“The Power of Onlyness” explores how individuals can harness their unique perspectives and ideas to make a significant impact in the world. Author Nilofer Merchant emphasizes that each person possesses a distinct viewpoint shaped by their experiences and aspirations. By recognizing and embracing this individuality, individuals can connect with like-minded others to bring about meaningful change. Through examples and insights, Merchant highlights the importance of belonging to communities that support and amplify these unique contributions, ultimately empowering individuals to make their mark on the world.

Nilofer Merchant discusses her latest book The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World. Now that the Internet has liberated ideas to spread and scale through networks rather than hierarchies, power is no longer determined by your status, but by “onlyness”—that spot in the world only you stand in, a function of your distinct history and experiences, visions and hopes.

Listen to the podcast on iTunes

The Power Of Onlyness

My guest is Nilofer Merchant. She is the author of The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World. Nilofer says about herself that she’s a recovering business executive turned author, but in fact she’s had over 25 years of operating experience netting $18 billion of revenue across a hundred products. She’s been named one of the top 50 thinkers in the world. Nilofer, welcome to the program.

I’m so glad to be with you, Karen.

I am so glad to be with you. You’re a busy woman, you’re running all over the world, you’re writing books, you’re a top thinker in the world, and so I was delighted that you said yes to being on the program.

I’m so glad to share the story of onlyness and figure out what it can mean for entrepreneurs.

TTP 021 | The Power Of Onlyness
The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World

Your new book is The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World. First of all, I love that title. I have to ask you, for audience who haven’t read the book, what is the power of onlyness?

Onlyness, each of us stands in a spot in the world only you stand in, a function of your history and experience, visions and hopes. From that place is how each of us add value to the world, even if it’s a tiny little bit of value or whatever it is, it comes from that spot, yet for literally thousands of years most of our onlys haven’t counted. There’s an opportunity in these last twenty years with the connectedness of the network for us to each count, and so onlyness is talking about how the distinct points of views and perspectives we each have allow us to add value in the world now that we can find the other people with whom we can create change.

You talk about wild ideas and a lot of people I speak with don’t consider themselves to have any wild ideas. Do you think having a wild idea is a very rarefied thing?

Not at all. In fact, one of the things I realized in my 25 years of operating experience is almost everyone in the room has an idea for what the world can be. It can be a small thing from how to improve the customer experience, it can be a big thing in terms of, “Here’s what we should build,” but we almost always have some perspective of “That thing over there, that should be fixed or that could be better,” and yet most of us don’t know how to listen to our own instincts around that because we’ll get told, “That’s a wild idea or that’s too much.” That’s one of my favorite ones, “That’s too much or you’re too much.”
If you’re in a group of people, especially if you are young, if you’re twenty-something and facing the world, a lot of people will say “You don’t know enough to have that idea” or if you’re a woman, you’re often get told different forms of power structure. You’re not allowed to have that idea. If you’re a person of color, certainly you get dismissed. Lots of people, some 60% probably based on the data, are basically filtered out and their ideas are told that they’re too wild or too much when in reality they’re just their idea, and so we’re losing a whole bunch of new innovations and new potential simply because we’re ruling people out based on the power they have.

It’s interesting when you said that your idea is too much, but then you said sometimes you’re told “You are too much.” I can’t tell you how many people I interview on this program or I talk to in my daily work, mostly women, I rarely hear this from men, women get told, “You’re too much. You’re too loud. You’re too smart. You talk too much. You say too much.” Is that a phenomenon that you find as well? What do you think that’s about?

This notion of too much is so fascinating to me. In fact, I use it in the book and I think it’s a phenomenon specific to gender, but it’s broader than that. It’s anyone who doesn’t have power. When you don’t have traditional power, money, title, rank, all the traditional forms of power, what you get told is “You’re too much according to me. You don’t fit into my prototype of what where I expect ideas to come from and who is allowed to contribute to this room.”
One of my first experiences at work, I was an admin at Apple, which was the lowest level you could enter at Apple computer. I had taken on this job but the guy had said, “This is the only job I have open. I know you’re slightly more qualified than this, but take this job and I’ll give you more opportunities. I’ll treat you an equal member of the team.” I was like, “Sure, of course.” One of the first things they asked was, “We’re having a brainstorming meeting about X.” I can’t remember the topic, but it was about something big that we had to fix, and they said, “Everyone come, we’re going to solve this problem.”
I thought to myself “I should do some research and maybe figure out what’s already been tried and maybe think about what else could be done and develop some questions.” I’d done all this homework to get ready for the meeting and I showed up with my notebook and pencil, I’m one of those people, I show up and I’m sitting there at the table super excited in the conference room and it takes me a minute or two or three to realize, “Holy molly, in this room, no one’s making eye contact with me.” It took me a second to realize it wasn’t just me, it was in this room. Eye contact was only between the MBA types in the room. In future rooms I would notice, “In this room, only the CEO is allowed to have an opinion” or “In this room, only the engineers are allowed to have an opinion.”
What I started to observe was we filter, we as a society, because we’re all doing it at some point or another. We’re sitting there deciding who is allowed to have that “wild idea,” and then the other people are deemed as “Too much.” It’s a sign about power and not about whether or not the idea is even being considered.

The other part of your subtitle was talking about denting the world. That’s such a fascinating way to say it because usually we say it in much more management consultant language, “Impacted the world” and “make a difference in the world,” but this idea of denting the world, can you expand on that?

I’ve grown up in Silicon Valley. I worked at Apple and one of the famous quotes that Steve Jobs said was that he wanted to make a dent in the world. I remember hearing that phrase and when I hear it, I think of my heritage of being in India and literally walking past a copper pot maker in the morning and walking back an hour later in the afternoon and noticing that little dent by dent, he had shaped this flat piece of copper into a pot, literally by these tiny little hammer strokes. I love that word dent of how you end up reshaping the world dent by dent so that it can include all of us, is why I ended up choosing that vocabulary for the title.

A lot of my audiences are entrepreneurs or they are C-Suite executives, so if I’m an individual and I’m an audience to this and I’m thinking, “This is great. The power of my onlyness, the dents I can make, the differences I can make.” Have you found in your work that there’re practical things people can do to cultivate their power of onlyness?

[Tweet “In order for us to chase the ideas that matter to us, we have to belong to people who get that idea.”]

The big insight I had from this research was that in order for us to chase the ideas that matter to us, we have to belong to people who get that idea. Let me give you a simple example and then I’ll share a story. Simple one is imagine if you’re at some brunch table and talking to your colleagues and you’re sitting around with five people and you say, “I have this idea for X something.” Imagine if the five people say, “I totally get it. Here are two people you should talk to,” or “Have you thought about this?” and they end up starting to play with that idea and then the same example, if you say, “I have this wild idea” and the same five people then say, “No, somebody’s already thought of that,” or “Who would even think that’s important?” The same five people in that social construct can change whether or not that idea goes forward. If you have to pick between chasing your wild idea and belonging to your people, as Maslow’s Hierarchy would suggest, you will default to belonging, and so you will go, “You’re probably right. The idea is not that important.”
The big insight I ended up learning from all this research was knowing that you need to know how to go find your people, how to go build that tribe, how to go rely on each other, and that ends up becoming the key insight. It’s not knowing what your idea is, but knowing how to find the other people who might care about the same things as you because as you find your people, you end up finding your power so that you can manifest that idea.

That’s brilliant because that thing about defaulting to belonging is what’s at the heart of a lot of why innovation does not happen in companies.

In chapter four, a story I share is the story of Alex Hillman. It was beautiful listening to this because it’s a great entrepreneurial story. Alex is probably 23 or 24 when I picked him up in this story. He’s super young in his career. He’s been working at a couple of firms and feeling lonely, so he keeps going home every night and eating take-out over his computer screen and thinking, “This is not my city, this is not my place. My people must be working someplace else,” and so he started interviewing in San Francisco thinking that since he was a geeky web development kind of guy, his geeky web development guys must be out in San Francisco. He starts interviewing, gets an offer that falls through, and he sits there and goes, “What is this? What is this message trying to tell me?”
He gives himself this one shot. He says, “I’ve always loved Philadelphia.” He loves the cost of living, he loves the sense of independence, but he cannot find his people. He literally has gone to networking events and never found his people and thinks, “I’m going to give it one more shot” and here’s what he changes. In fact, my editor tried to cut the sentence out, but I found it to be so important. He changes first of all how he shows up. Alex used to show up in a suit because that’s how he thought people expected him to show up in professional settings and he changes what he wears. He changes from wearing a standard white collared shirt with a suit jacket on to wearing ironic t-shirts with a flannel shirt. He rolls up his sleeve, so that the tattoos that are on his arms are visible and he ends up going to these events and he basically shows up as himself.
The reason that’s important is because this process that I call signaling and seeking is the way in which we do that first process dance of “Who are my people?” If you show up as this artifice of yourself, fitting in rather than belonging to yourself, no one can see you. The first step in figuring out how to find your people is first to show up as yourself, so that’s what he does.

Is that the signaling as showing as yourself?

It is signaling as yourself. It’s one reason why if you ever see me out in the world, you will never see anyone else dress like me. I wear sequins on onstage. I do whatever I want to do because this is who I am and I refuse to do corporate wardrobe because that’s not who I am. It’s a freeing exercise, and so I found it interesting that Alex did the same thing. Then he gave himself an assignment, which is “My only goal in this room is to find one other person who might care about doing geeky web development stuff too, so that I might feel less alone in this city.” Literally he goes to event by event and starts to find one person at a time and is doing this serial hunting of “Who are my people? Do they exist?” and then slowly but surely he would invite them out to beer, he would say “Do you want to hang out and do some coding together?” Then slowly but surely, they all started descending like little locusts on the coffee shops and showing up as three, four, five, six, seven people, growing over time, until there was this little tribe of people saying, “These are my people.” It turns out, as I interviewed other people who had found Alex and Alex had found them, they said, “I was equally lonely and equally thinking I must be the misfit in this group until I found the other people like me.”
They ended up doing this exercise and finally at some point Alex says to the group, “What should we do? Should we have our own space instead of using coffee spaces?” He is now one of the founders of one of the first co-working spaces in America. There are now five in Philadelphia, but he basically built an entire business out of understanding how to build community and it started first with him signaling what it is he could do. That’s the lesson for all of us as entrepreneurs and I’ve been one, is to think “What is this crazy idea I have? How do I even give it credence? If I don’t have the people with whom I already belong, how do I go find them?”

That is a fabulous story because it shows so much of what we think of today as networking is more, more numbers, more followers, go to a networking event and meet as many people as you can and get as many business cards and give as many business cards and trade as many. What I love about what you’re saying is even if it’s just that one person seeking, it’s seeking who’s right for you. It’s quality over quantity.

To be able to say to yourself, “What is it I care about?” I was talking to a girlfriend the other day who happens to be a former general counsel of Google, employee number 106, Hispanic, four degrees out of Stanford University, former board member of Stanford University, Latina, this interesting persona. I was having a breakfast meeting with her and she was saying in so many of the places that she shows up, she shows up as a fragment of herself. Meaning in this room, she’s a venture capitalist; in this room, she’s a highly educated person; in this room, she’s a Latina, and she said, “I’m having a hard time choosing how to spend my time.” I said, “That’s because you’re not celebrating that concentric circle, that spot in which you stand in, that celebrates all of those aspects of you, which is what onlyness is.”
The thing is that we’re taught to think about ourselves in fragments because work, as we know it, atomizes us. Work as we know it says “You are this person with this title with this degree to do this job.” To go back and reclaim an identity that is the fuller and more complete sense, however quirky and wild it is of who you are, is the first position of power.

That’s fabulous. Part of it is that when you said we’re taught to think about ourselves in fragments, in corporate America and also in work in general, there’re often rewards for showing up in fragments. People are rewarded for showing up in fragments.

TTP 021 | The Power Of Onlyness
The Power Of Onlyness: Work is designed to automize us, not actualize us.

I have this line I use on stage where I said work is designed to automize us, not actualize us. Actualizing us is to celebrate all of you. There is a group of people that gets seen more as themselves and then the rest of us are told, “You don’t fit that dominant majority narrative, so we’re going to tell you you’re less than in some way.” For example, let me tell you one more story. A young a woman had a job as an engineer. She’s excited to join her colleagues of engineers. She had never worked in the field before she got the degree, so she’s psyched, like “I get to build things with people and this is what I love to do,” and her manager introduced her, this is at DuPont, as “With Kimberly, we’ve got a toofer.”
It’s such a painful story to me because what he was pointing out was she was a black woman in tech. He was almost identifying her as if it was some diversity jackpot moment, that otherwise is the person. When you otherwise a person, the data says and this is research-based, that you will never be seen as yourself. If you are never seen as yourself, you can’t connect with those engineers based on “Here’s the geeky thing I like to build. Here’s the stuff I like to code,” and so you end up having a conversation based on your difference because someone’s not noticing the singular person that you are; they’re noticing simply the silhouette of you. They’re noticing the brown woman part, which is by the way just a shadow of a person. That’s not who the person is.
Until we recognize and celebrate the distinctness of each of us, we don’t get to tap into that person’s value creation capacity. That’s why all entrepreneurship is about “What is that distinct idea you have?” and then how you manifest that idea into the world. This book talks about that distinctness, but I don’t think it has to be limited to entrepreneurship. It can be volunteerism; it can be all the different ways in which we add our little bit to the world.

Can you talk a little bit about the research for the book, how you got the idea for the book, and the kind of research you did? Can you give a little insight into that?

My background of course is in running businesses. A couple years back, six or seven years back, I ended up shutting down the operating side of my business. I didn’t think I was going to be doing writing because I’ve never written. I ended up writing a piece as a result of going to a boardroom. It was a significant Fortune 100 company that had asked if I could join their board and I was disappointed by the conversation they were having, which seems 1980s instead of 2010 where I was having the conversation. I thought somebody’s got to help them understand what they’re missing.
I ended up coming back from this board meeting thinking “I got to send them some thoughts, but I’m sure someone else has already written this idea and I will send it off to them and help them understand just some more perspective about how to be more progressive in their strategy.” I was going to that as my way of saying thank you, but no thank you, because I couldn’t imagine sitting in that boardroom based on the conversation I had with them. I couldn’t find the piece that I wanted to find, and that led to me writing what ended up becoming my second book and the basis of this idea. I was trying to say “If value creation is changing from organizations to distributed networks, then the kernel around which you build everything else is around an individual, and not just around an individual but around their ideas.” I was saying, “What is that source of ideas that then starts to become the organizing principle in a distributed network?” What is essentially the node if I use networking language?
I said it’s onlyness, because each of us stands in a spot in the world only you stand in as a function of your history and experience, visions, and hopes. From that place, we then connect with other people through this network model and you can scale an idea born of an only. This is a big shift when you compare it to how we currently organize, which is organizational‑centered worlds which people are designed to then be commoditized. We draw up an org chart, think about the boxes and silhouettes in that, we say, “This is a job description,” very generic, so think about the silhouette of that, and then we ask people as we interview them, “Do you fit into this box?” We basically commoditize and atomize people in that process when we’re organization-centered, and this shift allows us to recognize and actualize the humanity of people and draw on the creativity and decision-making and judgments that those people.
That shift was what I was writing about in my 2012 book with HBR, and then it became an exercise of “If you were going to go manifest that, what would it look like? If we’re going to do a future of work that lived in this model, what would it look like?” and that led me to go do this research of 300 qualitative examples until I chose the twenty that are in the book.

If I’m a leader and I am an audience to this and I want to create an environment that’s going to empower the power of onlyness, what are some of the things that I as a leader can practically do every day to make that happen?

The first thing is to think about how we hire. When we’re thinking about hiring, instead of thinking, “How do I fit someone into a box?” you might listen hard for “What are the questions that someone is asking me?” and therefore “Can they add value to my organization, not because I’m looking for a director of engineering, but because I need somebody to come help me solve a particular problem?” For example, this was probably ten years ago, I was working with a mobile platform company, and they had a need for someone who could basically help them build out their mobile app side of their business. There was a young man I’d met that I thought was talented and I connected the VP of Engineering with this guy, and then I slowly backed away because my job was as a strategist, not talent development, so I backed away, like “If you guys match, good; if you don’t, good, bye.” I didn’t want to participate in the rest of that conversation.
Unfortunately, both parties called me and the VP of Engineering called and he said, “This guy, he asked me a ton of questions. I didn’t know any of the answers to those questions and so he was an awful fit.” The colleague who I had sent into the interview said exactly the same thing, but from a different point of view, which was “I asked all these questions that they didn’t know the answer to, so I figured out where I can add value to the business.” One was basically saying, “I’m so excited to join this firm because I now have diagnosed more,” and the other “He doesn’t already fit into the box of what I’m looking for and he challenged us so much, then I think he’s not a fit.”
Every leader, instead of thinking about how are we hiring, why don’t we figure out how to make the job process less about, “Do you fit into a box?” but more about “What questions do you have that you might be able to come help us at our firm?” and then we would then build jobs for people who are interested in solving the problems that we have at the table.

It’s an interesting way to think about it because when you fit someone into the boxes, they can look perfect on paper and then they get into that job and they’re not bringing what the qualities that you needed brought to the team.

One of the best things that Google does at the very highest level, they do this all the time. They figure out, “I met this interesting person. They’re super interested in driverless cars or whatever. Let’s figure out a way to add them to our team and we’ll figure out the job thing later.” They do that at the highest level and I’m fascinated by that because I’m like “Couldn’t we do that at more levels?”

[Tweet “60% of US jobs can be automated right now.”]

Imagine an organization where you did that at every level.

Yes. That’s exactly the opportunity.

It will be interesting to see with AI how much of routine functions get taken over and there will be more of a need for that kind of creativity.

You are hitting the nail on the head. This is the crisis of our time that we’re figuring out how to put people in boxes, so 60% of US jobs, 80% worldwide, requires zero judgment, creativity or decision-making. Basically all those jobs, 60% of US jobs can be automated right now. We have to figure out how to turn this world from all the ways in which we’ve basically been optimizing. In fact, it reminds me of when impressionism got invented and I’m trying to think of the era, but up to that point, painting used to be about getting close to realism. “Could I paint the street to look exactly what a photograph of the street would be?” Then the year that photography was invented, all of a sudden all the painters who had been hired to basically get as close to real as possible ended up basically losing their livelihood. Then this world of impressionism got created because all of a sudden, art could become this other form. We’re at the exact same juncture in terms of work. We’ve been designing jobs to be efficient and productive and now we need to design jobs to be creative and use our judgment.

That’s a big shift. That’s a paradigm shift.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been recognized as the future of work type person because I’m trying to offer a solution into the mix. A lot of people will say AI is coming, a lot of people will say the machines are going to eat us, or that tailorism is broken. Yes, but there is a new model we can use and that’s what we’re offering as a practical solution for every entrepreneur and leader, which is start to look at this way of creating value for yourself and then to hire based on that model, build teams around who else is interested in solving this problem instead of who is ahead of engineering. Then we start to move towards a different way of us working together.

You mentioned about being a top thinker and in 2013 you were given the honor of being called the number one future thinker in the world and someone who’s going to influence the future of work. Then you were in the top 22 of Thinkers50, which is the top 50 people that are influencing thinking in the world. A lot of the audience is interested in being thought leaders or industry leaders, but you’ve managed to do that. What do you attribute that to?

People ask me, “How do you become a thought leader?” and I say “I don’t know the answer to that question. What I know is I’m chasing an idea I believe is important. I’m chasing an idea where I believe that each of us can count in the world.” For 25 years in my own through line and in my own story has been “How do we listen to that admin in the room? How do we listen to that janitor, the salesperson, the disgruntled employee, and to drive innovation?” because those ideas are latent in the system and that’s the capacity I’m trying to unlock. As I write or speak or any of the things I have to do in order to advocate for that idea, I practically have blood on my forehead as I do it because none of it’s easy for me. I don’t feel like I’m a natural writer, I don’t feel I’m a natural speaker in so many ways, and yet I practice at it and try it because this idea is so deeply important to me. That’s what I always remind people, is what is that one thing you care so deeply about that even as you fail every inch of the way in whatever effort you have in trying to get that idea more known, you’re going to chase it?

You’re following your own advice which is taking your own wild idea and using it to dent the world.

It’s fascinating to me because writing is such a laborious thing for me, some of my friends can whip out an article in an hour and it will take me ten to twelve hours to write a good HBR piece. I’m always, “That must mean I’m not that good at it. Maybe that would be a sign I shouldn’t do it,” and yet I find myself thinking that that’s a way in which you could transmit an idea from your head to become an idea that we share and that we might then chase together. That’s why I continue to go back to the well on that one. I certainly wish it was easier, but that’s unfortunately not my gift. My gift is this idea that I care so much about.

I ask every guest three questions at the end because these are themes that in the work that I do, are very important. The first one is what I called the joy of missing out. You know how we have a fear of missing out on things, there’s a big fear of missing out, but it drives a lot of people’s behavior. A lot of it gets stoked by the fires of social media because it looks everyone else is having such a fantastic life, so much better than ours. I talk about it as the joy of missing out. I’d love to know from you what do you think people have a fear of missing out on in regards to their work and their careers that they shouldn’t? In other words, what should we be having a joy of missing out on in regards to the larger career and work conversation?

I love that you’re asking that. One of the things that we’re often questioning of ourselves is “Why am I not fitting in? Why am I not finding my people?” Fitting in is the way in which we’re folding ourselves into boxes that don’t work for us and so it’s totally okay to not fit in and instead to go off the main road and to go find your own path, even if that means you have to trail blaze that path yourself, but it feels so awkward, it feels so lonely to not already have an automatic place that looks and feels what everyone else seems to have.

It’s funny because I was interviewing Melissa Schilling day who wrote this book Quirky on innovation leaders. One of the themes she found with all these people was they do just that, there was some degree in all of them of spending a lot of time, not so much even in isolation, but forging their own paths, and there were points for all of them where it was very lonely.

The piece is that there’s a window, a one to two or three-year window, where you are lonely until you end up signaling and seeking the people that you end up finding. Of the 300 examples that I was locating, all the people had the same experience of being lonely for some period of time until they found their people and then made that dent. It’s to give yourself permission that there might be a window of time where you’re wondering what feels alone, but you’re on the other path that will lead you to where you may find your people. If you end up slowing down or backing up off that trail, you will never find your people, but they will be there at the end of that journey.

TTP 021 | The Power Of Onlyness
The Power Of Onlyness: Innovation is fundamentally about people owning a problem.

The other thing that runs through all of these podcasts is what I call living beyond the script. I’ve had this experience in my own life where I had to break out of the script of what was expected of me as a wife, as a mother, as a woman, as a business person, and that was not always easy. I always like to ask my guests what they think the prevailing script is in your case, as it relates to work, and how do you think people can go beyond it?

The biggest prevailing script at work is that we’ve been operating under a model of tailorism, which is a management construct designed when Ford manufacturing company was created. It was designed to basically take super complex problems and break them into simple ones. People weren’t that well-educated back then, the internet didn’t exist back then, and so we broke down super-complex things like building a car into pieces and we said, “This person’s going to put in the cogs.” We did three things: We broke down big tasks into small ones then we measured each person in isolation. If you could do 114 cogs a minute and I could do 112, you are better than me and I could know that. The third thing is we would fire people based on that individual productivity. We optimized for productivity and efficiency and we optimized for each person only owning a tiny little sliver of a big problem, and that construct pervades almost everything today.

If you look at Amazon warehouses, you look at Uber drivers, we do not ask people to own the whole problem, and yet innovation is fundamentally about people owning a problem, seeing it as their own and starting to solve it. That tailorism piece, so many people default to it without even realizing that there’s 100 plus years of management background to why we break down complex problems into simple things and instead do the opposite, which is “How do I help you to co-own the large problem with me so that we end up using the most of our creativity, the most of our decision making, the most of our judgment?” It’s such a tectonic shift that most people don’t even realize that’s the shift we’re aiming for.

I’ve never heard it talked about like that, but that’s a brilliant way to say it. That almost parallels with what you were saying about the individual. Rather than the individual being fragmented, the individual is bringing their whole self to those whole problems.

Work has been designed to atomize us instead of actualizing us and as soon as we realize all the frameworks embedded in that and the management systems or award systems and so on, you can go, “That entire framework locks us into a world that brings out the least of us instead of the most of us,” and that’s the shift I’m trying to ask people to navigate to.

I would say it even goes beyond tailorism and it even goes beyond that period of time. It’s Cartesian in nature. It’s this whole idea that there’s a mind and then there’s our bodies and there’s this whole separate way that we look at ourselves for centuries as fragmented.

It’s behooved the business owner. If you are the plant manufacturer, “It didn’t matter to me if your arm chopped off because I could find somebody else whose arm works.” It only benefited a certain group of people, and that same group of people is that group of people that we’re challenging with this idea that each of us count because if we move to a world where each of us count, it changes power structures. When I do sense resistance around this idea, I sense it from exactly the people who I’m asking to step back more so the rest of us can have a seat at the table or maybe for us to go build a brand new table together.

It’s a huge change and the change you’re talking about to me would be a transformation in how we think about what the world work is.

I just turned 50 years old and I have this moment where I’m thinking, “I wish I was further along in getting this idea adopted.” I’ll sit there and “I’m not there yet,” but I think, “I’m chasing an idea that is big and if it takes me twenty years that’s totally okay,” because I’m asking for a tectonic shift in how we think about work.

The last thing I’d to ask everybody is what I call the everyday artists because it’s been my experience that, as you were saying, every person has this wild idea. I think everyone, no matter what they do, whether they are a garbage collector or they are CEO of a company or they are a scientist or a painter, it doesn’t matter. I think there’s a part of what everyone does that’s art and science and I’d love to know in what way do you consider yourself an artist in your work?

That thing where I said I feel like I tear my hair out sometimes and it takes me twelve hours to write something and I’m sitting there going, “Why does it take me so much time?” but then I go back and read certain turn of phrase or certain poetic ways in which I’ve said something. I remember when I came up with the term, “Sitting is the smoking of our generation.” It puts in context something that everyone was taking for granted, that we were sitting. I had managed to link it to this Mad Men era where everybody smoked by default. That’s what inspired that. I’d been sitting there watching a television show and every single person on the show is smoking and I thought, “What is it that would allow people to realize sitting is hurting us? I’ll link it to this other thing.” Finding that turn of phrase, that poetic turn of phrase, is when I am artistic at all. It’s those moments.

[Tweet “Sitting is the smoking of our generation.”]

That was your TED Talk?

Yes, that was my TED Talk.

Nilofer, thank you. Where can people find out more about you and your books and what you do?

I have a website, I publish there pretty regularly, every two weeks, original essays as well as my thoughts and commentary of other things that are going on in the world.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you, Karen.

My guest today has been Nilofer Merchant. She is the author of The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.
Important Links

About Nilofer Merchant

TTP 021 | The Power Of OnlynessNilofer Merchant is ranked by Thinkers50 as one of the world’s leading thinkers. She has personally launched more than 100 products, netting $18B in sales, has worked for companies ranging from Apple to Autodesk and advises many others. Her visionary ideas have been recognized by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times, Fast Company, Fortune, Marie Claire, Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg, CNN, Time, and Mashable. Her 2013 TED Talk “Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation,” is in the top 10 percent of TED’s most viewed talks.


Listen | Download | View

Hear the episode of the Competitive Advantage Podcast by using the player above OR Click to Download any Episode
This article is copyrighted by Karen Leland and cannot be reprinted in any form, electronic or otherwise, without the express written permission of Karen Leland.
Karen Leland is President of Sterling Marketing Group, a branding and marketing strategy and implementation firm. She works with individuals, businesses and teams to enhance their business and personal brands. Her clients include LinkedIn, American Express, Apple, Marriott Hotels and others. Her ninth book, The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand, (Entrepreneur Press, 2016) is available online at, Barnes and, and in bookstores now.