The Snot Factory Story

People say that their faith is tested during tough times of job loss or divorce. But, I’m not so sure I had much faith to test. You likely know my story of getting fired because it was shared in Harvard Business Review’s forum on failure. That is the secular part of the story. I have walked a parallel spiritual journey also.

You might remember, I was evicted from my family because I (an Islamic women!) wanted an education. I lost my family ties, the community in which I was raised, and my religious tradition in one fell swoop at age 19. Not that I especially noticed the spiritual was missing for a long, long time. But then my job situation got precarious, and my relationship with my first husband equally difficult. A rather odd set of decisions brought us to the doors of St. Jude’s Episcopal Church. His family was Episcopalian. He didn’t stick around, yet I did.

One day, I went to church and, like most newcomers, hid out in the back pews. On that particular day, the preacher, Karen Siegfriedt, spoke on a book called “A Child Called It”. In it, a child is forced to be humiliated, physically abused, and so on as a parent focuses on one child to express their frustration and disappointment at their own life. It struck too close to home.

The sermon reached me. “Healing is possible; Wholeness is possible.” “Love is possible”. “With God, all things are possible”. And I wondered, and hoped … could this really be true? That hope started a journey. With that question, a window opened that would let light into my heart.

But, before that, I sat in the pew, and cried. No one seemed bothered by it. But it must have been quite the audible snot factory. Some person I didn’t know and without turning around passed a Kleenex back behind her, and then the next person did the same, and so on. Until it arrived, for me, 10 rows later…a gift.

The Journey

When I first started this journey towards wholeness, I was seeking it like a lost object. It was a “thing” to be found, and then I could put it in my pocket. With it, I could then return to the life I was living and achieve more “success”. But it turns out that this journey was not about finding a thing; rather seeking it required the seeker to change. That is, seeking it forced me to be aware of a reality beyond the one I was raised with, to step outside my own story and my own conditioning and history – and then, it required a surrender of sorts.

I wish I could tell you I loved it. Mostly, I resisted it.

Here in the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, we have difficulty with anything that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence. We cherish the scientific, the factual, the proven. We cherish the analytic models and frameworks that define truth and provide clarity. But as many a good idea thinker points out, those scientific methods measure only those things that we can control, leaving out important things that are beyond our control.

To operate from intellect and scientific method denies us the ability to recognize the things that are mysteries. A seeking like this changes ones hearts, softens you, and reveals a newness, slowly. I’m slowly discovering ways to live in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. (otherwise known as the fruits of the spirit)

What I had to give up.

I suppose I’m making this sound all good. It hasn’t been. Mostly because I had to give up something big in this journey and I, truth be told, miss it a lot.

You see, to be a seeker is to… not know.

For all of us “experts”, this is the most uncomfortable thing. And given how much I have been an expert and a leader (a division, a start-up, a program), stepping into this double helix of a life in faith meant giving up that commitment to know. In my case, I had to be vulnerable. It meant moving into a place where it was more about the journey than the end destination. I contributed to this book on Leading with Wisdom where I said that by moving from fear to love, I was able to be more present to not only the “what” of the room but to seek out the why and the how.  I was open to hearing people’s stories without judging them so we could all move forward in uncertain times. Which, sounds so lovely but feels like walking in quicksand. And, while I do it, it is still hard.

I miss that certainty of the hard-edged side of me, a cynical, intellectually tough, analytic know-it-all-ness. The world was so much more black and white. So much more crisp in resolution. Even when I was wrong, I never felt I was wrong so being wrong just felt like being right.

I have had to give up my edge, that bravado that people use to impress each other. When I meet people in start-ups, venture capital, at conferences, etc, they all remind me of this energy of how confident I once was of knowing. I don’t impress in the same way anymore. And, when that precludes me to certain opportunities, I live with that. My unknowingness probably reminds other people of something they don’t want to admit – that they really don’t know it all, either. It probably makes them feel vulnerable, which perhaps scares them. It used to scare me too. There’s an emptiness to it. It feels like a hole or a void.

Yet, perhaps it is that very void, the space itself that is important. I don’t have a tidy lesson to draw as much as a story to share. The Snot Factory Story, I’ll call it. Today, this Easter, is my 10-year anniversary of starting this journey. And all I can say is this: I am grateful.

19 Responses:

  1. Laurent Courtines. April 25, 2011 at 12:48 am  |  

    Nilofer, thanks so much for sharing your story. We often forget how much knowledge or the chase to know more is a crutch. It helps us feel like we have value or holds us back with “if I just knew more I would…” Faith or grace or accepting the unknowable is the toughest and most precious gift. I feel very lucky to come from a family of faith and while we’re also arrogant know-it-alls we always left room for faith and the discussion of spirituality. It is a never ending process and a good one to be on a path of. Without a mode of handling the unknowable life can get very, very difficult. Thanks again!

  2. Nilofer Merchant. April 25, 2011 at 12:51 am  |  

    Laurent – Unknowability is a funny thing, isn’t it? My son actually hits himself on the head when he doesn’t know and I am trying to teach him to be kind…that learning happens when we don’t know. Glad you appreciate what your family provided you. Nilofer

  3. Deborah Mills-Scofield. April 25, 2011 at 1:35 am  |  

    Faith…based on the unseen, but perhaps experienced. Grace…a gift from G-d we can’t fathom but are so glad to receive. My mantra is “Cause G-d Joy”, and you certainly do, by your voice, and your courage to share this post. A very blessed Easter!

  4. Rick Ladd. April 25, 2011 at 2:43 am  |  

    In his book “The Wisdom of Insecurity”, Alan Watts suggested religion was like a finger pointing the way, which most people choose to suck for comfort, rather than follow the path to which it points. You’ve clearly chosen the latter, a far more difficult . . . and far more rewarding journey.Thank you for sharing. Though not religious, I consider myself a spiritual person who exalts the journey over the destination, as you appear to do too. Also, as one who has always sought knowledge, as the path to wisdom, I have discovered the more I know, the more I realize how much remains to know.I believe Zen teaches us the most creative space is the empty one; the void. You may not “impress” as you once did, but I think you are on the right path, and I find that quite impressive.

  5. Larry McKeogh. April 25, 2011 at 2:48 am  |  

    Nilofer, I appreciate your candor and openness. It is refreshing. The point I think you are making is that enjoying the journey as much as the end result can be very freeing and fulfilling. It is not until you see and accept this that you are able to reach new levels you didn’t think possible. To accomplish this though it helps to have a touchstone, be it faith or something else . The reason is when you are in the real thick of it, that point orients you to the next step. Taking that unknown journey is difficult at first. But like any other skill with practice it becomes easier. It is never completely enjoyable; it is not as scary or arduous as it first seemed; and it is completely empowering when you reach a break.Keep trekking!

  6. Nilofer Merchant. April 25, 2011 at 3:59 am  |  

    Rick – Thank you for seeing beyond the part of the story that is religious. That was the thing that worried me about doing this post —that I could turn away someone because of the specifics of the story rather than a universal truth so thank you for squinting a little at this. And to all of you — Larry, Rick, Deb, and Laurent — thank you for pausing to comment. I’ll add two more resources. One is an author Nora Gallagher who talks about “a year lived in faith” which was quite good and another author Kathleen Norris who shares her journey in a book called Cloister Walk. I was touched by both of these early in my journey. Amazing writers … talking about a faith journey is a difficult thing and both do it well.

  7. Chris Mitchell. April 25, 2011 at 4:43 am  |  

    Nilofer, once again you have amazed your readers, especially me, with your forthrightness and courage in telling your own story. I know folks have claimed that there is nothing courageous about things the way you, but I disagree. You bare your soul and put yourself out there to help others. This is a great gift that you share. I might recommend some non-business reading for your growth and prospering in your spiritual quest (sorry, this is what results from studying theology for many years!). I am especially fond of Hugh Prather’s books, especially Notes to Myself, and Notes on Love and Courage. Another great one to get you moving in your thought is by Richard Bach, Illusions–The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. These are not profound, theological treatises, but they will help your journey! If you really want to delve deeper, we can talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr. Shalom. Peace. Namaste.Chris @devilblue82

  8. Marion Chapsal. April 25, 2011 at 9:15 am  |  

    Let’s call it synchronicity. Or Epiphany. I went back to Church this year. In search of authentic self. Yesterday, I went to the Easter service and was really touched by the Universal message. I usually prefer empty small churches. We’re lucky around here in France too have beautiful Roman churches. But I’m disgressing. The point is not religion, or church. It’ s about recognizing we don’t have the answers, we’re lost and we ‘re starting a journey of questioning. Quest of knowledge. Quest of vulnerability. Quest of sharing this vulnerability. Some find it through arts, poetry, painting, music. You find it with writing. Thank you.

  9. evanleonard. April 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm  |  

    Nilofer, thank you for vulnerably sharing your story. Evan.

  10. Nilofer Merchant. April 25, 2011 at 3:58 pm  |  

    Chris – thanks for the book recommendations! I’ll check out Hugh Prather. I can’t believe I’m writing that cause I need another book like I need a hole in my head but … And I appreciate your providing resources in this forum for others… you never know who might need to have just that new reading list…Marion — you are so welcome. Thanks for sharing YOUR quest. Evan, always nice to see you posting here. Nilofer

  11. Randy Cantrell. April 25, 2011 at 4:15 pm  |  

    Another vote for Hugh Prather’s “Notes To Myself: My Struggle To Become A Person.” My copy is pretty well worn and old. Circa 1970. I was 13 when I bought it. That was only 40 years ago. I’m still struggling to become a person. It’s a process, don’t you know? I’m still just a man in search of an epiphany!Thanks for sharing so openly, Nilofer.

  12. Trisha Liu. April 25, 2011 at 5:42 pm  |   Reply
  13. JulieForbesPhD. April 25, 2011 at 9:11 pm  |  

    Nilofer,This is a moving post. It strikes close to home for me.Just in case you haven’t read it before, there is a Rilke poem that comes to mind in this regard:Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heartAnd try to love the questions themselvesLike locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongueDo not seek for the answers that cannot be givenFor you would not be able to live themAnd the point is to live everythingLive the questions nowAnd perhaps without knowing itYou will live along some day into the answers Rainer Maria RilkeThank you for your eloquent words,With Metta (LovingKindness),Julie

  14. Nilofer Merchant. April 25, 2011 at 9:33 pm  |  

    That is a fabulous poem — one of my favorites. Thanks for reminding me of it. So let me share the one that captures something for me lately: So Much HappinessBy Naomi Shihab NyeIt is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.With sadness there is something to rub against,a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.But happiness floats.It doesn’t need you to hold it down.It doesn’t need anything.Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,and disappears when it wants to.You are happy either way.Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree houseand now live over a quarry of noise and dustcannot make you unhappy.Everything has a life of its own,it too could wake up filled with possibilitiesof coffee cake and ripe peaches,and love even the floor which needs to be swept,the soiled linens and scratched records…Since there is no place large enoughto contain so much happiness,you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of youinto everything you touch. You are not responsible.You take no credit, as the night sky takes no creditfor the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,and in that way, be known.

  15. michaeldila. April 26, 2011 at 1:04 am  |  

    I don’t if you’ve seen this very fine talk by Brene Brown.'s not only moving, but contains the sort of truth that we can never find in certainties.To become string enough to be vulnerable to others, to need be and struggle to live wholeheartedly…to live in the light. As Brene says, this is not always something that feels good to do, but that we need to do. I don’t think we should ever stop believing that we have to fight for what we want,. Sometimes the fight feels easy, sometimes hard, but the confidence that we are worthy of what we want is something we should never surrender.

  16. Nilofer Merchant. April 26, 2011 at 3:12 pm  |  

    Michael – Thanks for bringing Brene Brown’s work into this picture. I have already referenced her (a few posts back) and think a lot of her. I want to meet her at some point…And the notion of fighting for what you want is lovely. You may’ve just inspired a future blog post.

  17. DMC. September 29, 2012 at 6:05 am  |  

    Hi Nilofer,

    In short, this is a generic comment (which is best positioned here to link various elements) to communicate my support for your professional views and opinions, and more importantly your personal expression and sharing of your self and your journey. I find you a useful reminder to follow my passion and gain encouragement to standby my individual, authentic viewpoints. #Socialera definitely represents a powerful learning tool to bridge the gaps between people, industries, ideas and ideals… Thanks.

    I would like to directly share an extended version of how these natural connections and alignments have occurred. Edit this out if inappropriate within your blog 😉

    I have a background in sport, which similar to business, can tend to be competitive and non-sharing where any edge over rivals is traditionally preserved/protected. I have moved into an educational domain where barriers are lowered or removed completely and have a prime emphasis on sharing.

    On my personal journey, I have slowly overcome my reluctance to share thoughts and information beyond the classroom and into a larger, public domain; so am a relative novice in the #socialera (but hopefully not too far behind).

    My very first blog was 6 months ago (26th March 2012 – 10 days after your article) simply titled ‘Connectivism’. Coincidentally, at the time of writing, one of your blogs landed in my LinkedIn news feed and helped me to understand more about the underpinning principles behind the venture I had been involved in. This was timely and contributed significantly to my professional learning.

    I recently posted a comment on one of your blogs ‘Creating Commandments’… This again occurred by coincidence. I was alerted to one your Tweets about this blog, which had been re-tweeted by a person I follow. This in itself shows the power of the #socialera with stepping stones forming the linkages between different industries that would not have occurred without social tools. I only joined Twitter last month and have seen huge advantages from a professional and personal perspective in this short time.

    Your article made me reflect on my recent personal learning/decisions at a very important moment in my life and career; in essence it helped my pivotal understanding of an essential work-life balance which I have lost touch with over the last few years

    Since this comment, I have backtracked through your blog site and have learned even more critical lessons and become more informed as a result. It has also reassured me of the comments and statements I have presented in my limited #socialera evolvement, and resonate to your aligned thoughts. For example:


    Within text:
    “For me, it is clear that companies with complementary skillsets, services and products are stronger aligned as ‘associates’ as no person or company is the whole/finished article. It allows great awareness of the field and high capacity to create solutions required to drive and impact the industry.”

    Subsequent discovery and comment:
    “The “Coherent Enterprise” article by Charles Jennings expands and confirms my initial thoughts on the value of ‘aligned associates’ combining (in the main body of the blog)”


    “Keith Lyons highlighted a blog “Facilitating collaborative learning: A recipe for success”. In this article, Jane Hart closes with “You know when you are in a community of practice, if it changes your practice.” Hopefully, the growing number of viewers and contributors in VPA will reflect on this statement for affirmation of its value. Relevant PA content is being co-created by the community through not only the blogs, but equally in the associated comments. This collaboration leads to shared ownership and responsibility. I think the “Members Lounge” represents the “private online group space” outlined in the recipe; where powerful links could be forged.
    A comment quoted by Jane Hart was “When facilitators/moderators help make connections in conversation threads, add content without getting in the way and encourage collaboration… the conversation and learning can be far greater and more satisfying than a f2f conversation.“ This is relevant to educators, lifelong learners and drivers of the PA industry, where alongside the creation of informative resources in this site, voices are heard, identities formed and long-term working partnerships established.”

    I am very grateful to Prof. Keith Lyons for his personal support through this process as our interpretation of the #socialera merge into the concept of the small open online course (SOOC). This represents a co-creation of resources for knowledge dissemination and co-operative learning for collective growth.

    I look forward to the next steps on the journey towards wholeness.

  18. Valerie Buniece. October 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm  |  

    What a story and courage to put an honest “share” out in the webosphere! Parts resonate.
    How embarrassing not to know any of this about you…
    Thank you and Blessings,
    Valerie (Burniece)

    • Nilofer Merchant. October 31, 2012 at 9:41 am  |  

      Thanks for stopping to both SEE ME and to comment, Valerie.


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