Episode 37

Making a Dent in the Universe

With Nilofer Merchant
Episode 37

Making a Dent in the Universe

With Nilofer Merchant

Innovation Expert. Visionary Leader. World’s Top-Ranked Business Thinkers. Author. Guest Lecturer at Ivy League Universities. TED Speaker.

Nilofer Merchant has gone from being an administrative assistant to division leader, CEO of Rubicon, and Board Member of a NASDAQ-traded company along her 25-year career — gathering monikers such as the “Jane Bond of Innovation” — along the way for her ability to guide organizations through seemingly impossible odds. Nilofer has personally launched over 100 products, netting $18B in sales. She helped launch the first Internet Server at Apple, grew division performance at Autodesk by 50 percent, and created product and pricing strategies for Adobe that grew the company from $2B to $5B.

  • There is a crack in everything and that's how the light gets in. Very powerful and a great reminder. Thanks for sharing. Anuradha Khanna
  • Nilofer Merchant is another wonderful example of Hitendra's ability to host the most interesting guests! Doug Hedlund
  • So articulate and powerful! Thanks Hitendra and Nilofer! Sally Harrison

Today, Nilofer speaks and runs workshops on the future of work and has been invited to hundreds of leadership events by storied organizations, including Google, IBM, JP Morgan, Gartner, and Salesforce. Her TED talk ranks in the top 10% of the world. She is the author of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era and The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World. Nilofer was named by Thinkers50 as the “#1 person most likely to influence the future of management in both theory and practice”; named “one of the twenty-five smartest women on Twitter” and is regularly quoted or published in Harvard Business Review, Financial Times, Time Magazine, Fast Company, and the WSJ.

We are joined by Nilofer in this episode to discuss how at the core of humanity lies the passion for creating value, working with others and making a positive difference in the world. But oftentimes, our ideas don’t have a fair shot at success, based on our credentials, status or the seat at the table. And yet, we are at a unique moment in history, empowered by the power of digital and social networks to spread our ideas and make our voices heard. How different our world would be if we could learn to harness our ideas in a way that not only moved others but also got them to co-create the future with us and leave a lasting impact — shaped by our unique history, experiences, visions and hopes.

"Seemingly powerless people, fueled by their deepest — even sometimes unnamable — sense of meaning find those who share a cause or purpose and act together, without needing to be told what to do, to make a dent.”
Nilofer Merchant

The episode “Making a Dent in the Universe” offers key insights on:

  • The proven strategies that allow some people to make a scalable impact with their ideas, regardless of their power or status
  • How to meaningfully mobilize others around you, leveraging the power of digital and social networks, for a positive, collective purpose
  • Creating an environment that supports unfiltered ideation and successful execution

00:00:27

Hitendra Wadhwa: Greetings, everyone, and welcome back to Intersections where our aspiration is to allow us to explore our full potential as individuals, as teams, as organizations, as nations, as humanity, as the world at large, by dissolving these boundaries that sometimes just restrict us from seeing the full possibilities in moments and in life. The boundaries, for example, between East and West, between the inner and the outer, between profit and purpose, between science and spirituality and what have you. It is a tremendous joy for me today to have in our midst someone who has been a pathbreaking force, a pioneer in so many regards, and dissolving so many boundaries in the course of our own career, as well as in the ideas that she offers up for humankind. 

So let me introduce her to you, first just through her background, and then I will invite her here with us as well. In the meanwhile, take a moment in charge to get connected with each other as well, to build that bridge that this virtual space today allows us to do, despite the geographic spread that we might have shared with us where you are calling in from today. And we look forward to making you an active part of this conversation. 

Nilofer is an expert on innovation and one of the top ranked business thinkers of our time. She has been in the early part of her life, a technology professional with storied contributions that she's made in the area of sales and channel and marketing and business development at some of the big names in the tech fields like Adobe, Autodesk and Apple. She has gone on to have a prolific career in sharing ideas and thoughts through very persuasive writing in her books, such as The New How and the Power of Onlyness, which is one that we will do a deep dive on very soon. She's been active on the speaker circuit as well, giving TED talks, including on this theme of onlyness. 

She's widely acclaimed as a deep thinker in the field of management in both theory and practice. She has also been regarded as a really active and smart voice on Twitter and conducts workshops on the future of work in the social media era that we live in, on this capacity for us to light up like it up everyone in our organization to the fullest potential that some of these big story names of organizations have been featured in some of the leading media as well. 

And here is a quote from Nilofer just to start us off. “Seemingly powerless people fueled by the deepest and sometimes unnamable sense of meaning, find those who share a cause, purpose and act together without needing to be told what to do to make a dent.” And on that note, let me invite Nilofer into our midst. Thank you so much for joining us today.

00:03:28

Nilofer Merchant: So glad to be here.

00:03:29

Hitendra Wadhwa: Nilofer, this is such a beautiful quote that I just read from you, because we've lived in a period in history in the last couple of centuries or so that was so hierarchical in many ways. So there are a few people who know it and who get it. And then there's the rest of the world, and you're out there doing that wisdom around on its head.

00:03:58

Nilofer Merchant: Yeah, I started writing about this idea of onlyness and the whole notion that each of us has a spot in the world. Only one stands from that spot. We can add value. It's the oldest message. Exit through every piece of literature or spiritual literature that's existed has said each human being has rights and dignity and then you go to everyday life and very few people have rights and dignity, and I've been trying to figure out how to actually change the world of work so that we can recenter not on the capacity to create value for other people, but the actual ability for each of us to add the value that only one can. 

And we do this. I actually believe it'll lead to performance also. But it's centered quite differently. It's not about Bezos or Musk or whatever, you know, making their top-dog dollars; It's about each of us being able to add that value as only one can. And it's so tectonic that sometimes people call me crazy and radical or all these other words. But I think of the deepest truth, deepest calling that each of us has and so I'm hoping that we can actually find a way just to make the shift because it's what we all want anyway.

00:05:14

Hitendra Wadhwa: You know, I'm just being reminded, as you say, about the story that Mandella shares in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. And here's this guy who's like this icon right for the world and who's done this amazing work in trying to take South Africa into a more wholesome, more democratic, more non-racial kind of future and build these bridges even with the folks who are otherwise kind of like putting the apartheid system out there. 

And he talks about this one moment when he was a small militant needing to change South Africa more through aggression before he was arrested, went to prison for twenty-seven years and came out reformed and a different person than the times he had a gun in his hand. Once, he had a rifle in front of a friend of his, in his backyard. And he said, “why don't you shoot that bullet? Let me see what you learned in your training to be like a guerrilla warfare kind of guy.” 

And Mandela was like “Of course, I can shoot that bird” and aimed the gun at the bird, and he shot the bird and she fell. And then this little child who was the son of the friend who he was staying with, burst into tears and he said, “how could you do that? Because now do you see how much pain you have caused the mother of this bird?” MandeIa said, “I just melted. And I realized in that moment that this child has more compassion than me.” And I mean, I imagine, like that moment must have been one of several catalysts that actually got Mandela to become the Mandela that we know him to be. And I think of what you just said about how every one of us, every one of us and I realize that you know what, everyone doesn't even have to first turn into an adult before they can have impact, here was this little child in that moment having an impact.

00:06:56

Nilofer Merchant: Yeah. By the way, you know, we started talking personally before we jumped into the session. Can I share a personal story? You said we said we'd wonder where the conversation took us. My son's middle name is Mandela, and I named him that. Exactly for the story. That's so funny that you tell this story because we conceived him in South Africa and we were looking for some heritage story about who he would be because, you know, each of us has an inheritance that we bring into the world and a name as part of your inheritance that a parent gives. 

And I wanted to think of what I wanted my own child to be able to do in the world. And the whole notion that we can bring peace and change, not because of violence, not because we're pushing on someone, but because we're pulled into the world in a very particular way. And that's the shift I think we're trying to get to. 

Because, you know, by the way, when you push on something, someone's going to push back. And I'm much more curious by the questions that we can ask that are brand new questions that can say how can we do this in a brand new way that doesn't require us? I'm not asking people who are into white supremacy to join me. I am asking those of us, though, who want to do change to recognize the actual barriers that are there and not to push against sort of old, but to create the new. Yeah, and it takes us having more not just inheritance, but imagination to do that.

00:08:29

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah. When did you come across this quest to want to really light a spark in everyone's very special onlyness, as you're calling it. And then you coined the term as well. Yeah. Can you just talk a little bit about the inception of that? Can you maybe also define the term for us a little bit so we can have our audience wrap their minds around it?

00:08:52

Nilofer Merchant: Sure. So let me do a definition first, and then we'll back up to the start. So onlyness - each of us stand in a spot in the world only one stands in. And from that place, distinctly true to one person is how we add our value to the world. I defined it as both history and experience as well as visions and hopes. And the reason that I say, what is that place of power? Only one stands. 

If you center correctly, then you can tap that capacity. And the reason I defined it with both essentially the past and the future is sometimes we can imagine something is possible, even if we can't describe it fully to someone else, even if we can't put it into words and tagline and all that stuff. But we can still imagine something is possible that still makes it true to us. 

And so I wanted it not just to be a definition of archaeology, to say this is what I was born into, whether it's by class or sex or race or whatever things that we're born into, but a combination of who we've been and who are becoming. And in that place, which is about meaning, it's certainly about power, certainly about self-authority and self-authoring, about voice, but also about how we belong to the world. So it is all those things. So that's onlyness, in definition. I say it really succinctly when I say it's that place of power, only one stands - and then how I came to it, you know, there are times when I sit there and go to come up with it when I came up with it, or is it like a deeper truth and a colleague of mine, someone I work with all the time, is a professor at the University of Queensland. 

He says, you know, if you read now all your body of work, if you read everything you've been reading, writing since 2009, 2010, you've been saying the same thing over and over again, that each of us counts, that ideas can come from anywhere, that the ability to connect those ideas across networks is what creates capacity, like the capacity of a group versus the capacity of an individual and group. 

Power is what creates change because actually you can see the thread. So I think that's always funny to see how. We can find our own thread if somebody else pointed it out to us, but I coined the term in 2012 actually writing an article that turned out to be Steve Jobs eulogy for Harvard Business Review, they reached out and said he's passed today. And of course, I worked with him and they said, would you be willing to do something? And I said, yes. 

And the conversation I'd been having with my editor was, you know, we can see the genius of Steve Jobs so easily and we celebrated widely, but we don't recognize that same genius is true to Ashoka and Gates and true to each of us. And I was trying to recognize that independently of color, race, gender, age, all the ways in which isms stop us from listening to people. 

Each of us has that creative, innate capacity. The question then isn't that; it's whether or not we know how to tap it.

00:11:56

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah. Well, you know, I want to unpack this a little bit more with you and come back to Steve Jobs, because he's a fascinating figure. Of course, I'm hearing you seem maybe like a couple of things. One is that there is this almost like common ground that we all stand on, which is this just like this capacity for that creative spark that is the very special something that we can offer. 

And yet you're also saying that it's not a me-too in terms of us seeking to mimic others. It's something where on the common ground we stand, but we're also just like unity in diversity. You know, there's a diversity aspect of it, which is each of us has gotten unique life experiences, a unique DNA that brings a certain unique possibility to the relationship between us and the present moment and what we can offer.

00:12:44

Nilofer Merchant: Can I just take one word? So English is actually not my first language. And this is why I often look upwards, because I think, oh, am I using the right word? So I'm a total word geek. If you look at my bookcases, you'll actually find a bunch of dictionaries that I sometimes just flip through. So unique when you use the word is always relative. 

So I can be, for example, a woman in a corporate boardroom, and almost always, I could be called unique, but what is being characterized quite often is the fact that I am the only one. Which, interestingly enough, is entering the room. And so I don't use the word unique, because what I never want to do is have any of us understand each other in contrast to someone else, because that's like saying, well, you're an idiot. And so I'm smart like you or I'm smart or I'm an idiot. You're smart, right? Whichever way we might compare it to, say, each of us is distinctly ourselves. 

And this is a singular but not separate truism. So it's that the rain falling hits a pond singular, but not separate. So we're trying to get to that characterization of what it is that each of us has to bring that beautiful genius inside each of us and genius both being of the place? 

No, the notion of genius in the original Latin was that it lives within you. It's a spirit that dwells and the meaning that dwells in you and is always changing. But it is true to a place. Yeah. And that's what we're trying to get to each of us is that genius. And the question is, do we understand, therefore, our own contribution capacity, not in contrast to someone else, but the capacity that is true to each of us?

00:14:34

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah, it's beautiful. I'm a mathematician at heart. You know, that was my first passion. And so I'm always trying to look at things through that lens and try to figure out the, you know, the elements of the equation. And so I want to, in that spirit, ask you a question. 

Before I do, though, can I invite everyone to just share in and chat? Like, how are you feeling about this definition of onlyness, you know, that Nilofer offered and this unpacking she's done of the distinction between uniqueness was this idea of this distinctive self, you know, just yourself and who you are and honoring that and so share that. 

I would also love to hear from some of you as to if you want to articulate your onlyness, what would that be for you? What is it that you mean, I don't know, Nilofer, do you think it’s a worthy question? How would you ask it?. 

00:15:27

Nilofer Merchant: I know I do. I think each of us has some capacity and is always championing something. I think sometimes I find it hard to name, and then we think, oh, since we can't name it, it must not be true. Right. And I have coffee. So often I say to people, don't worry about the lingo of it. 

Just see if you can get a sense of it, because it's often, by the way, it's always changing. Right? If you ask me what my meaning is at this moment, it's very specific to what it is. I can add value here, right? I mean, it's always true to my larger through-line, but it's more tailored, I guess, at this moment. And so just to give people that context, you have to get it's not a branding exercise like I care about that. It's a sense of law.

00:16:14

Hitendra Wadhwa: Let's have you react to this idea as well as share in any kind of like statement on your side as to like. Here's one thing that I feel in this moment, as you're saying and as you're doing that one of the places where I feel for me has been a very meaningful step in growing in the last few years, has been in recognizing that some of the specialness and I want just to get your reaction to that. Some of the specialists can come at times, not just from you know, from the things that have gone well in life are the things that others may count as, like our special gifts, but sometimes quite the opposite as well. 

And I'll give you one example. I mean, one of the people who for me really stands out as an example in my network of the kind of people that you've done such a great job of, like giving us examples from your own life and others. One of those people is Candace Leitner. I don't know of her, but she started this organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which is a tremendous impact in making our highways just so much safer in the United States and ultimately creating a movement that is impacting many other parts of the world to be more responsible. 

Guys like it, not driving drunk and all of that. Right. And so, you know, quite a force. Now, if you go back in history, you know, she had a son who got hit by a car and had an accident that, you know, through that damaged his skull. She ultimately lost her teenage daughter to drunk driving. 

And that is what catalyzed this in her hunger, this desire to want to see a change in the world, in this area. And it's just incredible what a heroic journey she and her family have been on to help advance this cause, of course, partly by finding other kindred spirits, other mothers who had also lost their own children, which is part of your teaching as well, this idea of finding others, you know, to proliferate your idea right to people and then get your power from them you want. 

Come back and talk about that, but I'm almost sometimes thinking that and this is why I come back to Steve Jobs. He once said life sometimes doesn't make sense in the moment, but you have to be able to look back and then connect the dots. It's when you look back, you sometimes you find, oh, that's why this happened to me or that happened to me or that happened to me because it's made me who I am today.

00:18:44

Nilofer Merchant: Yeah. It's the Leonard Cohen line about there is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. And I think most of us would like to be more perfect than that and more perfect meaning, we wish we were raised a certain way, middle class. We wish we maybe didn't have an alcoholic father. We wish we knew, if I think about all the stories people tell me, they're all stories where they wish somehow this trauma or loss or suffering wasn't true. 

And yet it is the genesis of their own insight. And it can be big like that, like, you know, alcoholic parents or divorce or whatever it is. That's been a form of loss. But it can also be, you know, somebody I was working with recently in a consultation was saying to me that there they had their mother be in like a checkout line, a very simple moment, checkout line, being able to pay for something, wanted to open up like a credit card to be able to do it and couldn't because she was a woman. 

So this is in the 70s just dating all of us. I don't know if people remember that in the 1970s, women couldn’t open up their credit card by themselves; they needed a husband's signature. And she remembers how powerless her mother felt in that moment of not being able to be independent and make decisions and so on. And so then she doesn't like the story about herself because it makes her feel very, you know, vulnerable and raw and just like the story. 

But it turns out to be hugely formative because ever since then, she always notices in any room who's the underdog, who is being passed over because of some rule or right that is not being given to the person. And so I said, isn't it interesting that to you you're ashamed of this story? Right, because you're like, your mother should have been able to do this thing and you hated how she felt, you've internalized how she felt. 

So think about what that teaches you about you, think about how empathetic that makes you think about the fact that as a child, you noticed something that was going on that was an injustice. Right. But just because of gender not being able to do the same thing a man can do and then notice how you've turned that into the way in which you lead. 

So isn't that interesting that you're actually trying to deny it as if somehow it's not good and yet how it is served as everything for you, like it has been a juice for you? She had actually taken this feeling and wanted to hide it. And as soon as we are able to bring it into light, then also to go, OK, what is the negative of that? So just to own it gives you a different sort of feeling of authority over it. Right. Because now you're authoring your own life and saying, oh, what does it mean for me? 

So what meaning do I ascribe to it? Describe it. Take from it. And one of the things she realizes often she would coddle people because she was trying so hard to hide this part of her. And she didn't acknowledge it, she was also coddling people because she didn't know how to own the gift. 

 She was using it because she was trying so hard to hide it, it was using her instead of her using it, so the minute she could bring it into the light, she could go, oh okay, so I am deeply empathetic. I really care about the underdog, but I also have to care about the business and not care so much about people that we don't get to perform and that means not calling people. So actually and what I was trying to tell her was then believe in the capacity of the person. So if you say to someone, you know what, that doesn't work for us, let's find a way for it to work for us, the business unit. And she goes, oh, that would change everything. 

Now all of a sudden, this liability of hers became a learned asset and then she could actually understand both the sharpness and the places where she had to work on it so that she could apply it really well. And this is the shift. But it's until you can own the crack, you can't see where the light comes in and then maybe how to use that light more precisely in the darkness.

00:22:58

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah, so powerful and so beautiful. What a great metaphor about the lights and the cracks. Yeah, so let's maybe move on from the individual to the collective, since that is a key part of your thinking here as well. Right. You emphasize the individual, but you also emphasize the inextricable connection that we have with the world around us and how that is actually what allows us to fully manifest the possibilities and our uniqueness. Can you speak a little bit about that? I found that very beautiful.

00:23:31

Nilofer Merchant: And probably the most important line I wrote in the book of the power of Onlynes is that the very definition of individual and this is an economy just talking about, you know, you’re a math person, right? 

So I was looking for the equation, things you said, and I'm an econ major and I'm always looking for the way in which metrics define value. And one of the ways in which I understood an individual for my whole growing up life was it's you and then what you do so raise in American culture. 

Since I was four and a half fully embracing the notion of individualism, you can do everything. But if you actually look at the word individual, it is the smallest measure of humankind. So it is always connected to you. You cannot actually isolate an individual as separate from the group in which it belongs, but by definition, it is the smallest measure of the larger whole. So when I say separate, singular, but not separate, I'm saying that I'm even using the word individual. I am saying, who are you? A part of whom? To whom do you belong? 

Because that group is also what your shared meaning kind of connects you to. So onlyness follows that same beautiful logic, which is what is so true to you. That is also the part that is then connected to you. And sometimes when I think about that, different analogies come to mind. So, you know, you are a puzzle piece, part of a larger puzzle. The single raindrop is part of the larger ocean. 

And because I'm a quilter and I have been for 20 plus years and also see it as what is that thread that only you see that as you pull on, it catches your light and as you pull on it, you're actually afraid that things will unravel because, you know, you're kind of separating things out. But actually, as you pull on a thread, it connects you to the fabric of the world. 

So that's my favorite one, but so choose whichever beautiful metaphor you want, but it's always connected to you and the question is, how are you connected? So if you're connected hierarchically, then you're going to think about yourself as the peon or boss, right? 

If you're connected by vocational training, you might say, I'm going to count your marketing and your mouth of any kind and think of those ways. If you're connected by social status and you're going to say, I'm a woman, I'm your man. Then so they see differently, the connection you when you start to define it based on your own meeting, is to find that thread that you pull on that then connects to the world. 

But it is in ways that are independent of the social status and organizational hierarchy. It is that place, that genius, the place that is one's own.

00:26:21

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah, I want to explore the paradox with you here, because, you know, typically we tend to think about ways to get more connected by conforming, by seeing what's popular and making sure that we can step into that space so that we can also belong.

00:26:46

Nilofer Merchant: We compromise ourselves in order to belong, but we belong in this way, that is. Part.

00:26:53

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah.

00:26:55

Nilofer Merchant: So to your point about spiritual connection, right, what is the way in which you're not partial in belonging, but wholeness is a part of that belonging? So integration within and then with so that as we work on this common thing of it, the integrities all the way through.

00:27:15

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah. So beautiful. We had in my Columbia class earlier today itself, someone who’s actually a force of nature and is a very successful business executive, doing some great anti-corruption work in South Africa. And, you know, having made it to like the richest woman in South Africa, among other medals that she has, including the social impact of work, which is beautiful, one of the key messages she was emphasizing to our success-driven, very ambitious Columbia MBAs was that don't desire money beyond like the basic level. And if you do the right things, it'll come to you. It'll come to, you know, our conversation was not as much about money, but I think about, again, that social connection and that sense of being part of a larger milieu and having people be drawn to wanting to connect with you, befriend you, follow you, like you, et cetera. And I'm thinking maybe the same idea applies there, too. And the way I think you offer. Right. Which doesn't seem to be popular on the basis of what's popular out there. But when you find that very distinctive piece of who you are to yourself, you will naturally draw in a very integrated way and a very whole person will be, you know, just the right people. And then it'll be such a deeper, more authentic draw, isn't it?

00:28:37

Nilofer Merchant: You know, when I wrote The Power of Onlyness, I had this misconception. And let me share it with you because I think it's helpful here. I had this misconception that people already understood what they were doing right. And so all I had to do was study. All I had to do was study the sort of 20 or 30 examples of people who were using networked power to affect change and that would then lead me to insight knowing I could just write that, decode that, write it down, be done. 

It turns out I ended up researching three hundred examples and because to get to the 20 that I end up writing about because nobody and I'm saying this very boldly now, I probably just said it when the book came out, nobody actually understood what they were doing. And one of the stories that I'm going to share then is from the book, and I'm sure he won't mind me sharing, so Franklin Leonard, who started this organization called The Black List, you coining off the McCarthy sort of term that once exiled storytellers, he was using it in the same way to include storytellers. And he worked in Hollywood, and he's unable to get his bosses to approve of stories like Hunger Games. 

And because they say female-driven action doesn't work, that was a direct quote. And so he's like, I must be really shitty at my job. Right. So he thinks he must be wrong because, of course, his bosses are so rich, and he ends up writing an email to about 80 some people he had met in his first year in Hollywood asked them to participate in helping him find better stories, and in return, he'll change that same data back to them. 

And so that's the give. Give me your best story that you've seen the last year that has been put in production. I'll show you back the master list of what everybody creates. This list goes wide. And when I asked Franklin, now, this is five years later, and some of the movies have become award-winning movies and making money and so on. 

And I say to him, hey, Franklin, so what do you think you did right? He says, well, we just showed a bigger light on it. And I remember sitting there going and we were on the phone. I got that's not it, you know, and I was trying to figure out how do I say to this guy who I really respect, that's not it. And because I said to him, I actually waited, thought about it, came back and I said, listen, if that was it, Spielberg would have done it. 

He had all the money in the world. Right. Anyone could react because they actually want exactly the outcome you want. And they were asking a different question than Franklin was asking. And in fact, I rushed even as I said it to you, what question he asked because he rushed it to me. So I'm doing that intentionally. And so, you know, if the question was what movie will make the most amount of money, you get a certain answer. He asked a different question, which is, what story do you love? 

And that change of question changes what people respond by, which changes, by the way, how then you end up stack ranking everything and it allows a different metric in place, which, by the way, aligns everyone in the same direction. So now it's not the boss thinking, gosh, I know which thing makes money. It's now what story resonates the most. It's a very different conversation. 

You're starting to have what's original, what's a distinct story? Is it great storytelling itself? And I'm sure people can Google how phenomenally successful the Blacklist has become. Because you've been in since the four or five years since I did that research, it's become incredibly well known. Franklin Leonard, an unbelievably strong part of a community now to do screenwriting and change the Hollywood thing. Didn't know any of that at the time. At one point, in fact, he's thinking about quitting like a year or two into it. He's thinking about quitting because he's like, oh, I can't do what I needed to do. I have my career. It's all good. 

And somebody is on the phone with him trying to convince him to pick. Who was it? Oh, Leonardo DiCaprio for a film. And he's on this like marketing my phone call and getting told, you know, you got to put Leonardo in this film. And the guy says to Leonard Franklin, DiCaprio says to Leonard, hey, I know on good authority that this movie is going to make it on the Blacklist next year. He doesn't know because Franklin has kept it a secret that he's the guy who started the Blacklist. So he's having this muckety muck, quote, his body of work back to him and goes, oh, my God, I think I'm onto something. 

And notice the difference, though. That was not about money. That was about meaning and meaning precedes money by any stretch of the imagination. And if you organize first on money, you can end up distorting the vision of where you go. If you organize first on meaning, you end up aligning a bunch of things and money typically follows. Doesn't guarantee you,I'm not trying to say that, but it's much more important to get the basis of the product, right? Essentially. Right. The product, the what is the thing. And then we can figure out what's the business model behind it.

00:33:37

Hitendra Wadhwa: I mean, it's such an incredibly important lesson for our colleagues and friends in the business world, I think, to absorb, you know, if the 20th century was all about advancing the intellectual understanding of management and business, the 21st century has to be about advancing a much more whole person understanding about business, isn't it? 

And I think partly what you said here is like how his questions shifted to the decision criterion from purely a cerebral intellectual, let's do the analytics on this to is it a marketable thing more to the heart? Like, did you love that script? Right. And I'm reminded of a moment, I think, that the iPhone or the iPod manager, I think is the iPhone product manager, said  like Steve Jobs  comes to us and tells us that we should design a phone which has no buttons or this or that. He just said, you know, design a phone that people fall in love with. When have you actually interacted with him yourself?

00:34:35

Nilofer Merchant: You know, I really didn't. He was in the time I was at Apple was when he was on the exodus. So Moses and the Exodus kind of thing. So he was gone basically most of the years. And in that window, I had gotten to run this program. That was the only part of the business that was actually making money at the time he returns. And so because I had been running a little program and I had grown it and was sort of known as the internal advocate, my executive team decided that I would be the person who would present the business case to Jobs. 

And this is, you know, enough about business to know these funny moments. And, you know, so he stops coming back. He's doing the business performance review. And basically it's like a job interview for like, do we get to stay? Right. Here's how much money we're making. Here's why we're viable. Here's why we're important to the company. It's that conversation. So I'm the one who's standing there, presenting at 20 something years old. 

And I have spent the night up, worked on my PowerPoint skills, worked on the message. And I've literally spent the entire night up and I'm there like ready to present. And these are the first words, this guy I've never met. But like, you know, it's kind of a big deal walks in the room. Important to notice a raggedy-ass t-shirt that hadn't been washed in a while, jeans like baggy jeans, flip flops that were probably like 20 years old, this was pre, you know, the new balanced shoe turtleneck days. But just looking as haggard as you could possibly imagine, walks in, puts his feet on the table. And my slides behind me said something about channel management because that was my charter. And he said this was a direct first quote. 

And I remember going, I'm about 20 something years old, I have no idea what to do at this moment. So I look over at my colleagues, one of whom is in his late 50s, my boss, and looking at them to give me a clue what to do. And he was like, shrugging right back. So I ended up pretending like the comment didn't happen, which, of course, in retrospect, not the world's classiest move. 

And I went ahead and presented the duck. And then that was basically my first big interaction with him. And of course, I met him later on the industry and stuff when we had like circles and but it was like, oh, not the world's best first impression on either one of our sides. So I left shortly thereafter. I actually went back to my desk after that presentation and I had a job offer from a little company called Go Live to join as a startup founder and run their sales, marketing and expansion growth. This was even a pre product at this point. 

And I remember I had said to this guy, Andrius, CEO is like you, I've got a job. I'm really happy. I'm really successful here. No problem. You know what? It was in my inbox, though, and it's like, are you going to be open to reconsidering when you look at specific dollars and stuff? It actually doesn't seem like I would be happy to talk about this job because I didn't think that maybe had gone that well. And I was like, I think maybe it's time to go now.

00:37:32

Hitendra Wadhwa: Well, he did do a lot of streamlining and rationalizing of the product portfolio at that time. I don't know where yours ended up right after you left.

00:37:41

Nilofer Merchant: It became the prototype for the retail store. So the funny part is we had built the closest interaction with customers was our relationship and anywhere else in the company, no one understood the customer. We actually had the closest proximity. And he kept saying we got to figure out how to get closer to the customer. And so he actually built on it. And I was like and like six months later, something I ran to the guy who had taken over my job, Patty Wong, and at some Apple trade conference kind of thing, because I'm still in the Apple universe. 

Go Live lab being one of the first was a big piece of software. I'm trying to figure out how to get it established in the industry. And so I'm at the trade conference and I said to this guy, I'm thinking I'm going to have to have a sympathetic conversation with the guy who took my job. Must really suck. He's like, no, we're following your full business plan, doing every single thing you had laid out. Like, it's all good and we're successful and we got money. And I was just like, really? That was not the meeting I was in. But it turns out he actually figured out how to basically challenge every single person who came out. And he didn't accept it, he just didn't say, yes, I like that. Keep that. 

He basically challenged everything because he wanted to up the performance of the teams. That was his particular management philosophy back then. And then that team ended up continuing on and really growing the business. So I just misread the signs, you know, not understanding the politics of the situation.

00:39:04

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah. Wow. What a story. I want to come back to your personal journey in just a few minutes. Maybe there's a last piece that we can cover before we eat, before we get there, which is, you know, we need to take this message. Right, which I think in a time like this in particular, where there is so much ferment, there's so much unrest, there's so much uncertainty, any claimant to the idea that we know what the future is like. Here's what the future was like. 

Here's my advice for what you need to do to advance yourself as an organization, as a nation, as an individual into that future. I mean, clearly speaking from no real place of solidity, of facts and insights, given how much the old order is being dismantled. And we really don't know what the new order is, right? Within health or social or political or technology or any other disruptors out there. 

So in a time like this, in particular, we have to make space for more ideas to proliferate, for insights to come from left field, from just unexpected places, from those beyond our discipline. You know, I'm just seeing even what's happening in the scientific community we're thinking science is going to save us. But even science, you know, is ultimately about human attachments and egos and career paths and blind spots. 

And you look at the media, you know, I think they go get maybe the media is going to be the fourth estate and they'll save us. I mean, it's a struggle everywhere, you know. So to that end, this idea that we need to take both ownership and responsibility and create teams and families and organizations where everybody can be Spock and you just never know from where this new society is going to get built. 

That's how I'm connecting the dots between what you are doing and the larger, you know, space being thrust into the world. And when you take that message to the organizations and the leaders that you serve in your talks and coaching and workshops, how is it landing on the people in positions of power? And who, if you can share any example, is doing a really good job opening themselves up to more collective intelligence.

00:41:14

Nilofer Merchant: By the way, there is some beautiful music playing in the background. So I don't know if that was our phones or what, but if it was me making noise, I hope I'm not distracting her.

00:41:23

Hitendra Wadhwa: Sorry, there is construction going on. This is life. That's what that is. That was a drill. 

Nilofer Merchant: Yeah, so when I'm working with people, I think there's two things that are going on. One is I think you remember we talked about it's an invitation to a future, but there are just as many people willing to fight for the current status. And I said, yeah, you don't want to spend your time fighting. Earlier in this conversation, we talked about how we don't want to fight the existing status quo because that fight is an old fight and it's an old fight, meaning there are people in power. 

And if you play on their terms with the existing thing, it's Audrey Lords, you know, thesis. We will never dismantle the oppressors' house by using his tools. Right. The master's house using his tools. We need to find new ways. In fact, when I was working on the book,  Power of  Onlyness, I actually spent a couple of years in France writing it, researching it from there. 

And that was mostly personal choice, you know, the context was interesting. But at the time I used to walk past the Louvre every day to walk my son to school. So over the Seine River and then past the Louvre and I notice that whenever we talk about change at work today, we use metaphors like castles and money. 

And so we use old paradigms. And I'm much more fascinated with the new paradigm. So a friend of mine and I, in fact, got together in the shadow of the Louvre and had breakfast. And I was sharing the idea of onlyness and I was saying, wouldn't it be nice? So this is me getting trapped in the metaphor, too. Wouldn't it be nice if all the people currently who want to create change could get led in the front door? 

And my metaphor I was using as we're crawling in the side doors and then the side windows of the castle, and if the door could just open wide, a bunch of us could come and create change. And he said, actually, by the way, just if you hear yourself, you don't want to get into the castle. The castle is dark and dank and doesn't work for the people who live in the castle anyway, except a few people. Right. Doesn't work for them. And excuse my language, I just realized I work. And then he goes, but he goes, what you're actually saying is you want to build a whole new way.

And so your metaphor is you want to go down the river and build the village. And you want to make a place that thrives not just for the people who live in the kingdom and then the people who live outside in the grass or, you know, like the surf people, you don't want that. That's not what you're asking for. You're asking for a place where we can belong together in a whole new way, which means new metrics, which means new organizing systems, which means new leadership types, which means wholeness instead of personalness. And he said, just so you hear yourself that metaphors are old. And I was one of those moments where you got to love friends. When they do this to you, you're like, yeah, you're totally right. I'm using an old metaphor, too. 

So for leadership today, one of the things I'm noticing is there is a group of people who are willing to say, I trust my people. I trust that voice, and I want to create more opportunities for different voices to lead us, and then there are other people who are like, I need to know what's happening tomorrow and to have a strategic plan, I need to have a five year plan. I need to hit these certain specific performance numbers. And in order for me to do it, if you can't do it, I'll hire someone who can write, which is people as cogs, people as discretionary systems. 

Those are like two different paths that are going, and at all times a chance to weave between the two is happening. But I'm much more interested in working with leaders who are like saying, let's find a way to build this culture so it's high performance, right. So that I don't just view people as cogs and then I step on them in order to get to the end goal, which is a very, by the way, unsustainable model, but a way to go. If I actually engage my own people, engage the customers, engage the market, we're going to figure it out together, which is operating on the shared intelligence and such capacities of the group. 

 As a group, power grows in that old construct. There's only power by a few people, and then everything else is driven by money in the long run. So this is like a 20 year kind of horizon. One outperforms the other by a long stretch. In the short run, money can reward money because that's how the financial markets perform. And so I think this is a question of consciousness. To your point, as in why we're actually having this conversation, how do we actually work with the leaders?

So I'm deeply drawn to the organizations who are doing reinvention using this wholeness kind of construct that each of us has capacity. And if we trust that system, we can design new things, not one leadership thing that's in place. And it's why I'm working on what I'm working behind the scenes right now, the leadership construct is in place. 

So even if a leader knows that they need to do a different kind of leadership construct, one that engages and enables versus directs people to do exactly what they're told to do, even if they know that like they know it in their own heart everything they're taught and told. And you and I know this because we understand business models, everything they're taught and told, traits people labor as an activity or resource. 

Possible and specific to can they do X at this point? We have yet to create labor as love as its own metric, labor as meaning, labor as capacity. And that new metric needs to both be defined and then instituted. And that's the work I'm starting to do behind the scenes to figure out how to both shape that code, create those new metrics so that we can actually figure out how to get the alignment between what a leader knows they need to do and what they're then rewarded to do.

00:47:25

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah. Well, that sounds like a really powerful multiplier of all of this idea, onlyness, you know, at a more scaled level. And my prayers are with you that you succeed in creating and innovating at scale in a way that helps us see how to systematize and create at an organizational level some of these personal otherwise hungers and aspirations. 

Right. Let's move into your personal story. So, I mean, you know, just for our friends here in the audience, I mean, I'm sure all of you are observing what I'm observing, which is Nilofer, you come across as somebody who is incredibly thoughtful. You pause and take ownership over every word that you express. You're a wonderfully gifted storyteller. You speak from a deeply felt place. And, you know, the sense one gets is that this has been a lot of hard work where you have really toiled perhaps in your heart and your mind and churned the ether to really make sense of your world and put into words, you know, things that have probably been getting stirred from within. 

And that's unique. That's powerful. That itself is a living example of some of your own teachings and ideas. And I love that. I love this idea of living the truth. It's not just teaching the truth. And so where does that power come from? And could you take us back to your roots? What was it like growing up as Nilofer? Well, a couple of pivotal moments. I've been struck by hearing you in a couple of your videos. Talk about one or two of them. Hopefully you'll discover even more today. But even just those one or two are incredibly instructive, I think, for everyone. So I'd love for you to share a little bit about your personal journey.

00:49:23

Nilofer Merchant: Sure. Just this morning on Instagram, a friend of mine who happens to be a lawyer shared a story. Her son turns four. And she said when she was raised, she was raised with love, love in such a deep way to know her own worth, and that no matter what anybody would say or do, that filled her and made her capable of withstanding so much. And she was hoping to pass that on with her son. That was just a beautiful little Instagram story I was reading this morning. 

And I thought, I'm so sad that I didn't have that inheritance. I did not have somebody fighting for me. My mother and father divorced when I was two and a half years old. I didn't know my father. I never even saw him again until I was like 12. And I lived with my aunt and uncle, my aunt, in fact, just died of Covid. 

Doing this last year, but she was like a second mom to me and so and the way that she loved me, she absolutely loved me. But there's something about knowing that your mom left you forever changes you, that she left you, even if she left for all the right reasons. Right. So, you know, she came to America to see if she could. Back in India, if she had stayed, there's no way she could have raised us and as a divorcee in India, it was a stigma. 

And so she came to America hoping to outrun that stigma. And she got a degree as a respiratory therapist. She raised her children and single mother’s income like, you know, unheard of rate and all that. So in that way, she loved, she provided, but she didn't know how to provide safety. And she certainly didn't understand how to value a girl, a Muslim girl, as equal to a Muslim boy. 

And so my job was to grow up and be a good, dutiful daughter who cooked really well and who married really well and provide for her. And so maybe one of the stories that you're talking about is the story of an arranged marriage. I was supposed to have an arranged marriage. And by the way, I had completely signed up to it. So I am a very beautiful child actually, at some level. And I was like, sure, of course, I'm going to marry well so that my mother is provided for. Of course, I am. And by the way, can I also get an education? And because I had always just loved learning and I couldn't imagine not getting an education, it was just like all my friends were going off to get degrees. 

And so unbeknownst to my family, I had actually applied for and gotten into a university, filled out the paperwork for the one-year extension, and was sort of hoping that somehow I could make these two parts of me, this western part that grew up with the idea that girls could get an education and go off and do things. And this very traditional family part, which was like you're going to provide for your mom. And so I was somehow figuring out how to integrate those two things, like if I could just make it come together and this one particular way that I can do everything. 

And my mother arranged a marriage with a very, very wealthy man. And as a result, he had a house cleaner and a nanny and stuff because he had already been married before and he had a child from his first marriage and his wife had died. And so I was like, this is perfect because, like, it's not like he needs me to take care of the house. Everything's perfect. So, yes, I'm in for the marriage. And I had asked my uncle, who was doing all of our negotiations, to do this thing, and I got home one day, and everybody's having that sort of family aunties are all at the house. 

It would not be the formal niqah, but sort of the earlier thing that happens. And they're all celebrating. And I'm like, so did somebody get the guy to say, I'm going to college? And no one, my uncle's like, well, your mom would let me ask. So I'm like, dude, like if I lose the year because, I mean, like, you know, then I'd have to build a relationship with this guy before I could ask the guy. And so I'm like, can someone just ask the guy, you know? 

And of course, in Indian culture, I wasn't allowed to talk to the guy. So this all happens. I wait till everybody's gone because I'm such a respectful daughter. Right. I wait to abscond. Then I tell my mom, you know, like, if you could please just ask him, I'm sure he'll say yes. And so this is not like it's not a debate. And I even said, like, if he says no, that I'll live with that decision. 

My mother refuses to do this because she doesn't want to put into jeopardy what she has just arranged, which is the house she's got in a house out of the deal and she fully paid off the house and she really wanted that for her own financial security. So I do this thing, which I think nothing of at the time. And this is where I don't know what I was thinking, really, because I can't, like, retrace just how crazy I must have been. But I was like, well, then I'll move out. And I know this is the western side of my personality and you can tell exactly who I am by this one story. 

So I get to the point where I go, well, I'm the product. If I'm the product, you can't make this deal without me. So I have some pull in this thing and you can just do this. If you do the ask, and he still says no, I'll still go through with the deal. But since I'm the product, I ought to be able to ask for this one thing. Can you imagine referring to yourself, by the way, as a product, just if you just think about that as a story? But I am such a marketing person like I was in the very beginning. 

I think a part of me always understood marketing. So I was like, if I'm the product, I can make the deal. So then I tell my mother this. My mother doesn't listen to me at all. So in order to prove to her that I'm the product. I take our old grocery box that doesn't even have a lid and I walk to my bedroom. 

She's following me because and I've engaged her in this conversation and I put, I don't know, like seven bucks or ten bucks, like some ridiculous amount of bucks, no toothbrush, one outfit to prove to her, I'm not coming home and walk out the door and I'm convinced she's going to stop me at the door. 

She doesn't stop me at the door. I'm convinced she's going to stop me in the driveway. She doesn't stop me in the driveway. I'm convinced as I'm walking down the street, she's just going to follow me in the car. A couple of days later, I'm ejected from the family. I have no place to live. I have no money to my name because every dollar I had ever earned, I'd given her and no bank account, my name, nothing. And I'm like, holy shit, so that's my inheritance. 

It's a certain amount of stubbornness and somebody who really saw me as a product and wanted me to do exactly what she wanted me to do and to live that conformity, to belong in that very specific way, not as oneself, but in a way that is. You saw me as the daughter, a Muslim daughter whose job was to marry well, and I think sometimes when I notice issues about, let's say, race or gender dynamics or whatever, it's because I learned it at a really deep, deep level, what it is to be unseen. So much so that I accepted the paradigm and described myself as a product.

00:56:35

Hitendra Wadhwa: Wow, you know, it's almost unthinkable what that moment must have meant, the choices that you were making. And yeah, and the uncertainty and unknown-ness of the future that you allow yourself to walk into. And yet it seems like it was almost as though this was a moment where life was awakening something within you. And it seems like it's interesting because what if he what if the family had gone ahead and asked him that? What if he'd said, yeah, yeah, sure. You know, she's going to do all of these things at home and everything else, but I'm happy as a side thing or something like that. And, you know, I wonder if that would have gotten you to your fullest potential the way you have since.

00:57:29

Nilofer Merchant: So it's just like where every story shapes you and it is just your story and you get to decide what meaning you ascribe to that story. So absolutely. Ten years ago I quit my company for entirely personal reasons. Every now and then I think about those reasons and I don't talk about them because they're related to my son. 

So I don't think it's my story to tell a hundred percent. And I sit there and go, I really resent that. I resent that all these things had to happen, that I had to shut down my firm and so on. And every now and then I get kind of like, yeah, doesn't seem fair. Part of me wants something different. And then I'm like, yeah, but would I be sitting where I am today if I hadn't stopped consulting? So one reason I think I have such a distinctly powerful voice in the business world is I'm not selling anyone anything. Right. 

So in consulting or when you're working for the firm, you have to think who is writing your paycheck? You have to really calculate that. And you can't say everything that you might want to say. But sitting out here much more independently, I'm like, yeah, that isn't going to work over there. Let me tell you why. And it gives you a joyfulness to be able to say, let me point out what no one else is willing to say. And so that then becomes that form of authority in its own way. And I'm using authority very specifically because you get to author the story in a whole other way, and so if it's a form of authority, then you just get to go, OK, well, that is what it is. And then what does that lead to?

Hitendra Wadhwa: I want to use that then as a way to just going to, you know, help everyone see the possibilities in a door that is slammed shut and not a door that is like half-open, half-closed, and you are able to squeak your way in, but like a door when it is completely slam shut, you hit a dead and sometimes it is life just inviting you to look in another direction and maybe, like knows more than you how luminous the possibilities are, whereas asking you not to get distracted by the door at all. 

I know you had two of those instances in your life, in your teenage years and then more recently as well. Thank you. Thank you. How beautiful. Let me invite you to answer one question from Rózsa. He's talking about how you can take your model? How does it apply to, you know, these challenges that we are facing in society today where we are so driven? Right. And separated by social and emotional and political factors, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the whole area of empowering natives, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement, gender equality, et cetera. What would your model help illuminate a few possibilities for how to bring more clarity, closer collaboration in these areas?

01:00:22

Nilofer Merchant: Absolutely. And I think, by the way, I chose to feature Black Lives Matter in the book. There's a beautiful story there. So here's the thing. It's already working. The group of people who coined the term Black Lives Matter and the story and the genesis of that born of pain. In fact, I think this year is the eight year anniversary of the Trayvon murderer being released and with no repercussions. 

I think it's coming up in a month or something soon. And so eight years from that moment of somebody typing on Facebook, you know, our lives matter. Black Lives Matter. There's been a huge awakening reckoning, people recording videos for those of us who, you know, decided to watch the eight-minute trauma of watching someone be killed in front of our eyes and then to watch at the end of that video, I never watched it to the very end early in the trial recently did I hear what the actual end of the videotape was, which was when he was done killing after eight minutes and 40 seconds done killing someone.

He says, I'm done here. And that evolution of us understanding something that that group of people has, by the way, they understand it themselves, it's those of us who are now waking up to that that is driven off of the work that of mobilizing, organizing work that that group has been doing for, well, pretty Black Lives Matter and since then. And so I think it is already possible. There are people who are already working on gender equity issues, people who are working on pay equity issues, et cetera. 

We get distracted by the commentary I make sometimes when we get distracted by those people who use all the lingo but don't actually want change. So it's the lean in thing that it was quite a distraction when Leani n came in. I remember thinking and reading. The construction saying, you know, by the way, this offers no real solutions and in fact, ask the group that's being oppressed to stop being oppressed and I'm like, that will actually never work. Anybody hear that? 

And I remember because I was part of a listserv of 500 women entrepreneurs and executives and I got booed, and I was like, yeah, that's actually going to create a ton more harm. And that group, it turns out the leaders of that group are getting paid by Sandberg to actually promote the book. And I was like, oh, money, money over meaning. And they got paid and they wanted the money. And so they told everyone who was pushing back that, no, it's fine. And later on I was like, oh, my God. Oh, that makes sense. They were paid.

 So I think there are people who are absolutely already doing the work. And then the question is, if that's something that matters to you, how do you join? Right. How do you listen to that? And then for those people who, you know, want to preserve the status quo, there's tons of money. By the way, if you were in business today, wouldn't you rather treat someone like a cog so you can pay them nine bucks an hour and dispose of them if they're not doing what you need, rather than pay them what they're actually worth, which is at least 15, if not more. 

Right. And actually have a dialogue with people to create work that actually works for them. Which one would you rather choose if you were the boss and you liked being in charge? Seems pretty obvious. It's the same reason the British colonized a bunch of places they could go and take all the products. Of course, you would like it if you could take all the spices out of India and get the best of that and suppress an entire group of people. Yay for you. So I get that there's a group of people who want it, and then there's the rest of us who can mobilize and organize. 

And so I think the big thing I'm trying to say is for those of us who are participating in systems to go, hmm, this isn't really working and how do I become part of the change? That's the challenge not to accept. What we're taught and told, just because it is the majority, it doesn't stay majority apartheid was a majority for a long time to. British colonizing India was a big change that happened when some of us went home. We deserve better.

01:04:42

Hitendra Wadhwa: So powerful, thank you. Thank you for maybe we can just end with a reflection from you coming back to the personal space to where you draw your bedrocks from your bedrock beliefs, your convictions. You mentioned you grew up in a Muslim family, but you also rebel against one of the customs they had at that point about the role of women. So has that faith continued to stay on as a source of insight and inspiration, guidance for you? Have you expanded frontiers beyond that as well? Or where is it that you know your name from?

01:05:22

Nilofer Merchant: Yeah, so. I just spent five days in silence at a monks’ retreat in Big Sur, and I go there because this place, a holy place at the edge of the world, edge of the continent, there's the Pacific Ocean. And literally, it's a place where the roads keep falling apart, like every few years, like we can't get to the place because the roads have fallen apart. So it is literally a place of transformation where the roads can't even stay together long enough for us to get there. 

And then the monks’ retreat is two miles up a hill straight-up kind of thing. And so it's this beautiful visual representation and geographic representation of transformation. And I go there in pure silence. And I was just telling a friend of mine that five days was the longest I've ever done science. And I said a part of me goes there so that I can hear where my own life's calling is taking right. 

So I can stop the cacophony of my own like noise in my own head, like, oh, I should do this, that I should do that. And I'm not making money or whatever to be like. What is it? That my own life's purpose can serve. And then reading and re-assimilating and just listening for guidance on what is it that's even possible and then to work from that place of inner. Interfaith intercom and I do that work, I make a distinction between faith and religion. Religion is the mechanisms that different groups have put together to kind of be almost ritualized, right. 

Faith. But faith is his ultimate belief that there is a reason that you are here for a reason, that you have value to offer, that each of us has a value that's a faithfulness, and that somehow, even if you cannot see what the next step is, even if you cannot plan with the next step, is there is a logical next step that will help you manifest yourself. And for me, probably the one story I tell myself more than any other story is my grandfather named me. He named me Nilofer, translating to waterlily, and when I was maybe six or seven, maybe eight, I remember exactly where I was, but I remember how old I was. 

He told me the story of how he named me and why he named me, and what he did. And he said, lotuses grow in mud. And he says, but they always go towards the light. No matter how dark the water, they grow towards the light. And I return to that metaphor in my heart as a is this the light? And that's kind of, you know, just how I navigate my own life and I can't hear that light when I'm hearing about money or I'm hearing about productization or all these other things, but I can hear it in the silence. And so I've become more and more clear about how to draw from that well, and go back to that well so that it feels all my work.

01:08:39

Hitendra Wadhwa: Well, that sounds so special. I didn't realize that's what Nilofer meant. And, you know, we have only one child. When she was going to be born, we didn't know what it was going to be, a boy or a girl. We hadn't really chosen to know. We were actually in your neighborhood. We used to live in Palo Alto at that time. I remember going to the hospital when my wife was in labor, and we had already known for a while what we would name the child if it was a daughter. 

But we still didn't know what we would name the child if it was a boy. And so we were still debating the name as my wife is actually starting to be in labor and she ends up at the hospital by the evening the baby is delivered, and it's a daughter. It's as though nature knew it was going to be a daughter, had aligned us and we had convinced ourselves that we were going to name her Mrinalini which means lotus, very similar to what you just said. So that's been her name.

01:09:34

Nilofer Merchant: So that's right. We pray that we have an inheritance that we pass on, and then we have the imagination that pulls us forward. And I, I consider your question about faith more about how do you allow imagination to be faithful and not driven by your ego, but driven by your faith.

01:09:50

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah. So beautiful. Thank you for sharing that piece with us, including that time that was close to those monks. This has been so joyful, so wonderful. I'm really grateful for all that you have shared. I want to highlight for our friends here your newsletter. I said that maybe you can speak to me for a minute. 

I just shared it on the screen because if you want to follow more of Nilofer’s work. Clearly, we've only scratched the surface here, and you are a work in progress with all your ideas and what you're unfolding. So here it is. And maybe you can speak to us for a moment.

01:10:21

Nilofer Merchant: Yeah. So I'm writing a column, an advice column. For four years, people have sent me questions in my inbox and I would always write back because to me that just seems I don't know, it seemed almost polite for a while, like it was just like, oh, people were writing these really heartfelt notes and then asking advice quite often. So I would give guidance. 

And at one point I thought, you know, somebody should be public because they're very like specific things like. And so I just thought, why not? And so the column is about being fully alive at work. It has an individual's cut. So how do you as an individual, even if you're also a leader and then a leader’s cut for how you might build this inside your organization? So a director's cut is what I call that one and offers tools and processes. But I'm really looking at questions people ask and saying what is? 

So I'm often reframing the question. I think that the most interesting set of questions is the one where I'm like, yeah, it's not this, it's that sort of money one. Or if people are filled with anxiety or how they find their meaning, all those kinds of really profound questions. But even one, as recently as somebody was running for office and said I want to know how to find those people I can work for, you know, work to serve them. And I said, that's so interesting. You know, the model you're referencing is servant leadership, which, by the way, in the business world is considered the highest mark of leadership. And I challenged it and said it's not actually the highest form. 

Servant leadership can be incredibly patriarchal where you think you can be responsible for someone else. I said there's a higher form of leadership than this, which is a collaborative model of leadership that says, let me engage you so you can bring the best of things. And so it's not working for people, but working with people. And that was just one column. And a friend of mine who's also a professor at MIT, he says, you know who, but you challenge servant leadership.

01:12:13

Hitendra Wadhwa: Well, that's wonderful.  Thank you so much for, you know, just first and foremost the wonderful work you're doing for giving so generously of your time and your spirits today to us and for living the life that you're leading. It is so incredibly inspiring and can have so many lessons and inspirations for so many of us. I hope that the world continues to give you more and more platforms through which to propagate these ideas and your personal journey, because it is so important at a time like this for us to hear your voice. Thank you so much, Nilofer. It has been great to have you and Godspeed. I wish you all the best.

01:12:51

Nilofer Merchant: Thank you.

01:12:52

Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah, folks, it has been such an inspiring conversation, such a nuanced conversation, such a thought-provoking conversation. I think that there are just so many different reflections for each of us to take to heart, to pause, to reflect in our mind, allow it to just percolate and emerge with our own conclusions. And remember, these don't have to be Nilofer’s conclusions or Intersections’s conclusions. These have to be yours because that is what Nilofer said, isn't it? That notion of the distinctive self that lies within you all the best in that journey. And I look forward to seeing you soon in a couple of weeks!



Coming Soon!

The Art of Happiness
With Arthur Brooks, Happiness Expert and Harvard Professor
WATCH PREVIOUS EPISODE
The Art of Being Alone (and Not Lonely)
With Karen Fredette, Contemporary Hermit and Prize-Winning Author
WATCH NEXT EPISODE
Listen, Watch & Subscribe