Interview: Nilofer Merchant.
I can't even remember how I met Nilofer Merchant—somehow, our circles overlapped long ago. And now I'm wondering if we've ever actually met in person! I think we did, and I know her, but it's possible we've only connected virtually.
Nilofer is a writer, a speaker, and has launched more than a hundred products that have netted $18 billion dollars. She's been called a "visionary," "provocative yet practical," and one of the "most likely to influence the future of management." Wowza.
Her new book just hit the shelves: The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.
I was eager to hear what she had to say.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research with your idea of "Onlyness." What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?
Nilofer: Having just finished researching 300 examples on what it takes to turn new ideas into actions, I have one big observation about habits: Most of us want to navel-gaze our way to personal clarity before we act. Yet, it is the very act of doing something that actually helps with clarity.
For example, I researched the story of an innovation professor, André Delbecq, who wanted to help business leaders develop their inner moral framework. Nearly every person he knew in his field of management thought he was out of his mind because the idea of mixing faith and fortune was practically unheard of in the brash world of business. And he had no idea himself how to pursue this idea. Had he had waited until he had more personal clarity or simply listened to his peer group, nothing would have changed. Instead, he started on the path, not knowing where he was going with a simple question. From there, he kept asking more refined questions and that led to introductions to people who found value in this new idea. Ultimately, André was able to design a course that has since been taught to thousands of business leaders to help develop their moral compass.
André’s discovery of his purpose sheds light on how each of us can do the same. It answers the question so many of us have as we look over the edge to a possible new world: Don’t we need to know where we’re going and, ideally, have a well-considered plan before we start? When we imagine doing the next big thing, whether it’s a business innovation or a social change, most of us expect to have a transformational moment, sufficient expertise, or some brilliant deep personal introspection that lends us the clarity to act. Yet, as André’s story reveals, the journey that leads you to yourself doesn’t require knowing exactly where you’re going or a map outlining precisely how to get there. It only matters that you start.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Nilofer: Walkntalks. Instead of meeting at a coffee shop and consuming calories, I do meetings as walks. It’ll mean I add 6-7 miles to my mileage while talking big ideas with other leaders. As I mentioned in my 3-minute TEDtalk on the subject, which has been seen by nearly 3 million people, this one small change has led to a fundamentally big shift in my health.
When I first started walkntalks, it was because I was putting myself last in line. I would jump to solve problems for the CEOs of tech firms I worked with, or always be willing to strategize with my team, or advise and mentor my students from Stanford, but my own health was always last. So finding a way to shift meetings to be just a little more active meant I could include my needs alongside work. I find those kinds of solutions work best for me. And then once it was operationalized (these happen every day at x times), the habit becomes entrenched. What was once just a wild idea – being active every day – has become a new reality.
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Nilofer: Your quiz says I am a Questioner.
Having grown up in a traditional Islamic household where a girl’s “job” was to marry, I remember learning to question what I was being told as ‘the way things are’ and to challenge the fundamental framework those messages carried.
Today, I question why so many of our ideas are screened out based on the power of the person who brings them—not the caliber of the idea. Many people say to me, ‘but humans are tribal, we screen out based on who we expect ideas to come from, and so this is just how it is.’ It’s as if this is the only way humans can operate, but that would mean that we never see the solutions that humanity most needs. Research shows that 61% of our ideas are tabled or hobbled in some way. And I question why we let that happen. Our modern economy is fueled by ideas (as compared to needing capital or centralized organizations) and thus, new ideas are our central locus of value creation. So, we need to find a way to unlock this capacity. After all, all progress is born of new ideas. They let us reimagine who we are, and how we might be. Ideas rupture the status quo and incubate the future. A future that works for not just the few but for many.
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Nilofer: Travel is especially hard for habits. I’m about to go on a multi-city tour for the upcoming release of The Power of Onlyness. But there are three things I plan on doing to help keep up healthy habits. One, I plan for one week on, one week off… because letting me be with my family helps to keep perspective. Nothing like a 14-year-old’s take to keep you humble, or my husband who believes in me so much, even when I missing the shot. And then I make sure that in each city I see someone who will do something active with me. That appointment with a healthy person makes sure I will go for a long walk, or run, or gym appointment even on my busiest days. Third, I am structuring the tour to be in conversation with people who also want new voices to be heard. Sharing that common purpose is why I spent the last four years on this project and why going on tour is even worth doing. Pre-planning with those three pillars in place is going to help me stay mentally and physically healthy.
Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Nilofer: Sometime during the writing of Onlyness, I had what felt like mini-jolts. I've seen so many speakers and articles that talk to people—especially those who are often overlooked simply because of their lack of status—telling them to have more grit, or confidence or simply "just do it." But what I learned has shaken me to my core. The best research says that if you have to choose between belonging and your ideas, belonging wins every time.
So, this seemingly “little thing” affects everything. With belonging comes the right to occupy space, to contribute your ideas. This explains why some people are able to make a difference and others seem to give up on their own ideas. Someone’s ability to contribute that which ONLY they can is not based on their boldness, or their status, but far more affected by how they belong and what connects them. Therein lies the power, and changes the prescription of what to do next. And of course, the book deconstructs that piece-by-piece so anyone can do it themselves. If there was one thing I now know that I didn't before it’s that we can't expect someone to bring all of themselves until they first have a community of people who make it safe enough to have that new idea.
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