle and ultimately the muscularity to know what it is to see yourself as worthy even when other people around you say or not.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:54] One that I noticed that I thought was a brilliant observation is that of yours, is that power and status act as these self-reinforcing loops. I think you called it the loop de loop of power or something like that, and I'd never heard this explained that way. But as somebody who's not necessarily or in the past wasn't necessarily very, I don't like the word liberal because it's just thrown around a lot these days. But this really spoke to me because I think there's no real way to argue against the idea that someone who has status is going to be heard more than somebody who isn't. And that might go a little bit without saying, but the fact that this compounds over time is particularly damaging. Would you mind telling us how this concept works? Because I think as a 38 year old white dude who grew up in the Midwest to a middle class family, this was kind of not in a new idea to me, but something that I'd kind of gone like, “Oh yeah, whatever.” For my whole life.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:09:56] I think for a -- and I'll share it from my perspective as now a 50 year old. If for a long time I would think, “Oh, this is situational.” And so maybe if I learn how to communicate better or maybe if that person learns how to advocate for their ideas, maybe if you just quote unquote lean in more whatever the thing was. And then the research actually suggest something different to the piece of research you're quoting is actually really good work done by Adam Galinsky, and Joe Magee out of Columbia University, and they give us language, this dynamic. They publish this paper, I want to say 2017, it went online and they did the research that slightly before that. And basically it says that power and status act as self-reinforcing loops, meaning how much personal status has directly affects whether or not their ideas are heard. So it can be because somebody who's gone to a top notch school and the people next to you have not. It could be when you were a young, in fact, David Berkus and I, who that common friend, he and I proudly talk about, he wears glasses to look more experienced because he notices that people in the management field, who get more authority wear glasses. So it can be all sorts of ways in which a young person will try to camouflage or -- but basically if you have high status, the data says, you and your ideas are met with greater receptivity starting early on and then you get, you know just think about the last time you were at a meeting and somebody says, “Yeah, I could see the idea of working. I could totally see who you need to talk to. Maybe like change these three things.” That in turn leads to you getting the right results, which then boost your status. So I call it loop de loop, a loop de loop up and up you go, if you have more power. And same is true of the other side. So if your lack pedigree, lack credentials, or Dave’s case, he thinks he's too young. If you're a woman, in most situations, if you're a person of color, the likelihood is you'll get none of that same support.
[00:12:03] So what you'll be told is something like that's really risky or we've done that already or a the one, a lot of my friends here, so we joke around about it a lot is, “Well that's too much,” whatever that means. I don't even know what that sentence means, but we get told, “Well that idea is too much.” And that so the opposite, our little loop de loop goes down like a rollercoaster ride going down. And so it's not because the idea was looked at and deemed unworthy, but because it came from a person who is deemed relatively powerless, and therefore, unworthy of being seen or heard. And that's the ridiculous irony of that, is that it means that true originality which is what you and I, we were all talking about before we jumped on the audio part of this. True originality which is widely celebrated and understood. It means a whole bunch of us who are truly original don't get seen because of what we specifically and distinctly offer. Instead we're rendered through the lens of another otherness, therefore denies you your ideas. And instead of being otherized, I want people to be seen for what only they bring, which is only in us, and that's where the word really comes into play.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:13:20] You're listening to the Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, Nilofer Merchant. We'll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:03] You mentioned bias before the show began and in relation to onlyness. And bias, we often talk about that as if it's just sort of a feeling, and I'm not totally verbalized in this right here accurately, but it's kind of like, “Oh well, this doesn't exactly exist. It's just the way that someone feels or this is a certain reaction that happens.” But I think that when a system is set up with bias, which you can't really avoid because any system that deals with humans is sort of inherently going to have a bunch of that. The problem is I think we do a lot of this to ourselves. We don't just sort of do or have bias affect other people. We tend to do it ourselves, and I think it was an example in one of either your talks or possibly some other data that I was reading in preparation for this about jobs. And we find that a lot of times we will be biased against ourselves. In fact, the glasses example is kind of interesting. I mean, you can't really -- when you say, “Oh, you have 2020 vision, obviously you're not smart enough to be in this room.” That's not really what we're talking about. But there's a lot of, there's a lot of young men and women, people of color, et cetera, that will say things like, “Well, I don't know if I can do this,” but it's very counter to the narrative that I grew up with, which is I think it's a Chris Rock thing where he says like, you tell some white suburban kid that he can be anything he wants to be when he grows up and he looks at you like you have two heads, because he knows that, it's obvious.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:17:30] He knows that. Yeah, no, and actually, so the data behind what you're talking about, the fact that we can do a bias to ourselves, like we can actually internalize it is absolutely true. So Christie Smith of Deloitte did some research a couple of years back, and it showed that 61 percent of people cover that was her language part cover in this way. Figuring out how to hide their original ideas or fresh takes and ideas. They're typically -- it's not just under seeing an underserved groups like women and people of color and so on. It's actually a all of us. So even in the category that you're talking about white men, which is such an interesting category. 45 percent of white men do it too. And some of the examples might be that young person who wears glasses so he might appear more experienced. It could be the deeply religious person who hides their beliefs and their out of office message, and so because he doesn't think that's acceptable. It could be the new dad. I know my son-in-law when he had one of his kids actually said to me, he's not going to take paternity leave, even though his company offered it. And I said, “Why? I mean it seems like you really want it.” And he goes, “Yeah, I'm afraid people will think I'm not committed to my career.” And so we're conforming to expectation which by the way, no one's even said, but is the norm. And so we covered to whatever norm is, and norm has largely been defined by very old, like 1950s archetype. It's so old, most of us don't even recognize it. It's just a mythology almost, but people do it not because they're stupid or because they want to hide themselves. It's because that's how power works. So what you're doing is you're looking around the table and saying, “who has power?” “Okay, how do they behave?” And then you start to emulate that behavior. That's all. I mean, we're just doing it to get our shot for ideas, and then at some point, we realize we can't even remember our own ideas because we've kind of given them up along the way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:34] Yeah. I think the data that you had cited or that was cited in an article that you had was 61 percent of workers admit to covering, which essentially is hiding their own passions, their own interests in order to fit into that corporate culture, leaving basically their ideas slash identity at the door. And of course that contributes to the letters that we get in our inbox and that you must get in your inbox as well, which are, I feel so disengaged at work, or I don't feel like I belong here. I'm not sure w what's my future. Is this going to be -- what do I do right now? Because of course if you can't actually bring certain parts of you, namely the most important differentiating parts of you to a career, it almost has to be unfulfilling in part.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:20:16] Right, right. And in fact, you know, for I think it's been 30 some years that Gallup and few have been studying whether or not people are happy at work and they call it engaged, engagement levels. So whether or not you're deeply engaged, not engaged, not at all, et cetera, but it's 85 percent, and the number sometimes 87 percent depending on which number, but it's alarmingly high because if you think about how many of us basically don't feel satisfied to be there, and no one's like -- what amazes me, because I do a lot of work in business schools, is that there's no big siren going off in those halls, and saying, “Woo-hoo, we have an issue over here.” “Aisle three big problem.” And businesses really designed to automate us instead of actualize us to ask just for a piece of us to atomize us. And yet all of us, I have not met a person alive who doesn't want to bring their opinion, their perspective, their soul to work.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:19] It makes sense that this got set up that way because back in the day, and we hear this a lot now, the workforce or schooling in general was designed to create good workers. The workforce was sort of this assembly line idea where ideally the worker is slash was commoditized. If you get sick, I just replace you with somebody else who can polish exhaust panels or whatever.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:21:41] Exactly. So it has 150 years of history behind it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:45] Right, yeah. And so it makes sense that things are set up that way, but now of course the value in a knowledge worker isn't how fast we can get something done. We should be optimizing for, or we should not be optimizing for productivity anymore, but it's so we sort of still are.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:22:03] Right. Most of work is designed for efficiency or productivity instead of creativity and innovation, yeah. That's our big issue.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:11] What about the idea? Because here's what's going on in my head when I initially read your work. Okay, so an idea gets shot down, somebody else will come up with it. It'll show up later on in this system.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:22:24] Yeah. I think that's a big mythology a lot of people like to say is like, “Oh, if it doesn't come through you, it'll come through somewhere else.” In fact, there's a great Ted Talk on it where it's the poem going across a field and then the writer's job is to catch the poem and pull it into them. It's a beautiful phraseology, and yet what that denies is that each and every single one of us stands in a spot in the world only you stand in. It's a function of your distinct history and experience, visions and hopes. And so it's that belief that each and every single one of us has a particular thing to offer the world. It's Martha Graham's quote that said, “If we don't see that spark of yours, and if it's not allowed to manifest, then the world never sees it at all.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:18] Some people might think that's a little Pollyanna. I'm sure you get that a lot. Like, “Oh yeah, everyone's got something of value to offer. I don't think so.” “You're a kid. What would you possibly know?” Or “Look, there's 50,000, 22-year-olds working for this company. Why do I need this guy's idea?” But it has to do with the way that innovation actually works. These ideas that are new, that create big change often come kind of out of left field.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:23:44] In fact, almost the research says that new ideas are going to come from quote unquote left field. It's a vocabulary in fact that I find super interesting because now that we have the word onlyness, we might even use that word as an alternative because left field is still comparative language. But research has been pretty consistent for a long time. One of my favorite pieces is a [indiscernible] [00:24:08] work who's a Harvard professor. And he found with some scientific problems that had been left unsolved for some ridiculously long period of time. And he said, “What if we open it up and figure out how to get new players involved?” And it turns out these problems that had been deemed by the scientists themselves as unsolvable, one-third of those problems were solved within a year. And when they looked at who those people were that came by and sort of solved these problems previously unsolvable, they said they were all people from left-field. So women and younger people and typically under seen groups. And that's like the data's consistent on that for years and years, decades and decades.
[00:24:52] And so my point is, we know the data is about true originality. We know bias actually exists. And so how do we start to recognize the value and name it to say that each of us standing in that distinct spot in the world in which each of us stands is the place that we're going to start with. And then then we sit there. And so take the opposite approach where I flip it and say, instead of saying, “How do we know if those people can add value, flip it and say, “Okay, well we know we need to cure cancer or Alzheimer's or I have a series of things I would play put in that bucket.” You probably do to, fill in that blank of what it is we might care about and then go, “Okay, what if we actually just said, what can we do to build the scaffolding and the system so that more people can come to bear, to come solve those problems? So instead of us filtering out new ideas, we could get people to add their bit been.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:49] I want to get to that in a second. But I also -- one of the counter arguments that I, again, that I had in my head was, “Look, doesn't the Internet kind of automatically democratize ideas?” Yes, ideas can scale because of the Internet. Doesn't the democratization of ideas power, doesn't that just kind of happen the way that we're all networks right now? Why do we need to, why do we need to guide the ship into port? It seems like this is the new downstream.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:26:17] Yes. No, I mean I think the big part is if I just told you it was democratizing ideas, then you would expect let's say a venture capitalists, for example, to be investing in every type of person, not the same person they've always invested in and yet the data would suggest otherwise. So the data in 2017 is that women of color who represent five people on this Earth and one in five people in Silicon Valley. So data doesn't change there and they have 0.04 percent investment this last year.
[00:26:56] So that's just showing that bias continues to exist, which means that we're filtering out rather than funneling in, which means we have to adjust for bias. So I would love it if it was just self-correcting, but the answer is less about will the Internet change things as much as what is human agency in this? What can humans do using the Internet to get to another place? So I'm of the mind now that it's less about us trying to knock on the doors of those venture capitalists and try to figure out how to get them to change, and more about what are the ways in which we can now gather together to find that people who care about the same things and we find alternative paths to market that's not going through traditional gatekeepers, that's not going through were bias lives, and go find a way to actually organize and make momentum happen ourselves.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:44] Nice. Okay, so is it safe to summarize a little bit with something like one idea change is in this hierarchy, we have to depend on these organizations. People inside the organizations are these replaceable assembly line machinery, and then now we're more networked so everyone can create unique value, which is kind of like the opposite of previous, or are you saying that we need to manually shift there?
Nilofer Merchant: [00:28:10] Well, the big piece that that's new to the last 20 years is that it, you can now go from being the only one where you almost always have to conform because that's just a matter of survival to now finding the other people who care about the same thing as you. So this is the big fundamental psychological need that has to happen. If you had to pick between your ideas and belonging, belonging always wins, every darn no matter what. And so now with connectivity, you can find the other people who care about the same things as you. So you no longer need to give up your ideas in order to belong. You can have both at the same time. That's the big shift. And that's the power that we need to be able to manage. It's more, I would call it a pathway. So how do you find the other people who care about the same things? And then you can actually belong with them and then grow that idea into something bigger to actually make it happen.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:29:09] You're listening to the Jordan Harbinger Show with our guests, Nilofer Merchant. We'll be right back after this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:14] This episode is sponsored in part by HostGator. Have you seen what they've been saying about you online? Yes or no, good or bad, there's no denying that you and nobody else should have control over that narrative, whether it's for your business or your personal brand as the kids say these days. Building the website people see first when they search for you on the Internet has never been easier, thanks to HostGator. Best of all, you don't have to know the first thing about coding to get your own professional looking and feature packed website up and running today. HostGator takes care of the boring and intimidating details of website management, the stuff that you don't want to deal with that you can focus on doing what you love to do and that's why we recommend HostGator's Website Builder. HostGator allows you to choose from over a hundred mobile friendly templates. So your site's going to look good on the phone, on a tablet, on a desktop, laptop, whatever. And if you want to use WordPress for your site, it only takes one click. Add-on options are a plenty, you can integrate with PayPal. People can send you money, can't beat that. You can increase your search engine visibility without being some sort of SEO experts and you'll also get a guaranteed 99.9 percent uptime, and HostGator's support team is there to help with any issues you experience 24/7, 365, and don't worry about all that break in the bank either. HostGator's giving our wonderful listeners up to 62 percent off all packages for new users with a 45 day complete money back guarantee. Oh, and you even get unlimited email addresses based from your website that you can hand out and place it at free Gmail address you've been using for ages. So go to hostgator.com/jordan right now to sign up. That's hostgator.com/jordan.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:30:47] Thanks for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers is what keeps us on the air and to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard, visit jordanharbinger.com/advertisers, and now for the conclusion of our episode with Nilofer Merchant.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:04] So how do we discover or own or hone our own onlyness? Is that possible or am I not getting the concept here? Because it seems like now that we're aware of this, do we have to sort of manually, do we have to polish it? Kicked the rust off?
Nilofer Merchant: [00:31:17] Well, let me ask you, because you've read the work and we can spend some time together just doing this. So can you name some of your onlyness if you had to say, this is the stuff I care about.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:29] Sure, yeah. I care about getting complicated concepts out to the masses in a way that's digestible. Is that kind of, is that fair? Is that count?
Nilofer Merchant: [00:31:37] Yeah. And do you care about that for a reason? Is there a some maybe backstory or?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:43] Yeah, I mean I don't know if I have like when I was a child, this happened kind of thing. I mean I have a lot of experiences of course that happened as a kid and they all kind of combine towards this, but I think because when I was younger, even in college, coming from what I think anyone could consider a privileged background. Upper middle class kid from Michigan, white male, get into school, good local schools, good public schools, educated parents who both went to college. I still, when I left college, had no clue what the heck was going to, “How do you get a job?” “I don't know.” “How do you do well at that job?” “I don't know.” And I had crushing debt from undergrad and law school and it just was like, “How come nobody taught us these concepts?” It's not like they didn't exist. There were thought leaders. There were people writing about things like that you're creating. Those people all existed. It's just that nobody thought maybe young people should have this adult knowledge. And so we just have this whole generation of people that kind of floundered their way into a career as your stats show, most of us are unfulfilled and we've got a bunch of debt. And it's like if we just had learned to think outside the box and been not only given permission, but tools to do so early, we could've avoided a lot of the mess that a lot of us as individuals and as a nation of unfulfilled workers find ourselves in. And so if the only way to do this is spend years writing a book and then knocked down a 10th of a percent of it, or do a podcast and get as many smart people on here as I possibly can and get into as many people's hands as I possibly can, then I'll go that route.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:33:19] It sounds like also, I mean, not only were you deeply passionate about that, you're clear about who you stand for, not only what you stand for, but who you stand for. That most of us who are unfulfilled, those young people who, if we had known better, would have done better. Is that fair?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:35] Yeah. I would say so. I mean I'm not that young. I'm 38, and I think that not only my generation had no idea because we were on the end of manual labor and manufacturing. That rug got ripped out from underneath us and it was probably long overdue, but school didn't say, “Hey look, when inevitably manufacturing, especially in Michigan, when manufacturing goes away and we become a knowledge economy, you're going to need this.” I mean we were still being forced to learn things like the Dewey decimal system, sorry, librarians back in the day, and all of these different sort of non-skills instead of being prepared. Even in college, this isn't just a public school thing.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:34:15] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:15] I went to law school in college and we still, they were like, “Oh well, you'll learn all this stuff on the job.” “Well great.” “Guess what employers don't want to do?” “Be responsible for educating a bunch of kids who have no clue how anything works.” So school was like, yep, your check cleared. Here's a bunch of useless knowledge, and that was a huge problem and it was like this racket. And I don't think it was like this conspiracy, but I think it was kind of just negligence on behalf of so many different interested parties that we all ended up with a raw deal in a way.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:34:47] Yeah, it really did. And so I mean, I think it's so interesting. One of the questions I often ask people, and you just did it without even a prompt is this, which is if you could change anything, what would you change? And so essentially what do you stand for and who do you stand for? And you just did it beautifully where you said it's for all those people who went through and didn't get what they needed from college, want some real life insight. So they can navigate their careers and their choices and make better choices. So you're very clear what your onlynesses at least it sounds like to me, but there's a reason why you care about that, which is a combination of your history and experience as well as your visions and hopes for what the world can be.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:33] So a lot of people might say, “Well great. Jordan has onlyness, but he is highly educated,” or I don't even want to say that about myself, educated doesn't mean I'm smart or anything, but it certainly means I paid enough from my degrees. But what about somebody who's like, “Yeah, great. I came here from El Salvador and I work at a restaurant. I'm trying to figure out my own way. I'm an immigrant in this country. I don't have worthwhile ideas. I'm just trying to get food on the table for my kids. I don't have onlyness.”
Nilofer Merchant: [00:36:06] Yeah, I think everyone has onlyness. So just the other day I met a 14 year old, who happened to come to a session. I was leading around the book and I sometimes do this with communities and audiences I'm with. I'm like, “Anybody want to come up and explore their onlyness.” And she shared a story about, she had moved countries and had really suffered and not knowing the cultural norms and had really faced some sort of teenage bullying and stuff, and had really, really suffered from that experience, and it was painful for her. You could feel it. And I said, “So do you know how you would want to have the world change as a result of this experience?” And she said, “Yeah, I want to teach people about kindness. I think kindness comes first.” And the audience of course just applauded because they could see her connecting her life story as raw as it was even in that moment because she's still very much healing from it, to this idea about how could the world be better? Now, what that manifests like, there are many ways to manifest it. So I've never met one person on Earth that doesn't have a purpose, a way of being or what they would like to see in the world. If I talk to that Honduran immigrant, he might really want, he or she might really want the notion of -- want that data known that emigrants add more to our economy than people who've been born here. They tend to be the people who don't take, they tend to be the people who make at least that's what the data says. And so that person might want that data known so that he doesn't face that same bias as to why he's in America, as an immigrant.
[00:37:54] So I've never met one person who doesn't have that. We may not give ourselves permission to name it, or we may worry that we're naming it wrong. But I will say to any person who is listening in on this conversation, you actually do have it. It's a question of whether or not you act on it? I think that's really what I'm encouraging people to do is what is the one thing you want to start changing in the world and how do you even start to make one step forward towards that direction?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:21] So in any career or organization, it seems like we kind of have to focus on what's in our control. So at a practical level, if we want to act on this, how do we even know what's within our control, let's say at wor? If our company -- we’re in a company and organization. We have these very specific protocols, we have processes. How do we start taking action inside that organization? Because I think the answer can't just be like, “Oh, everybody quit their job and do their own thing. The change has to come from within.” Where do we begin when we're the lowest person on the totem pole?
Nilofer Merchant: [00:38:54] Well, just for fun. Let's just share one of the stories in the book.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:59] Sure.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:39:00] And to show how, what that might look like. And it's a story of a young man who shows up in Hollywood and really changes the entire industry and a move that you would not expect. So let's see. Franklin Leonard is about, I want to say 24, 25 when he shows up in Highwood. By this point in his career, he has worked as a staffer at a congressional office, which is basically unpaid. He had a degree from Harvard. He had worked at McKinsey and gotten fired and only ended up in Hollywood because he was binge watching Netflix and had this little epiphany that he's always liked videos. So he shows up, gets a baseline gig job and tries to convince his bosses because apparently one of the jobs that people do really early in a career at Hollywood is you get to read scripts and do this thing called coverage.
[00:39:51] So you basically like write up a synopsis, like reader's digest for movies. Write up a synopsis of the script and then try to convince your boss it's worth looking at. And he was fortunate enough to see Hunger Games as one of the early scripts like, and he basically went to his bosses and said, “This is great. We should buy it.” And they said to him, “You know, Franklin, that's female action driven, just doesn't work. That doesn't work. No, it doesn't work.” Kind of shrug their shoulders and said, “Go back to the wall.” And it, “Oh, whenever I'm ever saying that story with an audience, they'll start laughing like the chuckling and the audience are takes over because they saw Hunger Games. All of them saw Hunger Games. But he couldn't convince his bosses because of this quote unquote conventional wisdom, which is really just biased, packaged up with a bow and he does it again for a couple more times. And finally he gets super frustrated and he's like, “God, maybe I'm just not seeing the right scripts.” So he sends out a note to every person he's met in his first year in Hollywood. Remember, he's young, he's junior, and he's thinking, “It's got to be me,” and sends out a note and said, “Listen, I'm trying to find better scripts so I can get better at my job. Can you guys all help me in return? I'll help you back. Send me the scripts you've seen the last year that you've loved that haven't been put into production, and I'll roll all that data up. So using his McKinsey skills, and I'll send it back up, and people do that. He does his thing, prints out the first five scripts, leaves town. He goes on vacation, actually takes the time offline. Comes back and in his inbox, because he had done it under an alias called the Blacklist, in a referenced the McCarthy era. It had been forwarded to them hundreds of times and he's like, “Oh!”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:37] Wow!
Nilofer Merchant: [00:41:38] Oh, there's kind of a big deal here, but he takes it to his bosses as if he wasn't involved in the creation of it and says, these people seem to think Juno is a great idea. These people seem to thanks. Slumdog Millionaire is a great idea in scripts that were so unusual. Like think about Juno where a teenage girl wants to keep the baby, or King Speech, which was on that original list.
Well, let me listen to a guy who stutters, like it just makes no sense and those scripts, and it turns out not only Franklin, but a whole bunch of people do that, and those scripts go into production.
[00:42:12] So curious now it's 10 years later and the data behind those films, they've won an out of, I think it's 64 nominations. They won 40 time Academy awards, an Oscars. So I mean, just really strong, both financial results in the $25 billion range, as well as artistic results. And of course, it wasn't a direct result of the Blacklist, but the Blacklist helped circumvent the industry in this very small move. And let me just back up as to what that move was. Franklin sat in his office and he asked her a new question. He said, “What is it you most love? What are the scripts you most love?” Because Hollywood was organizing by what can we make money off of? And he's like, “Actually, I think the question should be, what do we most love?” And I'm going to write an email to random people seemingly powerless peons by all traditional standards, and I don't to get a group of us kind of mobilized around that and it turns into something much bigger. And I slow that down because think about how small that move is, and what could each of us do in the smallest ways, start moving towards a question we think is important and idea we think is important, a way of being that's important. How can we make one small move towards that? And then what would that lead us to?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:31] living in Silicon Valley, I think a lot of people go, “Oh, we already do this.” We have a, what's that term of, it's like we have a flattened leadership structure or something like that? It's some kind of fancy term.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:43:41] Yeah, agile. Yeah, agile.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:42] Right. But is that really even the case? Because if this is all sort of based on bias, human nature, it doesn't matter that I'm the SVP and the other person's the VP. If we have a flattened leadership structure, I'm still like the guy that everyone listens to because people like me more. I've been here longer, I'm older or I had another company, so I've got a little bit of street cred and you don't.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:44:08] Yeah. So one of the things leaders asked me all the time and leaders, meaning anyone. But this shows up a lot and they say, “You know, I'm really good at advocating for what I want, and I work in a startup where I work in a business where I feel like we do that a lot.” And I go, “Okay, so just for a second, who is the least powerful person at your table?” And they'll think about it for a second. They'll name that person, it could be a junior person, most likely it's a junior person. I go, “When was the last time you asked that person for their ideas?” And almost every -- if it's a 1400 percent audience, all 1,399 other people are going thinking to themselves, “Oh yeah, I don't do that at all.” And so that can be one thing we can all do, which is every single one of us has some power. Like when I'm in a room now even though I no longer running a multimillion dollar business. I no longer doing, you know, I no longer have that Rolodex that I used to when I was working with every Silicon Valley tech company. I’m in a different role, but I have some influence. So then I can think, “Okay, who could I serve to make sure their voice gets popped up?” And that's really the opportunity. If we know that bias exists and we know that the same people get hurt over and over again, then it's just a question of, okay, if I care about that, which you can decide whether or not to care about it. You could go, “Ah!” Then the voices I want to hear are what? And how could I be that person? So one of my agendas, for example, just to give it practicality is because I'm now an author, a three time author, I have some experience to draw on. I actually look for who's trying to enter that world and maybe represents a lesser seen, lesser deserved voice, and I'll spend time with some of those people because I'm really trying to democratize ideas and make sure that range of ideas comes to bear. So what is it you Jordan could do? Because you clearly have some, there's always going to be a group of people who are understand underserved. Where could you go to serve them?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:09] Is this something -- this isn't something that I have to answer right now, right?
Nilofer Merchant: [00:46:11] No.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:12] This is a rhetorical question.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:46:12] It's a rhetorical question, but it's a good--
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:14] Thank God.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:46:15] think about what that could be.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:17] Yeah, yeah, because I think this is, there's a lot to think about here and it's a little tricky. Because I think especially if we are coming from a place where we benefit from a lot of the inherent bias, it's a little bit like, I don't, how do I phrase this without sounding like a total a-hole? I think it's like, “Well what do I really want to change this situation?” Well, okay, yes, because it's better for the organization is the obvious answer, right?
Nilofer Merchant: [00:46:43] Yeah, that's exactly right. It serves you in the long run, each turn as you in the short run because you can make money off those people. So I always think if I could get a nickel for every person to actually help, I'd make a lot of money, because I'm spending a lot of time prop it open that door. Now I don't need to earn a nickel that way, but there's money to be made on this and all the data would suggest, Melinda Gates does this all the time where she shares investment opportunities now, and basically it says there's an investment opportunity to be made by women. I'm always thinking if I was a white guy and really understood access to capital, I would be figuring out how to invest in an underserved undertrained group because that's the outliers. Why not? That's your biggest bet.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:28] What is the number thing people say that you go -- where they're trying to kind of argue against your ideas? Other than I don't need everybody's ideas. There's got to be some other common kind of old grump comment that you get.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:47:41] I think when people try to do is say, bias is one of the most human things on earth. So there's really -- I get that you want us to navigate a different world but it's really not going to happen. And I remind them that for everything that we've ever said we can't do, we always find a different way as long as someone offers a new framework. So I'm totally fine if you don't want to change. Move aside because the world is changing. And the question is, are you going to be ready for that change or not? And are you ready to take advantage of the economic opportunity that's inherent in that?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:17] Nilofer for thanks so much for joining us today.
Nilofer Merchant: [00:48:18] You've actually asked really good questions. This might be my favorite interview so far.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:25] Great big thank you to Nilofer Merchant. Her book is The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World. And if you want to know how I managed to book guests like this and managing a huge network of people for years at a time, using just a few minutes a day, instead of spending every waking moment doing it, check out our Six-Minute Networking Course. It's free. It's over at jordanharbinger.com/course, and do it now. Don't try and be like, “Oh, I'll do that later when I get my website going.” That's the most common mistake that I see. You've got to dig the well before you're thirsty. If you need relationships, you're already too late to make them and Six-Minute Networking will get you ahead of that. This is all the stuff I wish I had known 10, 15, hell 20 years ago, so go grab it. It's at jordanharbinger.com/course.
[00:49:11] Speaking of building relationships, tell me your number one takeaway from Nilofer Merchant. I'm @jordanharbinger on both Twitter and Instagram, and don't forget, if you want to learn how to apply everything you heard here today from Nilofer, make sure you grab the worksheets we made for you. We make them for every episode and this one is no exception. Those are always linked in the show notes at Jordan harbinger.com/podcast.
[00:49:32] This show is produced in association with PodcastOne and this episode was co-produced by Jason “Get Your Hands Off My Onlyness” DeFillippo, and Jen Harbinger. Show notes are by Robert Fogarty. Worksheets by Caleb Bacon, and I'm your host, Jordan Harbinger. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful, which should be in every episode. So please share the show with those you love and even those you don't. A whole lot more in the pipeline. Very excited to see what you all have to say about it. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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