Stacking the Bricks Podcast
EP38 - Don't Pee in the Pool with Nilofer Merchant
In this episode…
Nilofer comes with some serious credentials:
- She's worked as an executive and strategic consultant at massive companies like Apple, Adobe, Autodesk, Nokia, and many more
- She's shipped 18 Billion (with a B!) dollars in products across her 25 year career
- She's famous for (but not always known as the source of) the phrase "sitting is the smoking of our generation" from her viral TED talk by the same name
- She's written three business books, and currently writes an advice column about making hard business and life decisions that I highly recommend subscribing to: https://atwork.substack.com
But don't get it twisted: unlike many voices in positions of corporate power, Nilofer is a creator like you and me, and uses her position and experience in the business world to make the business world a better place for more people.
Nilofer is one of us :)
Which part of why I asked her to write the forward for my book, The Tiny MBA.
And here's the thing: whenever I have a conversation with Nilofer, we end up somewhere much deeper and more meaningful than where we started. We have a rapport that lets us skip the pleasantries and get right to the real stuff.
So in today's episode, Nilofer and I are inviting you into one of those conversations.
In this conversation we talk about everything from:
- How we learned to seek and understand patterns in business
- What we've learned from our careers of giving professional advice
- And why peeing in the pool is a problem
And a lot, lot more.
With that, let's get into this very special episode with Nilofer Merchant. Here we go.
Alex Hillman: What is up Brick Stackers! Welcome back to a brand-new episode of Stacking the Bricks. As always, I’m your host, Alex Hillman and this week we’re taking a break from The Tiny MBA Podcast Tour to bring you a very special conversation with a very special guest - Nilofer Merchant.
Now Nilofer comes with some serious credentials. As an executive and a strategic consultant at massive companies like Apple and Adobe, Autodesk, Nokia, and many more. She’s shipped 18 billion – with a ‘B’ – billion dollars in products across her 25-year career.
She’s famous for – though not always known as the source of – the idea that sitting is the smoking of our generation, which originated in her viral TED Talk by the same name. She’s written three business books, and currently writes an advice column about making hard business and life decisions that I highly recommend. It’s one of the only newsletters that I open every single week. You can check that out at atwork.substack.com.
So, don’t get it twisted, unlike so many of the voices in positions of corporate power, Nilofer is a creator like you and me. Maybe most importantly, she uses her position and experience in the business world to make the business world a better place for more people.
Nilofer’s one of us, which is a big part of why I asked her to write the foreword for my book, The Tiny MBA – you knew I’d get that in there somewhere right?!
But here’s the thing. Nilofer and I have been friends for a number of years now and whenever we have a conversation about anything - business, life or anywhere in between, we end up somewhere much deeper – and often more meaningful than where we started.
We just have this rapport that lets us skip past certain pleasantries and get right to the real stuff. And so, in today’s episode, Nilofer and I want to invite you into one of those conversations. We’re going to talk about everything from how she and I both learned to seek and understand patterns in business and life, some of the things that we’ve learned across our careers of giving professional advice and why peeing in the pool is a problem. Yep, you heard that right!
Before we get started, I do want to issue a quick warning. This episode jumps fairly quickly into a personal story that includes childhood abuse. If that’s the kind of thing that might affect you, please listen carefully and take care of yourself, or consider skipping ahead to the 9 or 10 minute mark so that you can enjoy the rest of this episode.
And with that – very excited to get into this special episode with Nilofer Merchant. Here we go!
Nilofer Merchant: So I think about myself as a former operator, meaning I have 25 years shipping products and helping other teams ship products. So, I was the first one who shipped the first WYSIWYG software, for example, so GoLive, which a lot of people still remember in the WebSphere. In order to sell GoLive, I actually coded Time Warner’s first website. If you go through like, what is that thing, where you can go in the back?
Alex Hillman: The Wayback Machine.
Nilofer Merchant: The Wayback Machine, and you can actually find it! I’m like, wow, I really didn’t understand what the hell I was doing! But lovely! I also introduced Apple’s first web server, which was the first commercially, fully packaged unit.
So, I had a real deep background in shipping things, and I think that’s important because I always come at it from how do real people do real things? And how do we get it done? I’m a big, like, less about process, less about people, all about getting it done. So that’s I think important from context for what we’re going to talk about.
Since then, so since all this operating background, I’ve also written three books; the common theme through the book is how did we get ideas from anyone – quite possibly everyone - to count? So, all those ideas that are latent in the system, how do we get them connected because innovation always comes from left field, and left field is usually the person we’re ignoring the most.
I have this basic belief of value creation can grow as soon as we figure out how to fix it. My first book was about how to do that within an organization. Second book, which got me more known was the one about how do you break the perimeter between us and them and the larger world, which you and I, is probably why I started first tracking you. Then the last one was about how does a network system work of people being able to add value to one another without squashing one another? That’s why I came and found you because I really saw you doing that in the work that you did with Indy Hall. That’s a good context.
Alex Hillman: It’s amazing context and includes things that I didn’t know, like I knew your operator-ness from a bunch of the companies – well-known companies – that you’ve worked for, but I didn’t know the depth of your involvement with the actual production and some of the hands on work. That’s amazing! I don’t know how we didn’t talk about that before.
You talked a bunch in your intro about the operator work, but you also see the operation from within systems. I think that systems level thinking is where a lot of people who have the categorical maker skills – so to speak – they may understand systems within certain contexts, but the human systems, the bigger systems that are at play are often where I think folks fall short.
Where you and I share some common views from talking with so many people in business, working with so many different kinds of businesses, is learning how to spot these patterns; these big ideas that you have put into the world and you’ve shaped and you’ve helped put in other people’s heads and hands. Those didn’t just come out of the ether. Those came from you observing patterns in work and observing patterns in people. What they’re doing, what they’re not doing.
Is there something in your background, your personal story, maybe not even your professional story that if you think about where you learned to be a pattern watcher, where you learned and honed those skills to realize, Oh, this thing is showing up as a pattern and those patterns indicate there is some system at play, even if it’s not obvious or explicit, where did that skill come from for you?
Nilofer Merchant: It’s so funny. I wasn’t going to go there when we had talked about what we might talk about and I was thinking of something else when you first raised it, but can I tell you the real deal?
Alex Hillman: Yeah, I would love that.
Nilofer Merchant: So I was raised in a really abusive world. And you know that phrase Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”?
Alex Hillman: Yeah
Nilofer Merchant: So from the time I was like between ages one and two, I was left alone in my home for like 10 hours at a time and with a dirty diaper on and a bowl of food in the corner, like you would a dog. From the age of two and four to four and a half I lived in a slum, which was where the family I was left with lived, and it meant that you use a communal toilet. You had to worry about your safety in every possible situation. And then I came to America to get reconnected to my family, my family of origin. My mother is an extremely upset person and chose to use violence against her children as one of her coping mechanisms.
I would watch child protective services drive up to the house, have the conversation and then drive away. I’m like, “What is it I need to change in this system that gets that person to do something different?” I think I’ve always been trying to figure out how to survive. Let alone thrive. I think a part of me always wanted to thrive, but the initial part, like just survive and I was always looking at something is so messed up. I think as a child, you do know what love looks like and you also know what hate looks like, and you know, that you’re being raised by a sociopath, you know all that. You don’t know the words of it yet, but you totally know.
I think I learned the pattern part of it pretty early from just watching, like over there, you’re doing this and over here we’re doing this and how can I get that to happen over here? I was always that sort of kid. Of course, then going into work and watching people dismiss people and ignore people and walk away and stuff still to this day, I’m like, Hmm, gosh, this is so old. It’s old It’s old.
Alex Hillman: First, thank you for sharing that really personal story. I can imagine for a lot of folks hearing something like that, and I’m thinking about it through my own experiences growing up, obviously very different. I think for folks who maybe even go through those experiences and then forget them or choose to ignore them is super common.
I think it’s really interesting and powerful to hear you reflect on those skills being there to protect us in some ways, but then to realize that somewhere along the way, either you chose or had the opportunity to not unlearn them and then to bring them into your adult life, your professional life and things like that is pretty incredible.
Nilofer Merchant: Well, and you know, most of us, we defer to those in power and think, well, this is just the way things are, because the idea by the way of shaping that seems insane – and by the way it kind of is. I’m being real about that, but I think it’s also, it just makes it easier. A part of us really does want to be the Stormtrooper because then it’s clear what outfit you wear. It’s clear whose side you’re on. You’re winning by the way, at that moment, it looks like you’re winning. You have enough people sitting next to you, so you feel like you belong. There’s a lot of reasons why we do that other behavior.
Alex Hillman: I had a tweet go slightly viral a couple of weeks ago to the point where this phrase that I mentioned in the tweet, we realized we had to create like text graphics, similar to the text graphics that are in The Tiny MBA, because people want to wear it is really what it was. The phrase was “emotionally unemployable”.
Nilofer Merchant: Yes! Yes!
Alex Hillman: I dug into that a little bit. In this thread, there were some things about me that are not unique to me, but that I know about myself; that I’m a great worker, but I’m a terrible employee.
The reason I’m bringing this up is when I shared this, somebody direct messaged me and goes “This spoke to me in a way that I was not expecting it to”, then they said, “Why do you think that is? Why does this phrase of being emotionally unemployable connect with me? Is there something in your background or experience that maybe we have in common?”
I was like, “I don’t know. Let me just talk a little bit more and let’s find out.” I said, I think part of it was that I never accepted that the adults in the room were smarter or better than me and that notion of deferring to authority for whatever reason just never sat with me and it informs the kind of trouble that I got into – “trouble” that I got into as a kid, I was never doing damage, but I was often – not even challenging authority – but just asking a question that authority wasn’t prepared to be asked and digging into how these things show up later in our life.
Now I’m a professional and I love working with people and helping them solve problems but I find myself deeply challenged when working with people who don’t sit down to question the default.
Nilofer Merchant: Yeah. Right. Can I actually slow that one down for just a second? You’ve just used some beautiful language and I’m sort of, so this notion about authority is so interesting to me and in fact, I have a question in my inbox that I think will become a column. I don’t know. We’ll see, we’ll talk about that too, how I think about column.
The question was basically someone saying, “Hey, listen, I want to write a book by myself. Here’s all the things I’ve done to get ready”. The list included getting out of the Midwest and going to Harvard. It included getting a job at one of the big consulting firms. It included working for these national name brands and organizations each for like 18 months at a time so that she could kind of check off these lists. And then she even ghost wrote, I should say, but kind of cowrote with her boss – who’s one of the most misogynistic people you will ever meet – she got her name on the book jacket so that she could get credit.
She says “I’ve done all these things. What gives me the authority to write my own book?” I don’t know if you can see the paradox that’s coming, I bet you can, but here’s what was going on. What she was actually doing was following the checklist of who has organizational power and social status.
I’m slowing us down because the word authority is so interesting here. Is it external or internal? Where is the locus of control? So, authority – it comes from authoring, which just to be the story of your own life.
Alex Hillman: Oh, that’s good! Yeah!
Nilofer Merchant: Here’s what we’re doing though, we’re looking to be authorized by someone else and seeking organizational power or social status. So that’s why I actually think about authority as being this thing that can - if you draw the Venn diagram, there’s organizational power and social status, and there’s like some overlap there. Then there’s authority, which is also overlapping those two things, but it’s also got its own part that’s not covered about power and status that is just true independently of whether or not other people see it as true.
That’s what I heard you saying, which is I want to use my own authority to influence the things that matter in the world and if I have to get some organizational power and some social status to do that, cool. I don’t want to give up my voice, that part that’s mine to submit to all of the other stuff.
Alex Hillman: All of that resonates with me really deeply and I think connects with patterns that I’ve seen and heard in the folks who listen to this podcast, who read our newsletter, who take our courses, who buy and respond to The Tiny MBA.
The common theme among these people are to not be in control of what I create or to have some sense of connection to creating impact for other people is like, apart from the, “My boss is terrible. Get me out of here”, which is definitely a real category of why people choose or desire to go out and do their own thing.
I think that’s real, but I also think it’s relatively surface level compared to this deep internal sense of satisfaction – or lack thereof – from knowing that you can put things into the world, but constantly having somebody else’s hands be the ones on the steering wheel and not knowing or having a sense that there are things that you can position, gather or organize to make it so that people would want to pay attention to you – value your thoughts or opinions, value your work in the way that you feel like it should be. But connecting the dots between, I know it could be, should be.
I’m seeing other people do it, and here are the specific steps that I need to do is where I think things break down, or people misconstrue what works or what is effective because they’re kind of cargo-culting their way through what other people are doing instead of understanding or seeing all of the layers of invisible work that went into creating the result that they saw, that they seek out and they want to create for themselves.
Nilofer Merchant: Yeah so we’re talking about… like I could just slow down and listen to you for like an hour and just take apart like each of those sentences and talk to you about what each sentence meant to me, but I’m gonna do one like larger frame. Which is we have eyes that look out at the world and we think, “Gosh, I want to be like Alex” and we’re doing this thing and for some reason, we can’t seem to notice that by the way, our job is not to look out there to figure out what it is I want to do – which is not to say egocentric, but to claim what is it you value requires you to carve out that meaning.
It’s not like you pick it up from a puzzle piece or you find a rock and go, “This is what I was looking for!” It’s not out there. This is the thing that you figure it out from - what is it that matters to me? What is it that matters to me that by the way, we’ll get you to figure out what is the way in which I can contribute to that, which is different than this comparative construct.
But I think there is something appealing about having role models that say, “What is it that I’m valuing?” That’s a different word than the doing part it’ “So what is it I value about what he’s doing, that I also value, so I can see it inside me, this resonance it’s happening?”
Alex Hillman: That sounds like it’s either very akin to, or precisely what onlyness is. Is that fair?
Nilofer Merchant: It is and in fact, you remember the story I wrote about you in The Power of Onlyness, right? Can I for the sake of the audience listening in, can I do a little recap?
Alex Hillman: Absolutely, I was about to ask you to.
Nilofer Merchant: So the way I think about onlyness is like that singular – but not separate – thread that connects you to the world.
What is it you care about? So how do you claim it? How does that put you in community with people, so that you can go do things together? It’s care, community outcomes kind of thing.
I think about it like the drop in the ocean, and you can see the ripples kind of going and the reason I came and found you, I had been studying 400 case studies over the course of many years. I was tracking each one – believe it or not. I have a friend who says I read the internet for everybody else. I’m like, I kind of am that person. I’m always studying this multivariate kind of thing and I was studying different examples to see who is doing this thing about understanding themselves and understanding therefore they fit into the world.
What I was trying to teach is, as we belong as ourselves, we become more of ourselves. And as we become more of ourselves, we belong. I was looking for a community construct that was holding that and so I picked you as a starting story of chapter four to talk about that thread. You’ll remember that the quote I used to contextualize your story was Parker Palmer’s work of long before a community assumes a shape, it has to exist within you.
Then I told the story of you kind of wandering around Philadelphia, going to all these like crappy IT type meetings, you know, thinking “Are these my people?” It’s like the duck who’s like, “Are you my mom? Are you my mom? Are you my mom?” and you were going around to all these different tech-type communities and kind of going, “Are you my people?” and really not finding them.
You had said you had gone in like “business attire”. Business attire like the shirt and the jacket kind of thing and at some point you’re like, “This is so not working for me, by the way, I’m going to give it one last shot” and you showed up with your sleeves rolled up so that your tats were visible. You showed up as yourself. Then all of a sudden, there was like one person in that room, and one person in that room who’s like, “I see you, let’s go have a beer!” kind of thing. And you gathered. It’s such an interesting word, gather – you gathered together these people who were longing for that community, the place where they belonged, but they themselves – and I’m sort of saying it about you – but I’m not being like, I hope you share this with great love, but until you celebrate that spot in the world only one stood, you weren’t celebrating that place for you already belonged so that you could go be in community.
It was this beautiful vignette that kind of completely captured the shirt story of this gathering and then of course Indy Hall ended up blossoming out of that. And now some of the work that you’ve been doing since then.
Alex Hillman: What’s interesting about how you describe that – and I think maybe how this connects to a lot of the folks in our community around Stacking the Bricks – is how and why people don’t trust themselves to be themselves. When in fact, it’s the only self they can really, really be for the long-term.
In that momentary expression of literally and figuratively rolling up the sleeves, it took me trusting myself to be myself. I watch folks who show up in an online watering hole, they go to a forum or a mailing list or a chat room or a LinkedIn group or whatever it is and what they’re trying to do is figure out where they fit in that group instead of showing up and going, “Who am I? And what can I bring to this group? If I trust myself to be myself, can I be seen as valuable? As useful? As trustworthy?” I think those are all foundations of community and business.
Nilofer Merchant: For sure and I just want to be kind to those people who don’t yet see it right because here’s the thing that that’s really hard. We often talk about it and it’s probably not easy for you to see because it’s what, 10 years since that moment or something, it’s been awhile.
But that moment where you’re going – and I’m going to have to use Mary Oliver’s work right, where the geese are honking and they find each other, they honk back kind of thing. Then we find ourselves in that flock that we belong. The thing about if we’re doing the “honk honk” ourselves and no one honks back, we’re like, huh? If the tree fell in the forest and no one was there to hear it, did it exist? We kind of start to question our own being and the reason that’s important, right, is most of the stuff we’re taught.
If you look at how many books you and I probably read before we finally understood something different, was that “YOU, You can do it!”, “You can be better”, “Show some grit.” I can do headline after headline, after headline of what those things are. Even originals, all the thesis behind David and Goliath, never really – and I’m putting big asterix around that word – never talk about the social aspect of it. So they suggest that by the way, a hundred percent of the problem, if you’re not finding your “Honk honk” back is you’re not fucking doing your job or you’re not honking clearly enough or whatever. I’m like, “Dude, dude, we are both individuals connected to a larger set of humanity. We are intrinsically value that needs to be valued” Those little loops, those little infinity loops that happen between those things, do not happen in isolation.
Alex Hillman: Yeah.
Nilofer Merchant: You did it because at one of those meetings show up and go “Honk” and somebody went, “Honk honk” and you found one person and then it started to grow. That process, that looks by the way random, that’s why I’m trying to – each of the stories in the book is really building on the next story.
Alex Hillman: Yeah
Nilofer Merchant: I was like, Alex went “Honk” and somebody went “Honk honk”, okay, now, do you get that story? Now the next story that follows you by the way was a group of kids I was teaching at Stanford who every single time somebody asks them to honk, they were like, “Well, exactly how do you want me to honk? Because I want to do it the way you want me to.”
Alex Hillman: Yeah. I mean, talk about the systems that get drilled into us. Like that’s a tough one to unlearn, really tough one to unlearn.
Nilofer Merchant: And even you, like when you just said it. It’s so hard to remember who you were in that moment of how fucking insecure and scared and everything, and I mean that with great love and affection, right? When you were sitting there going, “Hmm. Roll up the sleeves?” like, I can just picture this part of you that moment.
So, I just want to kind of slow it down – not for the sake of torturing you, but to go – every single person has that moment and we don’t even understand the full implication of what we’re doing when we do it. And then we’re like, “Oh my God, that’s it. That was the thing!” It’s because we finally were listening to ourselves, which is slowing down in a pace, to trust. I love that phrase. I actually wrote down “Trust yourself to be yourself” because as you then be yourself, you also belong, because you find that process, that little loop of you and us, you and us.
Alex Hillman: That feedback loop, I think is one of the most understated, under-communicated, under-understood. It tells us to, you know, the, the mainstream notions around validation is like, just do it until you get the honk. It never tells you how to analyze the absence of a feedback loop which could include – and in many cases it does include – you not showing up as yourself for the people with whom you could connect with, with whom you could belong and things like that.
Nilofer Merchant: We betray ourselves so easily without even realizing we have.
Alex Hillman: The feedback loops also makes me think about the difference between writing your book, Onlyness – and your other books for that matter, which you’re obviously interacting with people that you’re researching and talking to but the feedback loop with your audience is long and slow and often frustratingly quiet compared to your newest project, the @work column, which everybody needs to go check out atwork.substack.com.
Talk to me about how they’re related? How is the Onlyness book related to the @work column and how are they related in different – and I’m going to plant the seed of the feedback loop being one of the pieces of it – but I have the hunch there’s more.
Nilofer Merchant: Well, ever since the book came out, one of the things I realized was even if you read it, the next time you ended up in your work situation, you are going to never be able to figure out how to apply it. I mean again with love, like love towards me that I tried to write down things that would be helpful and love towards people that when they get in situations that they’re torn between their values or they’re trying to figure out if they’re longing for community, how do they get it? Where they work, all the bullshit that happens, right? When someone steals your ideas or whatever. I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of interesting to do like an Onlyness in action?
It started with the fact, by the way, that my inbox is always full of people writing to me and it’s anyone who’s known me from executives, people write me the “Here’s the thing that just happened and here’s how I’m thinking about it”. I don’t know why because I mean, this has happened for a gazillion years.
People just send me these notes – and this is probably a bad thing to admit out loud – but I write back to just about everybody, and I always have. I just feel like quite often it’s like super personal notes of what they’re struggling with. Anyway, I write back to almost everybody and it occurred to me people write back going, “Oh my God, if I had known this before”, or “Can I forward this to…”, you know. I’m like, what if that actually is it?
I just connected those two dots when Paul had approached me back when he was working at Medium, if I wanted to be a regular columnist for him. He said he’d been reading my stuff for five years and here’s why, and the specific words he used is, “I’d be remiss in not asking you.” I’m sorry, but anybody who can use that in a sentence, I just think that’s such a sweet way of approaching someone.
“I’d be remiss in not asking you. I’m pretty sure you won’t say yes, but you know”. We started working together and he himself is trying to figure out how to live it. And so, he ends up becoming both my first reader and my editor, and I purposely moved it away from my site, which is where I had been writing for quite some time, I don’t know, is it 15 years? It’s some ridiculous amount of time. I don’t even want to count because I feel old, but I’ve been blogging for a super long time.
I did it on a new project because I wanted to signal this is all we’re going to do and recognize that it’s all in motion. We’re all works in progress. It’s about thinking about how to apply the Onlyness construct at the moment you’re actually facing it. And you actually, can I give credit? I was like, I had been working on it for a little while. I had a couple of little samples and I was thinking about doing it more. I’d asked you because we were talking about something else – probably it was this book that you just are releasing. I said, “Hey, actually, since you’re in my inbox, can I ask you a favor about this column I’m working on and blah, blah, blah.” You said “Nobody actually wants to admit they’re having a problem” – which by the way is not true – they just want to admit it privately. But we all want to watch how it gets fixed because we can learn from it.
So, you had actually given me the car crash analogy, which I loved and appreciated. And so that is really how I think about it, which is I’m helping that one person at that moment essentially privately, and then I’m writing it in such a way, knowing that other people can witness it and maybe learn from it and kind of help their perspective as they go along.
Alex Hillman: I’m a big fan of this model and it’s actually a piece of advice that I give to every creative person who gets the, “Hey, can I pick your brain questions” about their place in the industry, their skill, those kinds of things and you’re sort of torn between, I should be paid for my time, or at least paid is one way to be compensated. I should be compensated for my time, but I don’t want to be a jerk and say no. Throwing up a paywall feels weird what their relationship is and sometimes helping person is exactly the thing that you need to get to the next – not necessarily the next break – but like, you never know how helping one person could be a lever for a thing in the future.
There are all these things swirling around and like you, my inbox, whether it’s coworking or business related, I get questions from people day in, day out. I also love responding. It’s something that I probably put too much time into, but if there’s some way that we can both get value from this exchange, then it seems like I should at least try. The sort of process that I came up with was if the person was asking you a question that is so deeply nuanced and specific to their situation, that’s probably consulting and if I think that there’s a situation where I can offer that, I will, and if it makes sense for them, but in most cases, people’s questions and problems are not so unique to them, that if the way I help them helps me think about the problem solving and if the answer can be written down and communicated in a way that it helps more than just that one person – I talk about this as one of my favorite lessons in The Tiny MBA is how audience building is really just earning trust at scale, which means audience building is really just helping people at scale.
Building that system where helping one person can potentially help tens or hundreds or thousands of people over time, including future me when I get that same question a second time, I already have an article or a column or a podcast about it. That’s just good leverage and systems.
The other thing is this notion that I’ve been talking about from the book of being ruthlessly generous. I think the way you describe your outlook on your inbox and people asking questions is to look for ways to scale my generosity and the fact that companies don’t think about how to scale generosity, let alone people, is an interesting conundrum for me as I look at the business world more broadly as being generous can be highly strategic.
If you can scale it, even better, but the fact that companies who do have the resources to do it don’t – I think does a really interesting thing in terms of setting a bad example for individuals who then don’t even consider it for themselves either.
Nilofer Merchant: I love that idea of generosity. I want to suggest also that I’m also counterprogramming. One of the things that’s happening in the broader business world is this notion – in fact – Coinbase just is exemplifying it in recent days, which is in order for you to work for me, I’m going to tell you that you’re “mission driven”, but the mission driven is specific to making this company money. If you’re not in on that, then get out.
Personally, by the way, every person who’s not running from Coinbase, I’m like, wow. The Coinbase CEO just literally said – I read his whole notes - basically said “We are totally mission-driven, and the mission is about the company”. He actually said that, and I’m like, wow. That is a very narrow focus my friend, because it means that I am literally here as your monkey to do whatever I can do just for you – which is in a super small dome of venture capitalized money, which is in a super small dome of how business works, which is in a super small dome… and I’m like, I think some of us want to live in bigger biospheres and he has just finished telling you that he does not want you to bring any of those other things to work. By the way, if you are someone who wants to disrupt “power” then get out. He’s saying, “I’m it”. I’m like, how fast could I find the door?
The thing is, most people will look at that and say – here’s the kind of dialogue that’s going on inside people’s heads even if they don’t hear it - “I should be loyal. I’m lucky to have a job. These are great people. They mean the best thing. And by the way, the company’s mission driven. It’s doing crypto stuff” – which by the way, is disrupting the financial market. So, I find it very funny that a guy who’s trying to disrupt something so that he can make money off people, traditionally unbanked or all that stuff, is now saying, “But don’t disrupt anything else people, get on plan, come here, work for me.”
Alex Hillman: Only my disruptions! Oh man.
Nilofer Merchant: No other disruption. So the thing is the work we’re doing, you and I are both – and I think this is what you claim puts you in community – what you and I are both doing in the work that we’re doing, either through the beautiful new book that you just released, and all the work around Onlyness and why we’re trying to figure out, okay, how can we tell you this stuff that lets you actually be in community.
To not think about work as just a job, but to think about work as part of your vocation, to step back from that, to understand how to bring your full self, not just the condition itself. So we’re doing counterprogramming in a world by the way that 98, 99% of the messages are going to tell that Coinbase person that they should say – including by the way, Paul Graham of all godforsaken people – who will, you know, totally say like, “Woohoo, this is the best thing because it’s focusing people”.
Alex Hillman: You invoked Voldemort’s name on the podcast! Well done. I mean, what I was about to say, what a timely example, but that just so happens to be the example this week; it’s every week and every day that those stories are out there, but people aren’t necessarily processing them through this lens.
I think it’s one of the reasons I love your column so much is because you do multiple things simultaneously and you do them with so much finesse and grace. I know that a lot of hard work and editing goes into making that possible, but I think you combine the story of the day or week in some cases, with often your story – if not somebody else’s personal story – that is so deeply resonant. You’ve managed to find the piece of a story that creates so much potential to connect and then you introduce them a framework of all things, which is where I think the beauty of your approach to management, leadership and that style of learning is to come in and say, “This isn’t woo woo magic.” There’s a framework here and it’s learnable and it’s practicable.
To combine all of that with what you’re talking about here, this counterprogramming, this notion of for every system that is pointing in one direction, you can choose the system that you’re playing in and it can keep going in that direction, or you can take it 90 degrees to the right of the left, or you can reverse it entirely enough and that might actually be one of the most powerful things you can do.
When we were talking before this conversation, and actually you mentioned this in the most recent edition of the @work column, you describe this flywheel energy that is sort of a systemic default. The assumptions that we keep carrying on in a particular direction. Where did that flywheel come from for you? And how do you describe that?
Nilofer Merchant: Okay. So funny story and you’re going to just love this. So, a friend had said to me, “I’m thinking about buying a car. I sort of know enough to know that Elon’s not quite the person I should give money to, but his is definitely the best, most green car and most beautiful design. So basically like, can I do it?”
I sat with that one and the first draft – so just to talk to you about process for a second as a creative – the first draft I kind of like noodled out some thoughts and one of the things I then texted my editor and I said, “You know what I’m having a problem with, is this feels like a consumer purchase question. Somebody’s asking that, and I can’t figure out how to link it back to my stuff, I can’t like get the words in my own head, even though I totally, intuitively know it’s larger than that.” And he goes, “Well aren’t you saying that how you spend your dollars reflects what you value and isn’t your column about what you value?” And I go, “Oh, okay. That’s kind of useful.”
So then second draft was about me kind of going in that direction. Then here’s the thing, I sent it to Paul and I said I still don’t know what it is I’m trying to say. Honest to God. By that point I had found the song. I think in song; I actually, like, when I have a sense of what I’m trying to write, actually also picture a song, which is the weirdest thing. By the way, they’re almost all 80s songs.
Alex Hillman: Not a bad genre to be in!
Nilofer Merchant: Oh my gosh! I think that’s because I grew up on MTV that I think also in like the video reel of the song, and in fact, last night I sent you a song that is about something else and we’ll talk about that later. I had found that song, Robert Downey Jr. is singing – The Police song, Driven to Tears. So I knew that intuitively I was there and I was like, “Okay, I want to talk about how is it you value.” I still hadn’t linked it to flywheel. So now we’re on draft three and Paul says, “Well, I love the song Driven.” He goes, “Is there anything to be played off of we’ll collide” – he actually listed like three words and I was like, “FLYWHEEL!!”. So this is why you need friends in your life, and I mean that in like all the humbling ways that we all learn. So as soon as I got to wheel, I got to flywheel.
Of course, you’ll remember the book that actually canonized the idea of flywheel was Good to Great and Good to Great talked about how you basically – as the title suggests – go from good to great. What is that set of energy that goes, but it was also then I thought, oh, well actually the reason this woman wants to make this decision is she wants to invest in green, so that green grows. Then I was able to make the link, which I hadn’t been able to do before that, which was to say you’re also investing in somebody’s leadership style and that person’s leadership style will show up on the cover of Forbes or fortune, and then your boss will read it and then your boss is going to bring all that behavior to a theater near you.
Alex Hillman: Wow! Yeah.
Nilofer Merchant: So that’s like, why someone might want to pay me to do this work, but third draft, because once I got to the flywheel, I was like, it’s the flywheel of ick!
So here’s the thing. I have a two by two grid that I use as the Onlyness construct – for simplicity I could actually make it three by three, but anyway, for simplicity, I keep it two by two. I’m basically talking about the relationship of voice to belonging. So, you and us; so what is essentially the psychology of it and the sociology of it and bringing both together. I’m saying, as we belong, we become; as we become, we belong.
The interrelationship of those two of us is to build a community construct model so that one person doesn’t need to tell us what the fuck to do, but we can actually enable the capacity which I talk about as onlyness; that capacity only one has. I was able to link that almost all the books that you and I read – and that we’ve been conditioned on – talk about two things: The hierarchy of top down management behavior of somebody who tells everybody else what to do, and a hierarchy of top dog behavior that says, “One of us is going to win and go through that turnstile and who’s it going to be?” And you and all the work I’ve studied for so long suggests there is another way, but we have to link not superiority and subjugation, but how do we figure out what is that small voice within us that links us to the world? Then all of a sudden, we have a completely different way of relating to each other, not as under, but each of us having an ability to add some value to the world.
Alex Hillman: Then that becomes a sort of thinking framework and decision making framework for approaching something as seemingly mundane as a purchasing decision, or maybe as impactful as a hiring decision, or a product decision, or a sales decision or a partnership decision. It’s really easy to go into any of these decisions with any number of defaults and depending on what’s conditioning you, the defaults are going to be – not only categorically, same, same – but like the side effects – the unintended consequences – are also going to be same, same.
We talk back to systems and I had this quote from before that you had written down the, “You can’t pee in the pool without effecting the entire pool”, which like, it’s visceral, people get it really quickly, but this is all the same as like the direction your flywheel is spinning and the energy and inputs, as much as the outputs are going to effect through the whole pool, whatever the pool happens to be.
Nilofer Merchant: Well this is where I use that image about sort of raindrop hitting the water and you see these ripple effects. That’s why I said the pee, we started talking about it like it’s happening over there? And I’m like, it’s peeing in the pool! How is it not peeing in the pool? By the way, I don’t know how you could possibly think it won’t affect you. Then it’s just a matter of saturation. Which is a terrible image – sorry – that I just placed in people’s mind! But yeah, it’s a matter of saturation and the degree to which we’re suffering as a society is because we have let a bunch of people pee in the pool and now it’s fucking awful to be in here.
Alex Hillman: We’ve barely tried to tell them to stop peeing in the pool and we definitely haven’t thought well, what’s allowing people to think that being in the pool is an acceptable thing to do in the first place?
Nilofer Merchant: So there’s work to be done, and why you and I give a damn about it. The work is all linked, so we will not end it in our lifetime probably, but I’d like us to think about the heritage on which we’re building, whether it’s Margaret Wheatley or even Gandhi talked about the effective individual is part of a circle. Tom Peters was really trying to get to it, although it got put under some really weird marketing kind of language, which is “What is it only you can add” and unfortunately it got named The Brand Called You, but he was really trying to talk to that. So there’s a legacy of people you and I are building on and then now we’re building together to do that counterprogramming.
Alex Hillman: I love it. I love that framing of counterprogramming. I’m going to be thinking about that; I have never thought about our work as that, even though I know that is exactly what it is. I mean, you mentioned the Voldemort name – Paul Graham – I can say his name and it’s so funny because that’s another one of those patterns that keeps coming up.
Amy and I have very distinctively built Stacking the Bricks as a place on the internet to counterprogram the Andreessen and Paul Graham cult, the blind followership that has been built because among them, every time we see a defector that defector like is someone who’s been unplugged from the matrix and goes, “This thing I’ve been promised, isn’t what I was promised.” Perhaps it sucks quite a bit. I mean, folks need to be open minded.
We’ve never gone in to try and convince people who don’t want to be convinced, but there are enough people who are looking at the stuff going, “This is not good, but I don’t know what the alternative is”. I think it’s not just valuable, I think it’s important that the things like your column, the stuff that we’ve put out, the stuff that a lot of our students have put out, are there to show up for the people in the world who are also looking around going, “Honk”.
Nilofer Merchant: Yeah and in fact, you know, when you first sent me – I want to say it was like the first month of the pandemic – I was like, this is the counterprogramming book. Along with, obviously I recognize counterprogramming when I see it, because there’s a couple of us who are actually really trying to gather together. It’d be like, let’s be in fellowship because we need a different set of voices out here.
Alex Hillman: What’s next for @work? I know you and Paul have recently come out of a hiatus and took some of that time to regroup your thoughts and look at what’s working, what’s not. Where are you hoping the things go with the counterprogramming, the connection to the audience? What’s next for that world that you’re creating?
Nilofer Merchant: That’s really interesting, the biggest question that Paul and I were facing with, what is the ambition of the project? I re-read every column, I re-read people’s comments. I sat there and said, what is it I’m not saying to myself? Because almost always like I have it, but I don’t want to say it out loud because it sounds too audacious or something. I have recognized that because, you know, by the way, most of the world doesn’t tell me to go bolder, most of the world tells me to go smaller. So, I have to sit there and go, what is it? And Paul and I had a couple of bourbon driven conversations…
Alex Hillman: The best kind!
Nilofer Merchant: Seriously, because that man and I would not be working together if it were not for those conversations! Here’s the thing that he finally said, he said “What is it you want for these people?” I said, “Oh, I want them to live it. I want them to internalize it so the next day at work they can be more fully alive at work”. And then I want them to spread it so that they can go, “Psst over here, here’s the secret code, we can join the Order of the Phoenix”. Then we end up creating a group of people that are committed to living this, and that’s my ambition for people.
Alex Hillman: I love that. It’s one thing and one would argue bold enough to put ideas out in the world and hope that people connect with them. I think it’s another – I think this is just, I hadn’t really thought about – but I think a place that you and I connect on a philosophical level, but also a very practical level is that you got to live it, you got to practice it. This is not a read it and go, “That’s nice” and then back to whatever way you were doing it before and to be using this platform and this community that you’re aiming to build around the column as a environment for that practice. It’s multiple layers of feedback loop. It’s ways for you to process these ideas. It’s ways for people to process them with you.
Nilofer Merchant: Then for them to process the ambition right is not only that we’re here for them – because certainly I want to show up to that work, but that we can be here for each other.
Alex Hillman: Yeah, totally. I think that’s at the heart of the good stuff. Oh, I love that! That’s so good. This was so good. I love talking with you so much!
Nilofer Merchant: I enjoyed this and you know, I’m so excited about the work you’re doing and glad to support it, glad to – and what I love about us, if I can end with this thought, which I hadn’t really thought about until just now, most of us who are trying to do this counterprogramming work are still trying to do it by ourselves. It’s like, you’ll see one person doing it and one person doing it.
The strength in this is if we can join together, because that side, by the way, the Stormtrooper side, they actually have pretty it fucking well organized. Our side, we’re acting like we’re all scattered to the wind and we got to do some more formation work as Beyonce would say. I feel like just this conversation even was a part of that. So, I’m excited by that.
Alex Hillman: Yeah. A little bit of us working in public too. I like that.
If you enjoyed that episode, and I hope you did, I’ve got a couple of quick things before you go. The first of course is making sure that you have your very own copy of The Tiny MBA. If you haven’t ordered it, I’d love it if you did, and you can grab a paperback or ebook at Tiny.MBA.
I also hope you’re subscribed to this show. We’re going to be releasing more episodes like this one with other creators and entrepreneurs, just like you and I’m going to be talking with them about their favorite lessons in The Tiny MBA, learning what’s going on in their world and sharing it all with you. You can search for that by looking for Stacking the Bricks wherever you get podcasts.
And one last thing, check out the Stacking the Bricks website, we’ve got a great newsletter with new articles coming out every week or two following a lot of the same topics and themes that we talk about right here on the show. You can do that by going to StackingtheBricks.com.
I hope you have a great rest of your day and don’t forget to keep on stacking those bricks!
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