author - NILOFER MERCHANT
Nilofer Merchant has personally launched 100 products amounting to $18B in revenue. Her blue-chip career includes Apple, Autodesk, GoLive/Adobe. She's served on both public and private boards. Today, she lectures at Stanford. She’s an expert on collaborative leadership and author of The New How and 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era.
“I am such a big failure. I can’t believe that I’ve made this mistake and it’s cost me months and months of time. I might never recover…What an idiot to not see that one coming.” On and on, he went. In distress, my colleague was clearly suffering because of a recent fiasco.
Seeking counsel, he had come to me supposedly to problem solve. But all he could focus on was how this incident made him a failure. I got frustrated listening to him. Not at his words, but at how vicious he was being to himself. In the end, my advice was not as cogent and articulate as I had intended — I used a popular vernacular term for bovine droppings — but I stand by it.
Talking to yourself like you are worthless is not helpful. Yes, mistakes mean you might be in hot water, or that there is a lesson to learn. But there is a huge cost to telling your story in such a limiting way. You give away your power. When you define your “I” as what I call a “weak I” you have lost your ability to effect change.
Sometimes it’s less important to know how to learn specific things, than how growth itself works. You cannot change anything unless first you believe in your ability to drive change. That’s what lets you start to engage ideas, problem solve, enlist others, and focus your energy. In other words, to have an impact, you need to think of yourself with a “strong I”, not a “weak I.”
Most of us talk to ourselves in ways we’d never talk to anyone else. More than likely, you are unkind to yourself when you’ve had a failure. You expect yourself to “get it right” — every single time. More often than not, you hold yourself responsible for the whole of the failure. You believe you should have seen it coming. As if somehow you can actually control everything. But, let me ask you – would you speak to someone else this way? Would you talk to them in an unforgiving, demanding, and invalidating way? Likely not. Were you to say it to someone else, you would almost see him or her shrivel up from the inside. A label given to another person can transform a person’s sense of self and their ability to contribute and create. So can a label you give to yourself.
This is a not about self-help, though it might help you. This is an opportunity to talk about the role of narrative power, through the form of “weak I” and “strong I,” and how it affects our entire economy.
Talent of all sorts is valuable to an organization only when people feel free to bring their differences to work. But all too often, difference is not seen, nor valued. Instead, our difference makes us unseen. I myself fell for this, when someone powerful told me “as a brown woman, the likelihood of you being seen in the world is next to nothing.” I wrote about that experience in a piece on cultural bias. But what I didn’t share then is how much it formed a new weaker narrative in my mind. The “you’ll never been seen” narrative changed my power from a “strong I” to a “weak I” because of the societal group I belonged to. I was a mess for many months. When I didn’t get the role I wanted on a particular board of directors, I thought to myself, “Yes, there! That’s proof that he’s right!” And I started to step back, to stop trying, to deny my own creativity. I had so easily adopted his frame of the world, as my own. It was disempowering, and debilitating.
When I share this personally awkward story in public, I do it to point out a truth about unlocking our economy. New ideas and sources of innovation are abundant. Right, in fact, in front of us — and often hidden in plain sight.
The problem is when those who do not see (the ideas right in front of them, but different than what they expect), believe this means the unseen is not actually there. The argument goes – for example– if there were strong women leaders, OF COURSE we’d see them, maybe even put them on our board. We can’t see them so, of course, they must not exist. (As Claire Cain Miller pointed out of Twitter’s all-male board, this is ridiculous.) Or, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos list of favorite books includes only books written by men, some folks online posit that women must not have written important works. To which one might want to look up circular logic.
The debate that often arises when the topic of not-seeing comes up is this: Maybe the people — those not being seen — haven’t not done enough, accomplished enough, or tried hard enough. And unfortunately, this “not enough” narrative plays to some fears on the part of the people not being seen. Me, included. I convince myself that this is something I can control with an action plan. It’s just a matter of jumping a higher hurdle. The thinking goes… once that is done, then I will finally be seen.
But that puts the power of your being seen in someone else’s hands, doesn’t it?
What if the first step in being seen is learning to see ourselves? What if, in our desire to fit in and be seen, we have forgotten how first to belong to ourselves? The more you believe in yourself, the less you need others to do it for you. This doesn’t mean that I deny the role of structural power or cultural power that limit many from being unseen. To make all power about the individual is to privatize power, and to imply that if an entire group of people is unseen, or less seen, that it’s somehow “their fault.” (I’m reminded of the term for bovine droppings, again!)
Yes, it is hard to silence that inner critic — especially if outer critics are also chiming in. If you can’t silence it, make peace with it. I have a standing appointment with fear, where I listen to it and make a plan based on what I learn. In return, fear has learned manners and keeps quiet until our next appointment, thus allowing me to get to work.
You can’t ask other people to make a “weak I” go away. Only you can live your life. And only you have lived the life you’ve lived thus far, only you can have the dreams you choose to have. By asking someone else to validate that, you are not only giving away your power, you asking someone to validate something that they can’t possibly understand. Each of us is standing in a spot only we are standing in; it’s a function of our history and our vision. Until you own this spot – your onlyness — in the world, you will never stand in your power. Without it, you will never fully own your “strong I”. Until you celebrate who you already are, you will always be hustling your way to worthiness, as notable researcher and storyteller Brene Brown would say. She defines hustling as the need to please, perfect, pretend, and to prove your worth. All this is an effort to show the world what you think it wants, not what’s really happening because you don’t believe that your experience, your reality is already good enough.
Professor Amy Cuddy of Harvard knew of research that powerful people have powerful body language—taking up more physical space–and thus appearing more confident to others. She proved that the reverse is also true: just doing powerful poses can actually create the feeling of power. Similarly, I’d argue that by doing the work you’re called to do and by owning your difference, you own your narrative power – and owning it is what lets you create the future.
You do not need to “be seen” before pursuing your ideas. Enjoy yourself. Work. Create. Add value. Do what you can, consider everything an experiment to be held lightly, and then see what it leads to. Trust that in the doing, you are learning and growing, and being powerful. While it is quite possible you will be left “unseen” by some of society, at least you’ll see yourself. In this way, power stretches to become dignity.
Own your story, and you own your life, Justine Musk recently wrote. Talk to yourself as a friend, not an enemy. And remember, you cannot change anything unless you first see your own self as powerful enough to act. The way we talk of ourselves and to ourselves grants power – narrative power — to what happens next.