Aside

Rogues, Misfits Or Heroines?

Moments define, or rather they let us redefine who we are.

We are all familiar with the story of Rosa Parks and how it contributed to the civil rights movement. She refused to obey the bus driver’s order to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. At the time, Parks was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. Nonetheless, she took her action as a private citizen, saying simply, “I am tired of giving in.”

History has celebrated her Heroic act, but history rarely focuses on the internal moment of choice…the moment where Rosa Parks said to herself:

“I will not let you define my status, by my color or race”.

Sometimes the stories of Heroines are not as profound as the cause of Rosa Parks.

Take the case of Susan Boyle, the Scot who first came to international attention on Britain’s Got Talent. On April 11 2009, she got up in front of 10 million viewers and sang “I Dreamed a Dream.” Initially, the audience was hostile because of her dumpy middle-aged appearance, but as she opened her mouth, the audience went wild (really, watch that video).

She came to embody a dream itself, when she went onto make a best-selling album and become an icon for what can be. But the internal moment right before that first curtain went up and she stepped onstage probably had her saying to herself:

“You will not define beauty, based on my size or my age.”

These stories of Rosa Parks and Susan Boyle are ones we know; but these stories happen also in quiet and distant places, across the world and across time.

Consider the story of an African girl who fled her home, her tribe, her village, to avoid the act of female genital mutilation or FGM. FGM is a cultural practice in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It consists of removing tissue of the female genitalia, depriving women of pleasure. Half of the 28 countries where FGM is endemic have passed laws forbidding it, but it continues on as a rite of passage.

Applying the law would mean going counter to society’s norms. Practiced during childhood, most of these procedures are done to girls 2 months to 10 years. To avoid this being done, African girls leave home at an incredibly young age, running away from everything they know to avoid FGM.

She has decided that despite every norm around her:


“My body is not property to do with as you wish.”

 

Which makes me think of my own story. I was born in India and raised in the US but always with the knowledge and tradition of an arranged marriage in my future. My brother and sister both got arranged marriages. As the youngest, when it came time, I was open to it because I knew it would provide for my single mother who had worked very hard to raise us. It was expected of me.

But I could not convince her nor my Uncle who was arranging the nikka to discuss my education. I was attending community college as I waited for marriage, so that –one day– I could go on and complete my education. I tried to persuade my mommy by sharing “I know he will say yes, if only you would ask him”. My reasoning was simple. He was wealthy and established. He had a nanny for his son by first marriage whose wife had died, and staff who took care of his mansion. He did not need a wife to care for his child or his home. “He would say yes, if only you would ask” I implored probably way too many times to be heard after a while.

I was so afraid that if they left it to me, I would be powerless once the wedding was arranged. But my mother and my uncle wouldn’t ask, not wanting to risk the other negotiations of the dowry and exchange.

And I, having been raised in the West, thought that I had perhaps a wee bit of bargaining power over the situation, given that I was the “product” in the exchange.

I moved out for what I thought would be a few days as I thought — for sure — my family would relent. But with a few days of pure drama, I got rejected from my family for being a disobedient and disrespectful daughter. I did not respect the traditions. I did not respect my elders. I did not respect history. I did not abide like my brother and sister did.

The arranged marriage never did come to pass and all of a sudden, I no longer had my family, my community, or my religious group. I was out in the cold.

I guess if I had to put my own words into that bubble over my head it would have said something like:


“I will not be denied an education because of my gender.”

 

Because that would mean that I was so rational, ideally smart, perhaps clear, and somehow noble in the choice.

But mostly I remember the emotion of it all, and a definite sense of fear and doom.

What is important in these stories is this:  There is an internal moment, a creative act, a bold choice, a shift, or as we might call it in business terms, a pivot from what is to what will be.

And it is relatively easy to look at history after it’s been created and to say “it worked out”. But its that moment that I want to pause on.  During this moment, the questions that I faced were:

Who am I to want an education?
Who will I piss off? Will they ostracize me?
How will I eat, or where will I sleep if this doesn’t turn out the way I planned?

In other words, I was asking myself how do I belong to what already is. I felt like a rogue, a misfit.  And I was asking myself: How do I conform to norms, how do I honor customs of my group, how do I participate in this culture I belong to? How do I preserve what I already have (and love) while still having what I want deep in my heart.

And I wonder if that’s what Rosa Parks was asking herself. After all, Rosa was raised in a black family and the generation in the 60s asserting their civil rights were often called “uppity.” It was probably even worse for a women; she probably got called an “Uppity Black Woman.” She surely had to worry what her parents would think, how her church community would judge her, and on an entirely practical level: whether she would be arrested. Most people don’t remember that she lost her job as a seamstress after this choice on the bus and it took her years – years — to get another job and for that she even had to move to a different city.

Susan Boyle had to overcome her history, which included oxygen deprivation during childbirth. She got bullied in school, had never been kissed, and returned home to care for her mother until age of 91. She could have used many excuses: I don’t have time, It’s a personality contest, or I’m too old. She waited until her mother died and she had fulfilled that responsibility, before going on that stage. I can only imagine that as the curtains went up, she might have identified more with the nickname of her school years: Simple Susan, and wondered to herself…..what right do I have to stand up here and sing this big?

The African girl knows that when she runs away from FGM, she will automatically lose her family and her tribe and that it is quite possible that she will die. She is – quite literally — going out in the wilderness with great risk to her life. She will have few support systems in place. Very few people will understand why she is making this choice rather than supporting the known customs of her community. She will have to go hundreds of miles before she might find a community where FGM is not practiced. And, while I had my Western students around me who said “Yes, to education”, she might not find a friendly ear or a shoulder of support for many years.

We could see Rosa Parks or Susan Boyle or the African girl as rogues or misfits. But we don’t. We see Rosa Parks and Susan Boyle and the African girl as our modern day Heroines for the choices they made, …..but do we see how we fit into these stories?

Defining_moments

 

Maybe there is, in all these stories, a central question we all face?

Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a loss of a job, a move, a marriage …  Sometimes it is by choice, and sometimes not. It could even be something as simple standing our ground on something we know is right, while the majority doesn’t see it that way. It could be for work or for personal reasons.

The question is: How do we handle this moment?

Is it to cry out OH MY!? Do we work to conform to what is known, to the cultural norms and socially acceptable ways? Do we stay within the box of what other people imagine is true and right? Or, are we conscious in that moment….to imagine, for ourselves what will be?

This moment I point to is actually part of something we are always facing, which is the dynamic between who we’ve been and who we aspire to be.

In the middle is the creative act in the present. We can allow that creative moment to be defined by our past, by the cultural norms of society, by our perceived limitations and constructs. Or not.

And I believe question each of us faces actually isn’t whether to conform or not, but when is the act of courage worth it? And I want to offer us 3 crucial points for when it is worth it.

The first is whether it’ll improve the results of the group. You see, minority viewpoints have been proven to aid the quality of decision making in juries, by teams and for the purpose of innovation.  The research proves then even when the minority points of view are wrong, they cause people to think better, to create more solutions and to improve the creativity of problem solving.

The second is when it gives others permissions to speak their truth. There was an interesting study done to test conformity where effectively people were put in groups and some of the group lied on purpose the length of a line. When majority lied, 70% of the group capitulated, but when people were allowed to state what they actually believed to be true, only 30% went with the group majority answer. In other words, when more people told their truth, it gave permission to the others to have and own their real truth.

And the final point to consider is more subjective than the first two. Only you can answer “is this worth it”. When is the cost too high to allow others to inform what you believe and say to be true.

We are always in tension with who we’ve been and who we aspire to be. This is true for people and for companies. To deny one’s past and only focus on aspirations is to be flighty.  To only focus on what you’ve already done or what tribe you belong to, is to be bounded by history.  To neglect aspirations is to deny our ability to create. 
To forget our humble beginnings, is to deny our heritage.

We are always 2, both our past and our future. In the middle is the creative act we are living. Each of us is bound by our past, our accomplishments and our failings, and we 
ALSO owe it to ourselves to allow our aspirations and dreams to flourish so
that we can enable the process of defining who we’ll be.

Remember that 55 years ago, Rosa Parks didn’t have or seek permission to sit on the bus, and protest the “as is”. She had an aspiration for how the world should be.

And Susan Boyle dared to “dream a dream”.  They allowed their aspirations to tug them into their future.

I hope we can all do the same.These are the moments that define us, or rather, let us redefine who we are becoming.

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26 Responses:

  1. Kim_Moir. December 7, 2010 at 8:35 pm  |  

    Fantastic. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Nilofer Merchant. December 7, 2010 at 9:16 pm  |   Reply
  3. Nilofer Merchant. December 7, 2010 at 9:20 pm  |  

    You are most welcome. This was an especially long essay and appreciate the perseverance in reading it and in commenting!

    Reply
  4. Bill_Gross. December 8, 2010 at 2:30 am  |  

    Nilofer, that is a wonderful, heartfelt, and powerful piece. You are delivering this tomorrow? Good luck, and I hope it provides powerful inspiration to many!

    Reply
  5. chrysula. December 8, 2010 at 2:48 am  |  

    Discovering that we do not in fact belong where we had previously thought can give us vital information to walk away. Frightening. Isolating. Painful. Yes to all of those things. But ultimately critical for our greater well-being and discovery of purpose. Gratitude for your words and the actions behind them.

    Reply
  6. christinewalker. December 8, 2010 at 5:23 am  |  

    I have to wonder – if we were more mindful of these defining moments, would we have more of them? Would we have a greater appreciation for our personal evolution? I’m going to carry this idea around for a few days, and gnaw on it occasionally. Thanks.

    Reply
  7. shelleymayer. December 9, 2010 at 4:00 am  |  

    So great. I’m sure the talk was amazing. I can honestly say that the bravest decisions I’ve made in life have always been the best ones. Your essay reminded me of that!

    Reply
  8. terrigriffith. December 9, 2010 at 7:34 pm  |  

    Powerful! Our MBA students could take this to heart as they think about how to use their new education in the world. This would be an amazing graduation speech.

    Reply
  9. joegerstandt. December 10, 2010 at 3:09 am  |  

    Wonderful post Nilofer, thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  10. Nilofer Merchant. December 10, 2010 at 5:41 pm  |  

    I have been out of the office and am so delighted to see this post is being retweeted and I think you for all taking moment to write. I share my own backstory of reinvention because I want to help innovators realize that, yes, there is always fear and uncertainty but it’s in that moment you create.

    Reply
    • Narendra Goidani. October 3, 2011 at 7:39 am  |  

      Dear Nilofer,

      I am very impressed by what you write and the way you write. Whether it is business or social or your own life story, I feel conviction flowing through you.

      I am touched by your writings…

      Keep up the good work.

      Thanks for putting in the efforts.

      With love, prayers and best wishes,

      naren

      Reply
  11. Swarna Podila. December 11, 2010 at 7:18 am  |   Reply
  12. renee_berry. December 14, 2010 at 4:24 am  |  

    “The dynamic between who we’ve been & who we #aspire to be” – @nilofer the live delivery was incredible http://ow.ly/3oIuf @tedxbayarea

    Reply
  13. Mark Finnern. December 15, 2010 at 7:33 pm  |  

    Thanks for sharing that very personal story. It really brings the point across. I also didn’t know that Rosa Parks had to struggle for years to get another job. Wow, Mark.

    Reply
  14. Nilofer Merchant. December 15, 2010 at 9:31 pm  |  

    Thanks, Mark. I think I have taken for granted my own courage/reinvention story because I know it. It was June Cohen (of TED) that recently said to me, know WHY you think something is important and then share THAT story. She and a musician friend encouraged me while I was thinking about this talk to tell my own backstory. So did Marylene over lunch. Between these different conversations, I see now the reason I care about people using their own power. In business, in life — it frees us all.

    Reply
  15. Nilofer Merchant. January 21, 2011 at 5:50 pm  |  

    If you had a bubble over your head right now, what would it be saying? “Fuck You”? “No Way”? “So this is what FABULOUS is all about!”.

    Reply
  16. iMurali. January 28, 2011 at 11:07 pm  |  

    Such a great read, I especially liked the fourth para from the bottom, for this is what I deeply believe in, we are as much defined by what we aspire to be as what we are .

    Reply
  17. Nilofer Merchant. January 28, 2011 at 11:12 pm  |  

    @imurali I was reading Po Bronson’s book on families (“Why do I Love these People”) and he added to my understanding of this concept even further. He said the narrative changes as the story chapters come in. The story of a remote and distant grandfather and then a remote and emotionally unavailable father changes when the son is able to connect deeply to people. Even the grandfather’s story has changed. Our story is changed as the chapters are added.

    Reply
  18. charlescrawford. March 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm  |  

    Eloquent.Are you an Ayn Rand fan? A lot of the thinking here is reflected in her work, especially the idea of the Sanction of the Victim – you are oppressed only because you choose not to fight back. By the way, a startling proportion of Egyptian women have been the victims of FGM. What sort of society does that violence produce, I wonder? We may soon find out, and not like the outcome.

    Reply
  19. Nilofer Merchant. March 7, 2011 at 11:02 pm  |  

    Thanks. Haven’t read her but maybe I should put her on my summer reading list. Thanks for the suggestion. Having a lot of thoughts about Egypt lately… did you see my piece on “witnessing”?

    Reply
  20. M Sarkar. August 22, 2012 at 3:52 pm  |  

    I’m glad I read this post – I reached it through another, that you’d put out on Twitter.
    Gives me a far better idea of what you had to surmount to get from “there” to your current state/education/business standing.

    Human infants, during their early nurturing by parents, develop the desire to conform, to fit-in with family, society, etc. Fear or separation or abandonment becomes a powerful force. When some (as yourself) choose to swim out alone into a dark ocean, the results vary. Those who are not broken will go on to better and higher achievements in life.

    Excellent writing here: “We are always 2, both our past and our future. In the middle is the creative act we are living. Each of us is bound by our past, our accomplishments and our failings, and we 
ALSO owe it to ourselves to allow our aspirations and dreams to flourish so
that we can enable the process of defining who we’ll be.”

    Reply
  21. Yvonne. March 12, 2013 at 9:11 am  |  

    Excellent. Thank you for this.

    Reply
  22. Sarah Elkins. July 23, 2013 at 3:17 pm  |  

    I discovered this by following Liz Ryan’s posts and I’m so glad I read it from the beginning to the end. It’s truly inspiring. My experience with these decisions is that I never seem to have time to actually DECIDE my next move because those moments come suddenly, unexpectedly. It almost seems impulsive and instead of the bubble of thought, which comes much later, it’s a rush of memories from past, similar experiences that finally compel me to make a move or a statement. There are the clear moments of decision here and there, like the choice to get married, the choice to buy a house. But really, I believe we have to give ourselves the tools to make that thought bubble our reality and not an impulsive response to a situation. Those tools come from experience, personal and through inspiration by others. This article is one of those tools I’ll use when the next moment comes – so my thought bubble will be “I will not be defined by my title or gender”. Thank you.

    Reply
  23. Murali. November 29, 2013 at 4:03 am  |  

    Great article Nilofer. Very eloquent. We all do need tostand firm and make a stand sometime in our lives, for what is important to us.

    Reply

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