Zach sits down with author, writer, and speaker Nilofer Merchant to discuss her story, the concept of onlyness, and the various power dynamics in intersectional contexts. Check the links in the show notes for her website, books, and social media handles!
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You can learn more about her books, including The Power of Onlyness, on Amazon.
Check out Nilofer’s personal website by clicking here.
Read the piece she wrote about Ava DuVernay that was mentioned in the show by clicking here.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and wow, I hope everybody’s okay, recovering from Thanksgiving. Hopefully you didn’t do too much. I personally had a great Thanksgiving. I’m really thankful for my wife and Emory, my daughter, and I also made a macaroni and cheese. And you know, I want to go ahead and get the community’s point of view on this. I made a macaroni and cheese with bow tie pasta. Now, those in my immediate circle, my Black colleagues are telling me that that’s automatically not macaroni and cheese because I didn’t use elbow pasta or macaroni pasta. I’d like to get your perspective on that. As you noodle on that–oh, wow, look at that–I want to talk a little bit about today’s guest, Nilofer Merchant. Look, I am so thankful and excited to have Nilofer on the show. She was a phenomenal guest. We talked about this concept of onlyness, which is curious to me in the context of DEI, but I feel like we brought it together and she helped me make sense of a lot of it. It’s very intriguing to me. So really excited about y’all checking it out, but before we do that, we’re going to go ahead and we’re going to TAP In with Tristan.
Tristan: What’s going on, Living Corporate? It’s Tristan, and I want to thank you for tapping back in with me as I provide some tips and advice for professionals. This week let’s talk about three things that may be missing from your job search. Being back on the job market can be tough. Applying to endless jobs. Getting instant rejections or worse, never hearing back at all. It all starts to take a toll on you after a while. But after working with over 500 job seekers, I’ve realized that we can avoid much of this if we took the time to figure out how to (and I use air quotes here) “properly” search for a job. I’ve noticed that 3 main things are missing from most job seekers search and puts them in that consistent pattern of endless online applications. First is clarity. I often find job seekers rushing into finding a new job without ever taking the time to figure out what type of role they want. That’s like expecting your GPS to tell you where to go without entering an address. You have to have a destination before figuring out the route to get there; otherwise, you’ll just idly sit and waste your gas. The same applies to your job search; if you aren’t clear on what type of role you want to land, you can never devise a plan to help you secure it. If you don’t get clear, you’ll waste all your energy on applying, interviewing, and waiting for the wrong roles just to say you’re making progress in your job search. The second thing your job search is missing is a professional brand. Building a professional brand allows people who’ve never even met you to understand what you do, what type of results you create, and what value you would bring to an organization. Nowadays, people want social proof that you are who you say you are and do what you say you do; a professional brand provides that. If you can build a strong professional brand, you’ll likely end up with companies and organizations reaching out to you to see if you’re interested in roles. After cultivating my professional brand around career coaching and resume writing, I had universities reaching out about roles in their career centers, and I had companies reaching out about providing coaching at their organizations. The third thing missing from your job search is a strong network. You only have about a 2% chance of landing a role by applying online, but referrals make you 15 times more likely to land a position. The bottom line is, a good network can help people stand out from the crowd and secure the job. You need to develop advocates who understand the value you bring and can vouch for you in spaces you’re not in. Most people wait until they need a network to start building one or to warm-up old connections, which is too late. Start building or warming up your network when you don’t actually need them, so the relationship is less transactional. If you focus on these three areas, you’ll tighten up your job search process. While it may be a bit more work on the front end, I can guarantee it will reduce the amount of time you spend looking at and applying for roles. Thanks for tapping in with me this week. This tip was brought to you by Tristan of Layfield Resume Consulting. Check us out on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @LayfieldResume or connect with me, Tristan Layfield, on LinkedIn.
Zach: Nilofer, what’s going on?
Nilofer: I’m having a pretty good day. How about you?
Zach: Um, you know, it’s just, like, a loaded question, right? Like, even [?]–it’s been an interesting day. Like, so I think I told you when we first met, you know, I have a daughter, and so she had a tough day today. She was–it was a little bit of talking, a lot of crying, so a little bit of a headache just from all of the experimenting vocally. So yeah, but I’m good.
Nilofer: I like that you said it that way, experimenting vocally, right? It’s funny. Earlier today, I woke up and I was following all the threads about the governor of Michigan. And for me, it’s such a logical leap between somebody inciting that violence of, you know, “liberate Michigan,” if I remember the tweet correctly, to white supremacists showing up to want to do this thing to watching this interview from the sheriff who could easily have had a hood, you know, in his back seat kind of thing. And I was just in a space, you know, I was like, “I gotta run,” you know? My fight or flight, like, trauma experience kind of kicked in, and I’m like, “Gotta run. Gotta go.” And I was on the phone with different people today expressing that, and I’ll tell you, it turned my day around, because every person–they live in different countries said to a tee, “I got a room. You’re here. Good.” And I was like, “What?” There was not even, like, a pause. There was no, like, “Oh, how would we make that work?” It was just like, “Come, we got you,” and I was thinking, “This is what America’s story has actually always been about.”
Zach: Yes, yes. No, 100%. I mean, it’s a blessing to–one, that is a blessing and a privilege to have relationships like that, that can provide refuge to you in those moments, and like, you know–and not in theory, but in, like, real life, they can actually help you. And you know, I mean, I think for me for years it’s been like, just one time after the next, right, you think about all the anxiety and uncertainty that’s surrounding, just economically, right, in terms of like, you know, what’s happening with these jobs? And, you know, how does that impact your job? You know, my wife is an educator. So it’s, like, you know, they’re trying to figure out how they’re going back to school in person and why in person is necessary, what does it look like to make sure that you’re, you know, you’re being thoughtful to those parents who, again, because of economic reasons, cannot afford to stay home, they have to go to work, which means that children need some type of care while they’re at work, and it’s compounded by the continuous brutalization of Black and brown bodies on TV. And then to your point, yes, spurred by a president who is inspiring white supremacists and mobilizing groups all around the nation. Like, it’s very, like, scary and tiring. You know, I know we first connected, right, we first talked and I think we met because, like, so you followed me because I think Ellen McGirt had made a recommendation, right? Shout-out to Ellen McGirt and Fortune Magazine. And we just had a really good–I really enjoyed our discussion because, you know, I am familiar with you from listening to your TED talks, and you also graciously sent me a book, so thank you for that. I really want to, like, dig into, like, this concept of onlyness. Like, you talk about it on your website, you talk about it in different Google talks, and again, like, TED talks and other just discussions. I want to talk about that first, because I really want our listeners to, like, get a grasp and understanding of what you mean by onlyness, because I think with Living Corporate, we talk about being one of the only in a space. You know, we are talking I think initially about the same thing, which is, you know, typically, Black and brown folks, Black and brown gay folks, trans folks, Black and brown women, Black and brown disabled folks are typically the only in a space, right? And I think when I read that, when I read some of the things that you wrote about loneliness, I was very intrigued by that, so I’d love to start there.
Nilofer: Sure. Should I do a little definition?
Zach: Yeah, let’s do that.
Nilofer: Okay. So onlyness… each of us stands in a spot in the world only one stands in, and from that spot, your history, your experience, your vision and hopes, all of it, from that singular spot, is that place of power only you have. It is a source of ideas. And when I coined the word, it was an antonym to being the only one, and here’s why. When you’re the only one, what’s being centered is the room, the existing room. So if the existing room is predominantly white, if the existing room is predominantly male, if the existing room is predominantly cis, if the existing room has power and status a certain way, then you are the odd duck out. And there was some data done about 40 some years ago by [?], who was studying at that point, like, people who were being tokenized was her word, and that they were the singular Black person in the room, the singular woman in the room, whatever. And she said she studied them for an extensive period of time in management and realized their ideas would never make it through, and what she said was they would be excluded from the rooms that mattered, they would be pressured to conform and never be part of the networks that actually let them have the information in order to succeed. And so I was really studying this from a perspective of, like, “Here’s all the stuff I grew up with.” I grew up with things like, “You go do it. Be an original. Show some grit,” you know? Just take any book title kind of thing, right? And I was like, “Oh, my God, this is the opposite advice,” because only ones cannot push through that wall by themselves if that’s not how that power works, and I wanted to figure out what is it that would actually allow that inner capacity that each of us has to actually shine. And that’s what this book and this body of research is all about.
Zach: You know, I find it–I just find it intriguing, because I think the other thing is, we’re going to continue on to talk about this, I think the other thing that sticks out to me too is you used another word that we don’t use enough. We’re talking about the experiences of the only in a space–and for Living Corporate’s context we’re talking about workspaces–is power. Right? Like, you’re right that there’s this idea of, like, “Well, you know, you got to change the system from within,” or you got to, you know, “Get up and, you know, get a seat at the table and, you know, lift as you climb,” and it’s like, “Okay, but all those things don’t necessarily engage the reality of, like, how unempowered those individuals are.” What you’re speaking to aligns with my experience. It aligns with the experience of, like, my mentors, and the conversations that we have regarding, like, you know, those owners in the space. Their ideas are rarely ever heard, right, like, to the groups that they belong to. It seems like they have a lot of power, but when they go into those, when they sit at those larger tables, they’re not really contributing, or rather, they are contributing, but they’re not being heard.
Nilofer: Right? Yeah, exactly. And I don’t want people to think that they’re failing, right? Here’s what I think happens, is when we tell ourselves that story about “Get a seat at the table and hustle your way there,” all that stuff. God bless it, right? Like, I’ve, I’ve tried it all, and my internalization of all those experiences was, “I must not be doing it right, and I must not be good enough.” And I am now 52 years old, and just this morning I was talking to an executive who’s about my age, and she was saying she’s worked at this one company for 20 years as a woman in a room that is often discounted, and she started at one point in this conversation saying, “Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I just haven’t, you know, pushed through enough,” and I was like, “No, no, no.” Just so you know, all the data–like, this is where I’m always so surprised that we haven’t gotten this epiphany before, right? This is–when I served on this work, Zach, I had already, like, gone around the barn. I’d been in tech, I had shipped the best–you know, I shipped the first web server. I shipped the first [?] web server. I was around at the beginning of the internet. I’ve been in these circles. I’ve been at those tables. I’ve been in the boardrooms and not heard, and each time I was like, “Oh, God. Man, maybe it’s my breath or something.” Right? And finally I’m like, “Let me just go back to the original research.” Like, let me go back and assume nothing. Assume nothing. Assume all the indoctrination I’ve received up to this point could be wrong and every piece of advice I’ve received could be wrong. Okay, now start over. What do we know? And I started studying agency. And by the way, it’s normally called personal agency, which is such a misnomer because you don’t own that all by yourself, because human beings are social beings, and the way we get power is by a social contract. So the people who get power because they’re white, that’s a social contract. The people who get power because they have a certain organizational title, that’s a social contract. So we too have to have a social contract, but it is in the network. Not, you know, the organizational power or the societal status. We have to therefore know how to navigate those new worlds. And so sometimes I feel like I’m speaking a foreign language. When a girlfriend of mine read my book–she’s a sociologist, one of the top sociologists in the world, so I’m not trying to namedrop, but she happened to read my book, you know, she’s like a dear friend where she read it early, and I was asking her for critique. And, in fact, I had been so nervous about sending it to her because, like, “Oh, my God, she’s gonna find every little flaw,” and she goes, “I wouldn’t change a word because,” she goes, “you’re actually naming it. But by the way, no one’s gonna understand what you’re talking about, because all the other encoding, whether it’s lean in or just go through David and Goliath, like, all that stuff, right, doesn’t address bias head on and doesn’t address there for if you are 70% of the population that does not already have power, which by the way, I’m just doing the math, right, 52% of the population is women, 37% of us are people of color, do the math. 70% are discounted for some reason or another, and then all the books are only serving that same group.
Zach: You know, it’s–so you said something earlier, too, about, like, social contracts, and also you touched on, like, this concept of, like, individualism, right? So it’s like “You by yourself need to lean in,” and “You need to go get this or go do that,” and, you know, there was a bit of, like, pushback this year. I’m not sure if you saw, but, like, there’s been, like, some commentary around, like, Western culture, and part of Western culture being, like, heavy on individualism, and a lot of white people took that as some type of racist attack. I didn’t read it that way. I was thinking more about the reality of there is this–in Western culture, in America, there is this large narrative of individualism, and we sell that anyway, we sell the concept of you going to get it on your own, you doing this thing, and the reality is that, like, that’s not going to function, that’s not going to operate well within the context you’ve just rightfully described, which is 70% of us are run off in some way, so 70% of us are written off in some way, then it doesn’t matter how hard we try to lean in or do whatever because we don’t have the power. And so I’m getting increasingly interested in discussions or methodologies or any type of idea that, like, reframes the discussion around community in some way, right, in terms of, like, building relationships, identifying where those networks of power are, how to lean into those, or even how to what does it look like to collaboratively build those things?
Nilofer: Yeah. You know, when I talk about onlyness, sometimes people also interpret it that I’m talking about an individual. And I’m actually saying, “What is it only you care about so that you can go build a network?” Yeah, it’s very similar. I wrote a long piece if people are interested in finding it on Ava DuVernay and how she was actually creating, you know, huge change. And I’d constructed just, like, I found about 400 examples in order for me to write The Power of Onlyness, so Ava’s was just sort of the latest one that caught my attention, for sure. And so I wrote it up for Harvard, hopefully, you know, to kind of give her more–you know, she doesn’t need more press from anyone, right, but at the same time, I’d love to raise accolades. In fact, it’s on Ava’s press page, which makes me happy at some level. Like, you know, that I was one tiny little brick in a wall that’s building a new world. But one of the she did was even before anyone even imagined what she’s now doing today. She said, “I’m going to stop seeking acceptance from the existing table. I’m going to go build a new table,” right? And she did that with [?]. She did it, by the way, part time for many years until she hired the next staff person, and it was seven years before they hit any kind of momentum, and that data tends to track pretty well, one to two years of incubation, three years when you start getting momentum, seven years before you start getting market credibility. Like, you know, big, famous, and tell all the stories. And what it shows is the power of the network to connect based on what you care about. So what you just said, which is how do we get power, I’m like, “How do you make power?” Yeah, not get it, but make it, and the difference is–I’m reminded by, it was Angela Adams who said, “A photograph isn’t taken. A photograph is made,” and I loved it because it was really showing to me the whole sort of curation of great art, and I loved it because it made me think about power and say, “Yeah, power is not taken. Power is made, and every group that has ever gotten power didn’t go to the existing group and ask it to diminish. They made their power and then basically forced the existing system to change.” And so to me it feels like the network is an opportunity here, so certainly why you and I are connecting, right, is starting to build that. “How do we build something together?”
Zach: Yeah. I love that, right? Yeah, I think it was funny because, like, as we were talking, like, at the end of it, I got there, like, what does it look like to build power within that network? Right? Like, what does it look like? Because you’re right. I think also, like, that framing of trying to get it, trying to go get something, as opposed to engaging in the work to build something. Those are two, like, really, like, radically different mindsets, and frankly, like, they’re gonna result in two different outcomes. Right? And you’re right, I think, like, we are an example of that, even as I think, like, historically. So Living Corporate has been around for two and a half years. About, I don’t know, earlier last year, I think, Ellen McGirt and I connected, because she saw what Living Corporate had been doing for, at that time a little bit–what, a year and a half? She and I had a really, really great conversation. She’s been hugely influential in connecting me with people, including you. You and I have had conversations off-mic that have been very helpful and encouraging, right, and now you and I are having this conversation here on this platform for everyone to consult with. To everyone else it may seem random, but, like, this has been time in the making, right? Like, we’ve had exchanges. And so I’m right there with you. What I’m curious about in that context is, what does it look like for the Black or brown person–or both, Black and brown person. What’s up, Kamala Harris?–to create power today. 2021 is going to be challenging, right? Even though there are some companies who are trying already to kind of step away from the commitments and things that they made just a few months ago, the data shows that there’s going to likely be some other events or event next year that are going to rock us again. And so, you know, I’m curious, like, what does it look like in your mind to, like, build power?
Nilofer: When I talked about it in the book, I talked about it in three parts. And a friend of mine and I are working on constructing some coursework now. So he was, like, interrogating the logic just to see if it held up, and he was like, “Oh, my God, it holds up.” So I thought it was funny. But here are the three parts, and then let’s talk about what that looks like. The first part is how do you claim that which you care about? And this is really hard for people. We always talk about meaning and purpose, we talk about it, so, like, of course, everybody knows their meaning, but if my inbox is anything to go by, and nobody [BLEEP] understands [?]. What we understand is how to make money, and we’re freaking out about the fact that we can’t make money during a pandemic, or we’re freaking out about a lot of things, but we don’t really understand what is it that drives us, and until we do–so, you know, the things that can define us. So let me just do a little moment on identity, and then I’ll get to the other two parts. So when we define who we are, we can define ourselves in many things, right? So one can be the way in which we’re born into the world. So gender, race, socioeconomic position, religion, language, all things we’re born into, right? Sexual orientation, things we’re born into. The second category is the work we do. So our vocational identity. The third category can be, like, interests and passions, or, you know, whether it’s golf or quilting or whatever, and then it can be all those things plus what you’ve decided matters to you because of that spot in the world only you stand, and you see something that matters. First of all, you claim that and all of a sudden–when you do you also start figuring out, “Oh, Zach cares about that, and Ellen cares about that, and how can we possibly–” Right? And you also notice who talks a good game about it but doesn’t actually give a shit if anything changes. So that’s the first bucket. We can come back to that bucket, because there’s more stuff, you know, there’s the second and third bucket I at least want to just touch on, right? Because the book is actually organized by you and then us and then together. So us is about that process by which you figure out who can you really lean on. Right? So who’s not just talking the game but actually in it? Then how do you, like, even discuss and debate and deliberate? What is this thing that we hold in the comments? And then how do you therefore trust them, that they can be there for you in a specific way? So that’s the “us,” and then together is, as we start to act as one, how do we actually–like, you have the ball, you know? Go. You know where you’re going to go and you play your field position, I play mine. I don’t have to huddle around the ball, I can go play position, and all of a sudden we can start playing off each other. So we can start to get things done. But that involves–I don’t have to tell you, and you don’t have to tell me, but we can start to play together. And one of the examples–so that’s, like, the construct, right? And then, like, one of the examples that I chose for the book–which by the way I’m sure got me into a lot of trouble and is why my white editor from Viking got disinterested in the book, I’m absolutely sure of this–but nonetheless, I chose to feature Black Lives Matter as one of the movements in the book because they were allowing people to come together based on shared interest. That small inner group knew how to trust each other. And you look, and it’s been less than 10 years, and they’ve changed–by the way, the time they started… this little statistic always kind of blows me away. At the time that Black Lives Matter first started, the number of people in America who considered there to be a problem around race–and this research is all quoted in the book–was 12.8%. The African-American population at the time in America was 13%. So not even African-Americans were willing to say, “Yep, race is a big problem.” Right? So I just found that fascinating. And today, by the way, when the George Floyd, as people called it, reckoning, milestone kind of happened, it was in the 70s. 70% of people believed there was a problem of race in America. Now, some of those people would like that problem just to go away and for those of us that think there’s a problem to sit down and shut up. And that number, by the way, has receded down in the 50s, but if you think about the BLM movement as the work of raising consciousness…
Zach: It’s huge. Historic.
Nilofer: It’s huge, and they didn’t–by the way, they haven’t done it by one person. They have intentionally allowed queer women, all the different variations, to show up to this thing and to have their onlyness show up, as long as they’re going on a common cause. And that is what we can do.
Zach: See, that’s profound, because, like, you’re connecting, like, how we would describe onlyness, popularly in this, like, very individual, isolated thing into community, right? Those things are not mutually exclusive.
Nilofer: Right? Because I’m breaking down two styles at the same time, right? One is the theory that only one voice can count. We largely argue in the books, like, whether it’s Lean or whatever, just choose your, you know, flavor. We argue that to go from a small voice to a big voice, and in that process you get an Elon Musk, who subjugates a bunch of people, you get a Jeff Bezos who subjugates a bunch of people, you get a Sheryl Sandberg, who uses the book to sit on the board of Facebook, right? But, by the way, could change the entire equal pay thing at Facebook and done it.
Zach: And has not, yes.
Nilofer: Yeah, and today in fact laments, just today’s press release on Fortune, was lamenting, “Oh, dear God, why 800,000 of the 1.1 million people studied, women were dropping out of the workforce,” and she laments it, and I’m like, “Girlfriend, maybe you could be doing something about it.”
Nilofer: So the thing is, onlyness is not–one of the book covers, it was, I think, a Japanese book cover did it, which I loved, and it was funny to me. So here’s a little funny side story about books. My editor at Viking wanted it to be, like, a self help book, and I’m like, “Well, did you read it? Because it’s not a self help book. It’s a book about power making. It’s a book about networks and change making and showcasing all these examples of doing it and then decoding what it is and what it is not.” Because I’m basically–in each of the chapters I do a “what it is and what it’s not,” and then what it is, again, at thesecond level. And the reason I’m doing that is I’m trying to show you what it looks like in traditional form, so what are you kind of going against so that you can figure out, “Okay, don’t do that, do this, you know, thing.” I called it the “what not to wear” section of the book. So at one point, the cover was supposed to be designed, and I said–well, they’d sent me something that was just terrible, and it looked like something that–who’s that guy who did green stuff in the 80s? It looked like one of those books. Anyway, I was like, “Well, that’s not what this book is.” By the way, not even one story about climate change. So no, and I said, “Can I talk to the book designer? Can I just talk to him about what the concept is? Because it’s about networks to make power.” And they go “No, the person who designs the book cover is not allowed to read the book,” according to Viking.
Zach: What? Why?
Nilofer: Glory, glory. And so then the Japanese book gets bought, I see the cover, and it is the network in the background, so nodes connected together, and then a one plus. And the whole idea is people connected together, seemingly disparate people connected together in a network, can accomplish things that once only large organizations could. Or rich people.
Zach: So, you know, like, we’ve been talking about how, in this particular context, historically marginalized groups, underrepresented, underestimated, undersupported groups, right, can create power?
Nilofer: I call it underseen and underserved, because it’s not their fault that they’re underseen and underserved.
Zach: That’s so–that’s facts. That’s big facts. I agree. Underseen and underserved groups, how they make power. I’m curious, like, have you had any thoughts around how those in power who practice these principles well, irrespective if they see it that way or understand it or not? Have you ever thought about what it looks like for those groups to coordinate and share power?
Nilofer: Well, the people who currently coordinate and share power… Well, I mean, like, the groups that just organized to do that Michigan take down and, you know, try to kidnap a governor, they’re coordinating using exactly the same logic. The thing is, for good or bad, the same construct of who makes power is the same. So this is actually, like, one thing that I have to hold myself accountable for sometimes, because not all good people get to win. That’s not what this is. So like, Black Lives Matter, I contrast it to the Occupy movement, and the Occupy movement–which I didn’t know, I was actually studying it to be like, “what to do, what not to do,” like, and I was looking for many examples. I studied a ton. If you actually knew my little rabbit brain that goes down all these little, you know, rabbit holes to find it out, but one of the things I learned about Occupy was this. Occupy was started by two men in Canada who wanted to market to a certain group, and they came up with this idea that if they could do a sort of commercial overthrow that their magazine, which was about sort of alternative ideas, would grow. It was not formulated with a group of people who have a lived experience who want to change something. That was not what it was. It was a group of people who were marketed to and told to organize. So they don’t have one message, because they don’t have anything they were actually solving for.
Zach: It was organized.
Nilofer: They’re just mobilized by an advertising budget.
Nilofer: And in contrast, in fact, one of the stories that I wrote about was a guy named Franklin Leonard. Do you know his story already?
Zach: I don’t. Please continue.
Nilofer: Okay. So Franklin is a guy who–I’ll trace it back to when the story started, which is now over 10 years ago. He’s in his 20s. He’s worked for one Congressman, he’s worked at McKinsey and happened to lose his gig at McKinsey. And he’s sitting on his couch, like, you know, as you and I might when we’re young, right? Like, “Oh, my God, what do I do now?” kind of thing, and he binge watches movies for, like, days on end, night after night, day after day. And after, like, a week or two of this, he goes, “You know what I really like? I really like storytelling. I’m gonna get myself a job in Hollywood.” So he hustles himself out there and uses his network, ’cause’ he’s gone to Harvard–smart guy–and gets an entry level job, and it turns out, one of the things entry level jobs in Hollywood do is this thing called coverage where they read scripts and they have to kind of type up, like, “Here’s what the script is all about” in a page, and then hand it to their boss and kind of, you know, tell their boss what they think is good. And he ends up reading The Hunger Games before anyone else has bought it, and he goes to his bosses and says, “This is really good,” and they say to him, “Female-driven action doesn’t work.” Can you imagine saying that to Hunger Games?
Zach: Wild, wow.
Nilofer: And he did it around a book that he wanted to do, he did it against a film that had a Black lead actor, and they’re like, “No, no, Black actors don’t sell abroad,” and Franklin tried to argue it using, you know, Will Smith and Eddie Murphy as examples. They’re like, “No, no, those are exceptions to the rule. The rule is Black actors don’t sell aborad. So he’s really frustrated ’cause he thinks “I must not be very good at this job,” you know, ’cause, like, “everything I think is good, they don’t,” you know? And so of course, just like you and I were talking about, like, we can think it’s us instead of, you know, the system is broken, right? And so he does this thing where he writes an email one night to everyone he’s met in his first year in Hollywood, and he basically says, “Listen, share with me the scripts you’ve seen in the last year that you love the story but it hasn’t been put into production, send it to me, and I will collate all the data I get from everybody I’m sending this note to and send it back to you.” So it’s a, you know, simple transaction, quid pro quo, and he does this under an email alias because he’s afraid his bosses, if they found out that he was doing this, would think, again, he wasn’t good at his job. So he actually, like, was trying not to have it traceable back to him. He does this, sends it to about 75 people. It turns out 93 people respond because some people forward it, and he does the collation thing, produces a PDF–by the way, that email address he created was called The Blacklist, and the blacklist in the 50s was what ruined people’s careers, and he was trying to do a little pun on it, like, “How do I make careers?” Right? “How do I enable great storytelling?” So he’s doing a little play, and he goes on vacation–back when we actually all went on these things called planes and stuff, which seems so weird right now… anyway, so he comes back, and this same email, this PDF that he’s created, has been forwarded to him 100 times.
Nilofer: And he’s like, “I might be onto something,” right? But again, he doesn’t reveal it. Years go by. He keeps doing this. Nobody knows it’s him. Years go by until he is getting pitched a movie by some muckety muck in Hollywood, and the guy says, “I have it on good authority it’s gonna be on The Blacklist next year.” And he’s like, “Oh, my God, you have no idea.” And here’s the thing. So I want to just kind of deconstruct it, right? Because Franklin says to me, when I asked him, what did he do, right–and he’s a really, really smart guy, so I’m like, “Just tell me the answer,” because, of course, tell me the answer, I just want to write it down so other people can know and we can have the answer. And Franklin says to me, “Well, I just shone a bigger light,” and I was like, “I don’t really want to be the one to burst your bubble, but that’s not it.” I go, “Because if someone else, everyone else had budget, everyone else could have done this.”
Nilofer: So it was not about bigger, right? And I deconstructed it this way. I said–first of all he stood in that spot in the world only he stood and claimed for himself something really different than what the rest of the question was that Hollywood was asking–and I probably did it so fast you didn’t even catch it. He asked a different question. He said, “What do you love?” And Hollywood is asking a different question, which is “What can make money?”
Zach: What can we sell? Those are two different questions.
Nilofer: Right? So he asked this question. A whole bunch of people love the question. They’re like, “Damn, I want to tell you what I love,” right? He actually uses the best form of crowdsourcing, when you can actually keep the independent piece of data independent. So he does that really beautifully, where they all get to have the safety of having their individual voice count without being suppressed, but they can organize around something that matters to them. You can see now why I’m talking about community in this construct. That particular construct was digital, because it had to protect people, but there’s other forms of community constructs. And then they were able to all take that to their bosses separately and be able to get those movies into production. And the book has, like, pages of how ridiculous the outcomes are. I think it was something like 300, and some of the first thousand scripts that were on The Blacklist got put into production, they won these ridiculous amounts of Oscars, you know? High grossing films, blah, blah, blah. So, like, the results are astronomical. So this is where we’re getting back to the “It’s about community,” and how do you organize community around an idea that may not be existing idea in such a way that each voice gets to count. See what I’m doing there? So each onlyness gets to count in a way that is allowing community so that they can then organize around an idea that gets pulled into the future.
Zach: You know, what I what I’m really curious about is, like, two years ago, you talked at an event with Google, you talked about how basically we’re running out of big ideas, which doesn’t make sense, right, just, like, on its face, that’s ridiculous, and really how this concept of onlyness, community and creating power is a direct tie-in with innovation, and what I’m curious about is, as we look at 2021, I mean, really looking at the future, which is, you know, irrespective of when we get a vaccine and when people feel 100% comfortable traveling again, I believe that the world has been changed in a way that we can’t go back, and we’re going to need new and different ideas. Compounded by the reality of this next generation of work rapidly entering the workforce, which has shown themselves to be much more conscious and aware, willing to quit, willing to mobilize and do other things. We’re going to just need an avalanche, frankly, of new ideas to keep this thing going, or new ideas to dismantle the systems that don’t work, and then build new ones. And so I’m curious from your perspective, considering the conversations and the rooms that you’ve been in, if you had, like, a few points of advice for executives in how to embrace onlyness in the name of driving innovation, like, what points of advice would you give?
Nilofer: I’m so glad you’re asking. You’re basically asking, “How is this inclusion thing tied to innovation.? So innovation has two things. The fundamentals–so I’m just going to go down to the fundamentals, and then we’ll build back up. Innovation always requires two things. One is that an idea comes from left field. All the research says that over and over again. It says, quote unquote, “Left field person.” And the second is that you connect those left field people into a network. So it’s about connections which typically aren’t connected. Okay? So, like, the most obvious thing–you got there before I even finished this next sentence, but–innovation is about newness into new networks. You cannot have innovation without inclusion. Right? And so, like, the funny part to me is I’m not a DE&I person, and I don’t approach it from that angle, because to me it’s all about outcomes. That’s just my own sort of–
Zach: Yeah, absolutely. Right. Yeah.
Nilofer: And so all I know is culture eats strategy for breakfast, and so to achieve our goals, we need to change our culture, and that is not about t-shirts and beanbags. Right? It is about the ways in which we run our meetings, right? It is the ways in which we hire people, it is the ways in which we reward people, and all of those what I’ll call interactions are the places of change. So if you’re responsible for hiring, right, then you just gotta sit there and think, “Dude, man, if my job is better outcomes in this organization, and I got to do that, I better be making sure I’m looking far and wide in a way that is about left field,” quote unquote. I just don’t like that term because it just doesn’t sing to me, but “How do I look for onlyness and all the different flavors it can be? And how do I do that?” Because you know it’s gonna help your team. Duh. And then if you’re in charge of, let’s say rewarding, and you know that your job is to really inspire people to do their very best, then you make sure you don’t keep rewarding the same loud people in every meeting. Right? We know this. And so one of the things that we got to just do is say, “Okay, there is no such thing as a meritocracy. There is no such thing as an unbiased workplace. There is only human people who make mistakes, and now I gotta overcompensate in design for those things that are traditionally there.” By the way, every organization that says they’re a meritocracy, somebody’s got to explain to them how the term meritocracy actually came into being and when it came into business culture. Can I tell you? In case you don’t know.
Zach: Let’s go.
Nilofer: It came into play when Black people were allowed to participate in society. So right after the Civil Rights thing, somebody said, “Okay, well, we can’t let all these Black people into schools and colleges,” so they created this thing called an SAT, and they set the marker for a merit as an arbitrary SAT thing, and then they actually studied who got in, how many Black people could get in if we set the bar a certain way, and that’s how they defined the meritocracy of the SAT. Not kidding, I have the details behind it. And so when you kind of, like, trace it, and you’re like–actually the first time I actually, like, saw that research, I went, “Oh, how is this not more known?”
Zach: They don’t teach us that. They don’t talk about it.
Nilofer: I mean, I find it really hilarious, right? There’s a TED talk out there by a guy at a investor firm, Ray Dalio, and I find the talk hilarious because he talks about how everyone’s allowed to have debates within his firm, blah, blah, blah, and then I go look at a picture of his firm… all white. A few women–those few women, by the way, have had sexual harassment claims against the company, including the CEO who ran the firm for a long time, and just got a big payout as of a couple days ago. And that talk is still posted. That meritocracy is a good thing. And I’m like, “Dude… dude. Somebody take the talk down.”
Zach: Come on, Ted! Bring me on, but then also… come on. I hear you.
Nilofer: So there’s mythologies, there’s just mythologies that are created, and I laugh about it because as soon as we just admit it’s just a mythology, meritocracy is a mythology–
Zach: Right? It’s not real. That’s the other thing. I’ve been having conversations with a few folks in my network around the things that we’ve been raised to believe are, like, real things, and they’re not real. Like, there are some things that are real, but they’re only as real as, like, what we put into them. Like, they’re not real real. We just say it. Like, it’s not a thing really. Like, they’re not immovable. Like, come on. So Nilofer, this has been an incredible conversation. I want to make sure that we give you space to talk through what you’re excited about. Again, we’re recording this in the fall of 2020. As we look over the next, like, six months, like, what are the things you’re really excited about? What are your next projects like? What do you got?
Nilofer: Yeah, thanks for asking. So I’ve been working on–I’ve got eight years of research now on this agency construct of loneliness, and one of the realizations I had was, even if we understand it in theory, how to make power, blah blah blah, we encounter real life and we kind of just walk away from ourselves, we walk away from community, we do all sorts of crazy things. And I know it because my inbox is full of people telling me that. So I started an advice column, which sounds so funny to my own ears. Like, “Really? Did you really do that, Nilofer?” I started an advice column because I thought, “The way we’re going to learn to do this is to learn together,” and it helps to watch someone else’s kind of car crash to know “Oh, don’t drive that way,” and I was thinking, “We got to talk about real life situations, about, you know, “Our ideas got stolen,” or whatever, right, and go, “Okay, what do you do now? And how do you reclaim your onlyness? And how do you find those other people with whom you care about things so that we end up creating new outcomes?” Because that’s my big thing. I don’t think it is about getting a seat at the existing table. I think it is about building something new. And in fact, when I first came up with the construct of onlyness, a friend of mine was listening to me talk and he said–I said something like, “Right now we’re going into the castle, and we’re kind of getting in through the side doors and the windows, and we’re showing up in corporate land, and we’re just hoping we don’t get kicked out, so we behave pretty much the same as everyone else because we’re hoping not to get kicked out. What if the door was just open?” He listens to me all the way through, he’s a really patient guy, and he goes, “That’s not at all what you want.” Just so you hear yourself, and I love my friends when they actually do this to me, he goes, “What you want is to build a whole new village, and you want all of us to go build a village that actually works, you know, sort of using, like, circular economy kind of stuff, right?” Go build a village that works. And by the way, the castle doesn’t work for the old farts living in it right now. They hate it too. Right? And he goes, “You go build that village, and you go build it so it works for you. And by the way, everyone’s going to come.” So that’s what I want to do with that column, is I’m trying to teach people how to build the village. And in the process, of course, I’m trying to teach it to myself too, right? Because it’s all about day in, day out, how do we do this thing?
Zach: I mean, one thing I’ve picked up from this conversation really is that, you know, no one ever arrives, right? Like, you’re going to continue to learn, you’re going to continue to build, and that’s, that’s good. There’s nothing wrong at all.
Nilofer: And we’re gonna build it together. That’s the big thing.
Zach: And we got to build it together. I love it. Nilofer, this has been a great conversation. Y’all, you know what we’re doing every single week. We’re bringing authentic conversations to y’all by having dope discussions with incredible people, right? Like, look, one week we might have Chance the Rapper. The next week we might have Nilofer Merchant. I mean, who else but us, frankly? I mean, look at–look at our catalog, look at the dozens of brown and Black faces on our grid at living dash corporate dot com and you’ll see what I’m talking about. We have elected officials, all kinds of folks in our network. I’m just so thankful to Nilofer Merchant. I’m thankful for her work. Make sure you check out the links in the show notes. Okay? Check out her books, check out her pieces here. We’re about to put it all in there. So whatever you’re doing, you shouldn’t be flying on a plane but let’s just say you are for whatever reason, I want you to pull it up, look and click that. Read it. Engage with it. Until next time, this has been Zach. You’ve been listening to Nilofer Merchant, speaker, educator, mentor, writer, philosopher, what else? Nilofer, what else we got in there? Best selling–come on, come on. Give me some other titles, Nilofer.
Nilofer: Yes. So top ranked management thinker in the world. Good friend. Oh, great ally. I’m one of the top HR thinkers in the world. I’ve shipped over $18 billion worth of product in my career. Oh, my TED talks been quoted 399 million times. I checked Google today. Which is, by the way, 7 million shy of Lean In. Just kind of funny.
Zach: Okay, okay. Well, look, y’all heard it here, y’all. ‘Til next time. Peace.
Zach: Yo, we’re back. I want to shout out Nilofer Merchant again. Make sure that you check out all of her links in the show notes. Cop her book. She gave me a copy, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Shout out to you Nilofer for–again, I can’t wait to have you back. In the meantime, y’all, look, you can support Living Corporate in a variety of ways, right? One of the cheapest ways is just go on iTunes and give us five stars. You know what I’m saying? Just slide us a five. Put five on it. Can you put five on it right? Now, that song “I Got 5 on It” was about putting $5 on a nickel bag, but I’m not asking you to put $5 on any amount of drugs, whether your state has legalized it or not. I’m actually asking you to put five stars on our podcast. So is it as hip? No. Is it more legal? Perhaps. Is it as fun? I don’t know. But I’m asking you to do it. Like, that would really be a great blessing to me and the show. It’s a great way for folks to know about the show. Another way that you can support the podcast is by letting your people know about it, right? You know, this is the season of giving. Give someone the pleasure of hearing a podcast that centers and amplifies the perspectives of Black and brown folks at work by just pressing the little Share link and sharing it across. Share it to your co-workers as you take your holiday breaks. Share it with your friends and your family. Just share it around. Anyway, y’all, until next time, this has been Zach. Catch y’all later. Peace.