Taken for Granted: Mellody Hobson on Taking Tough Feedback (Transcript)

Taken for Granted

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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Adam Grant:
Hey WorkLifers. We’ll be back for Season 4 next month. For now, here’s the second of four new episodes of Taken for Granted.
Today’s guest is leader extraordinaire Mellody Hobson. In the eight years that I’ve known her, she’s consistently challenged me to think again about giving and receiving feedback and speaking truth to power.

Mellody has a long list of trailblazing achievements. In March, she became the first Black woman to be chairperson of an S&P 500 company—you may have heard of it? Starbucks. She’ll soon become the first Black woman to have a building named after her at Princeton. She’s been on many lists, including Time’s 100 most influential people. But through it all, she's only worked in one place, Ariel Investments, the first Black-owned mutual fund in the U.S.-- where she is now the president and co-CEO.

Mellody Hobson:
30 years at one company since 1991, I've only worked at one company. The average American has 11 jobs in their lifetime, but it makes complete and total sense, if you grew up as me, that you would cling to permanency and security. I'm the youngest of six kids. My mother was a single mom, she worked really, really hard, but we often were in tough situations of getting evicted or getting our lights turned off, or our phone disconnected, our car repossessed. Sometimes I didn't know where we're going to live. It was just a terrible way to live. And as a result of that, I just had this great sense of financial insecurity. I ended up having an obsession with school which was the center of calm and security for me in a world that was not calm and not secure. I could control outcomes at school. So I became this, crazy student, and then I went to Princeton and in all of those settings, I was just an observer. I saw the life that I wanted, I romanticized the friends that I had in the lives that they had and the two parent households and all of these things. And it did give me this aspiration for financial security. At some point I felt like I had won the birth lottery in every way.

Adam:
Anybody who knows anything about your childhood would suggest that that is not the first narrative that comes to mind.

Mellody:
The reason that I say I won the birth lottery is not because I didn't work extraordinarily hard and still do, and not because I didn't pay my dues and consult with really smart people to help me in tough moments but let's just start with DNA. I got a brain from those two people that put me in good stead in school. That's, that's a fluke. You don't know what you're going to get. When I meet really smart kids, I'm like, thank your parents for that DNA. That's the first thing that put you in a good place. So then they had the DNA. A lot of people don't necessarily use it to their advantage I was fortunate I made the right decisions at the right time. That I chose Ariel. And I didn't go. I'm not saying I wouldn't have everything wouldn't have worked out, but I'm just saying that I took these non-traditional paths. And at the end of the day, you know, all my friends were going to big wall street firms. And I went to this little firm in Chicago because I could sit next to and work with this guy that I thought was really smart and that understood me and that would foster, um, talent, my talent and allow me to grow. So that's why I say I won the birth lottery.

That I was born in America. I mean, that's a real thing. You know, Warren buffet talks about that. If you could be born anywhere in the world to be born in America, even with all of our. All of the things that are wrong in America, which is a lot, it still has a, I think, a leg up on a lot of other places in terms of creating the opportunity for success.

Adam:
I’m Adam Grant, and this is Taken for Granted, my podcast with the TED Audio Collective. I’m an organizational psychologist. My job is to think again about how we work, lead, and live.

Adam:
You're one of my role models when it comes to feedback and you have had incredible experiences of receiving difficult feedback and then learning to benefit from it. And I wonder if you could share, how you've learned to take tough feedback well?

Mellody:
We have this really great coach at Ariel. And one of the things that he told me was that feedback was not a right. You're not entitled to it. So whenever you get it, it's a gift and you had to treat it that way. And that was something I really took to heart. And he also told me that you should be willing to receive feedback from. Anyone, and it shouldn't be dependent upon if you like the person or don't like them respect them. Don't respect them. They may have a point that really makes a lot of sense and something for you to think about. Thirdly, if someone calls you a horse's ass the first time you might say, okay, the second time you might say, I'm going to think about it. The third time they call you a horse's ass. Buy a saddle.

If you start to get feedback that is repetitive, see what it is that people are seeing in you that you need to work on. So with all of that in mind, one of my mentors is bill Bradley, the former us Senator and hall of fame, basketball player. One day he sat with me and he said, you know, melody, if you're not careful, you could be a ball hog.
You could really step over a lot of people and it has the potential do not be good. And I remember sitting there and telling myself don't cry. I was certainly second guessing myself and thinking, why is he saying this to me? It didn't feel very good, but I also thought to myself at the time, if I cry, he won't ever give me feedback again.

Because who wants to sit and have to put someone back together after they've given them feedback and then want to do it again. So I just remember sitting and really quieting myself emotionally so that I could receive what he said. And then I left thinking about ways to solve for some of the things that he had mentioned.

Adam:
Mellody. It's an amazing story. And it raises some questions for me. The first one is it doesn't seem like calling someone, a ball hog is a gift. Did that not bother you?

Mellody:
Sure. It bothered me, but this idea that I could hijack a conversation and he said it, with your enthusiasm and your charisma you could dominate. And in dominating, you can silence other people. So one of the ways that I actually went about it was, I try to engage with people by asking them questions about themselves. First, from the person who picks me up in the lobby for a meeting to wherever I am, it takes the attention off of me and people like to talk about themselves. I also ended up learning a ton of things about people. It's a tool that I use to not be a ball hog.

Adam:
There's so much that can, be learned from this, I think also though I would go to bill Bradley and say, there might be a more effective way to deliver that message. Maybe if you're a little bit less harsh, you're a little bit less judgmental. Uh, maybe it elicits less of that defensiveness. Maybe you're not as likely to cry. Agree or disagree?

Mellody:
I disagree because one, he wasn't being harsh. He loves me. And that's what I told myself in my mind. They're not trying to hurt me. I think he was pointing out something that he saw and I appreciated him for doing it. You received feedback in any way that someone gives it to you? It doesn't have to be packaged for you to receive it. So I disagree. If we live in a society where all feedback has to be couched in some kind of terms, you won't get people's authentic truth.

Adam:
What if he had been someone that you didn't know loved you, or if maybe even he didn't have an accurate picture of you, what would you have done then to validate whether the feedback was worth listening to?

Mellody:
I think that's something that we all have to work on. And that happened to me very recently. I was talking to someone very, very, very successful in the investment world. The person was giving me feedback on something that I was working on. They did it in a way that I did not react well to. And so I'm telling the story to another very senior leader and I'm griping about it.

And he said, okay, separate how the person said it. Is there anything in there? That's true. Let's look for grains of truth before you dismiss the whole conversation. That is when I had to really stop and say, okay, I see the grains of truth here, and I have to figure out how to solve for this objection that was made and divorced myself with how the objection was stated.

Adam:
Of the things I think is powerful about that is it makes it possible to learn from your critics, even if you don't agree with them. Right, you can listen to somebody as criticism and say it, It doesn't matter whether they're right or wrong. The question is what did I do that provoked that reaction? And then what can I do differently to avoid it next time?

Mellody:
Well also, let's be clear. I don't want to suggest that every person has given me feedback have given me life altering information. Sometimes people are wrong. The question is, Can you get the signal from the noise? Well if you can discover that kernel or that gem that will really help you.

Adam:
There's a relatively new finding in feedback research, which shows that novices in a given area of skill or domain they'd benefit more from praise than criticism because they don't have a lot of confidence and it encourages them to keep trying and learning. Whereas experts are the opposite. They don't need to know what they're doing well, they need to find the gaps. And close them. And as I've read this research, I've started thinking maybe I'm being too harsh on people who are junior or new? And maybe I need to reassure them more before I challenged them. I don't think you're going to agree with that. And I'd love to hear your take

Mellody:
I'm just not a person for couching. It goes against my basic beliefs in being authentic. I don't want anyone dealing with me that way. Zero. I have no interest in that. I don't like those meetings where it's like, here are your, areas where you're doing really well and here are your areas of development we need to couch the language in a way that is, pleasing to people. This all feels extraordinarily, limiting in some ways, because it just means if you don't get the feedback and the way that you wanted it, you can't receive it.

Adam:
I am a hundred percent with you in that belief. And I have the same preference in all my relationships. I want people to just tell me the truth as they see it, not to try to sugar coat the feedback or to serve me some kind of feedback sandwich that never tastes as good as it sounds on the menu. It's a sign to me that you haven't built real trust or respect in the relationship.

Mellody:
Yeah. It would make me very suspect. But it also it's about your personality. I mean, you have to be who you are as you deliver feedback. I'm more direct, I was having this conversation once with Dick Parson, who is someone who's been a mentor as well, and I remember once I was asking him for feedback and I said, be brutally honest. He said, I'll be honest, but I don't need to be brutal. And I thought that was a really great comment. I learned I can be honest and not be brutal. And I hope that I work with people and surround myself with people who believe that, you know if you were giving someone's feedback, you only have their best interest at heart. It's easier not to say anything. And the only reason you say something, if there's something in it for you or in it for that person, and I'm okay with people having their own self-interest in a better outcome for someone else.

Adam:
I would echo that. And it's interesting to me that when you talk about giving honest feedback, without being brutal, that a lot of times people don't understand that it is just your perspective. How do you make that clear when you're giving feedback?

Mellody:
I'll say this is my opinion, unless it's a fact. Like, factual error. One of my favorite lines, “Math has no opinion—the math is the math.” And I think that's where our society has gone a little awry in this idea of things like alternate facts or, differences of opinion about things that are inarguable. But if it's around a point of view or a feeling or perspective, it's just my opinion or the way that I would do something that is specific to me. It may not work for someone else. And I have to respect that.
I have a co-CEO and we're extremely different and I'm very, very specific and pretty often aggressive about my point of view. And John Rogers, my co-CEO, who started Ariel has a completely different approach most times. He's incredibly competitive and aggressive in his own way—not with people, but with outcomes. He's been the one to teach me there can just be different ways. I've been able to sit around some of the greatest leaders in the world and learn that.

Adam:
Separating style from skill there, is obviously a key. I wonder what happens when, when you give this kind of critical feedback to more junior people and they don't take it with the same resilience that you did when you were in their shoes, how do you help them move through that?

Mellody:
So sometimes I have to actually have a conversation about “I'm giving you this feedback and you're crying. I have to add another 20 minutes to this conversation to put you back together when time is of the essence for me every day, which will discourage me from doing this again. So I want you to understand what the cause and effect can be in this situation.”

I'm not saying people should be unemotional. I want to be really clear about that, but I do think that it can't be over something like “we didn't do this right,” and you break into tears. It just doesn't work. We're professionals and that's not the way to run a railroad. At the same time, there are times when I want to walk you through why I feel this way. What I see, what I think, where you just don't go in with guns blazing because you know, they can't handle it.
No, at the end of the day, I have to tell you, I want to work with resilient people. That's very, very important to long-term success. Resilience is like a muscle that builds up. If that resilience is not starting to build up in that individual, I will have serious questions about them over the long-term, especially in a leadership role or in an inner circle kind of situation.

We have a new CFO joining Ariel in a couple of weeks. I said, “I just want to be super clear about what kind of partnership I need with you. I cannot ever walk on eggshells with you. I don't want to ever sit and think about how to say something to you. This role and partnership with me is so critical, I need you to be super resilient and I could come at you in the way I need to come at you at that time, in that moment and not thinking I have to call him back and make sure he's okay. That is the CFO that I want. If you can do that, we're going to be great partners. That's what I need.” Now that isn't true of every role at Ariel, but in that role, that is what I was looking for.

Adam:
This is one of the things I admire most about you, Mellody is how clear you are with your expectations. I never have to wonder where I stand with you, because if you think something, you're going to say it, and that means I don't have to waste all this energy worrying I said the wrong thing, or in some way, it fell short of your standards. And I think sometimes I've struggled to get people to be that way with me. I think the most effective discussion I've had with people so far is just to sit down with them and say, look, if you ever hesitate to tell me something, because you're afraid it's going to hurt my feelings or hurt the relationship? Don't. The only way you can hurt me is not being honest with me. And I take your candor as a sign that you care enough about me to tell me the truth. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. What else do I need to do when it doesn't?

Mellody:
Well, first of all, I just want to qualify my approach because I do speak my mind, but not everything on my mind. Every time I have a thought, I don't speak it. I think you have to edit you know, John Rogers taught me this, pick your spots. Certain things really matter. And other things don't matter that much. They might be slight annoyances, but I'm always saying to myself, “No one died.” But on the stuff that is mission critical that you know, is the difference between success and failure or where I see patterns could develop that could derail us as a group, those are the things I'm going to hone in on.
And so, when I think about how you might handle it, just understanding first and foremost, it's not everything. We are all imperfect. And I often with my team point out my own imperfections to let them know that I'm trying to be as self-aware as I possibly can and not live under some guise of a delusion of who I am. I have always invited my really, really close friends, I say, “call it as you see it with me.” I think a really great spouse does that.

Adam:
Mellody’s spouse is George Lucas-- you know, the Star Wars creator.

Mellody:
I always joke with George, my husband, that I alternate between head deflator and gravity boots. I'm either taking a pen and sticking it in his head—cause all these people are constantly coming up to them, telling them, you know, “I love you, I love this”—and not to do that in a negative way, but it's like “you're okay.”
And the gravity boots is just a sort of like, keep them down to the ground. And he is not someone who lives off the ground, but it's an interesting way that I think about my role there. And then I always say, and giving it back to me, you know, it's like, I want you to give it back to me straight. And it would be very helpful at times for a really good friend to just set the record straight. When you think about how to handle that with others, I think you have to do it in Your own authentic way, but I also think that it can't be on everything.

Adam:
Your point about commenting on your own imperfections is timely for me because I just finished a new paper with a doctoral student, Constantinos Coutifaris, where we show that it's not enough for leaders to ask for criticism. If they want to open that door and make it safe for people to speak up, it actually is more effective for them to criticize themselves out loud because then they're proving that they can take it, not just claiming that they're open to it. And I wondered if you could highlight what that sounds like? Because for a lot of leaders, there's some hesitation of, “oh no, if I admit my insecurities, if I disclose my weaknesses, everybody's going to know I'm weak, and then I'm going to be seen as incompetent and my career is over.” And you just seem completely unfazed by this.

Mellody:
So, first of all, in every job interview I do, I ask people a couple of questions. So one, I asked them, “What is your genius? What do you do better than anyone else?” People just, it, the word spew so fast, it doesn't take them even a minute to lock in on their genius. And then I say, “When you're truly honest with yourself, what don't you do well?” So one of the things people say, I'm not good at saying no. This is like the biggest BS answer that everyone gives because they don't want to acknowledge that they're bad at something. And they think it sounds great. So I said “now give me the number two,” and I say, “the reason I want to know that is it's not about defining you for this role as being the right fit or not the right fit, but it's understanding what we need to work around. And it's better to know on the front end, what the shortcomings are, so we can plan for it.” And so I always do that to try to show them the path to being intellectually honest about your weaknesses.

And, just so you know, why don't I give you a few for me? One of my great strengths, I am the person that if you have a problem, I should be your first call. I am the consummate problem solver of something really hard. I can think of five or six things, people, et cetera, get them on the phone. But on the flip side, if you are a person who constantly has problems and need to be held, I am not going to be a good leader for you. I'm going to disappoint you. Because after a while, I will see the constant need for support and needing to be held up as weakness and I will start to become very weary. If that is something you need, I won't be a good leader. And so I try to tell people that weakness right out of the gate to help them to understand.

And then I give them all sorts of other ones. They have a joke in my office that I'm uber focused when I'm doing something, to the extent that people talk to me, I do not hear them. I can be looking right at you and not hearing you because my mind goes to another place, which then makes it seem like I don't care that much about you. So I had one chief of staff who used to say “The window just closed didn't it?” He's like, “I'm talking to you and the window closed.” It's annoying, I do it all the time, and I try to tell myself focus, concentrate, listen to them. But if like someone's going on and on and on and on, I like checkout.

Adam:
I can think of a moment or two when I've seen you do it. And I didn't realize that was what was happening. I'm like, oh, Mellody's lost interest. Now, as I hear you talk about it, I think it might be part of what makes you such a good problem solver; you have this laser-focus on whatever's urgent or important, and so the thing in front of you, isn't, you're going to go somewhere else.

Mellody:
First of all, part of what I react to is just brevity. Can you explain the issue in a way that I can understand? So I tell people all the time, I'm like, I'm really smart. I am not tracking. Like, what is the headline? Because I don't even know where you're going in this conversation. What are you leading me to? So if I'm in that kind of situation, I'm definitely starting to lose my focus, but I have to be more considerate. Like that's not an excuse. It's a shortcoming of mine and I need to be better because it makes people feel that I'm not interested and that's not a good thing.

BREAK

Adam:
Welcome back to Taken for Granted, and more of my conversation with Mellody Hobson.
Adam:
Well, let's talk about when somebody recognizes a weakness like that and says, “I need to be more considerate,” but then doesn't make the change. You've said that some people don't change until they're in pain. What's that about?

Mellody:
I learned that from Nancy Peretsman at Allen and company, she was on the board of Princeton with me and she said her mother was a psychologist. And her mother said that people don't change unless they're in pain. And it just stuck with me. I thought about the times that I had been in pain, that I had changed. And it's unfortunate that that's what does it to you. You see that in smokers who stopped smoking after getting cancer, run-ins with the law, whatever it might be. There are plenty of examples of that where change comes from feelings of great fear or pain.

The pandemic is a perfect example of that. We had to pivot in a major, major way. And you saw companies really not just survive but thrive. We asked a lot of people in this pandemic in terms of change and modifying behavior and it was something that I know didn't come easy for certain people, but the adaptation was necessary. So this was a people change when they're in pain.

Adam:
Yeah. I think one of the reasons people don't adapt is they're holding onto the past. And I know George has some advice for you and others on that, about what Jedis do and don't do.

Mellody:
Jedi's don't hold on. That is a very important concept that George had to teach me in a very sad moment where I'd lost an individual that worked at the firm. And I was just so sad and it was a young woman who had gone on to start her own business. And she was a superstar, so great and I poured my heart into her, and I thought she'd be running Aerial one day, and when she left I literally, I was choking back tears and George looked at me and he said, “Jedi, don't hold on. That's why they have no attachments and you're a Jedi master.” And it was like within a minute I processed that and then I thought of Sting and that song, if you love someone and you set them free, and I was like, I have to set her free. And it was really one of the most profound concepts for me that you can't hold onto people. You actually can't hold on to anything.

Adam:
I'm struck by a few things in that story. The first thing is when you started it, I thought you were talking about someone who died. I can hear the pain of loss in your voice. Like this person is no longer alive and like—nope—she just left my company. You care that much.

Mellody:
Well, she was special, And it was more about my loss as opposed to the game that she was going to have, which was pretty selfish and something that I had to reconcile myself with.

Adam:
Well, that goes to the other thing that jumped out at me that I think, especially new managers and leaders, fail to understand. Being a good boss is about investing in them, developing them and promoting them, even if it means promoting them out of the organization because you put their best interests above your own. And it sounds like that was what you had to realize.

Mellody:
That's the goal. The coach, one day he sat with me and he said, “Wouldn't it be great if you channeled all of your energy into other people's success? That's worth doing.” And so when I thought about all the opportunities I have had, I realized I've had enough in making it about other people, I found myself to be happier. And so when I thought about that situation with the former colleague, I remember just thinking it should be about her, and to the extent that I could help stand up other people that will make the firms so strong and great, and we will have such a great reputation. But it has to be genuine. This is not one of these things you can just fake. You have to believe it. At some point I felt like, in terms of how my life had turned out and all the miracles that had happened and the way the universe had conspired to create such opportunity for me, that I owed it to all these other people, to give them my energy, to move them forward because I had gotten so much. So I think it was the right approach. And he asked me that question in such a way that, again, it's how you are asked. Sometimes it's the moment, it's the frame of mind you're in, but it did create this sense of purpose for me in a different way at that point. And that sense of purpose has stuck.

Adam:
I think that's the hallmark of being a giver that you care as much about other people's success as your own, and maybe even more.

Mellody:
I don't know if I would define it as being a giver. I think I would define it as being someone who wanted to pay it forward. I see it as a debt.

Adam:
That's like a matchers theory of why it makes sense to be a giver; You have this cosmic balance sheet and you have to settle it.

Mellody:
Well, I do think that's true because at the end of the day, what do you have? Reputation. What did you do for others?

Adam:
You have often been the only black woman in the room. I hope that changes soon, but in the meantime, how have you navigated environments that are dominated by white men?

Mellody:
A friend once said to me, “You are not threatened, and non-threatening. You're kind, but you're not soft. And you're strong, but you're not tough. that is a real skill.” And I was like, “that sounds pretty great.”

Adam:
I'll take it.

Mellody:
That's an edge you live on. He's like you like dancing a pin on those things. There is a difference between being kind and soft, between being strong and tough, and then that non-threatening and not threatened. I was like, that's super important because a lot of times, especially black women, we get typecast as we're going to come in and be brutal. I meet with people and they're like, you're so much nicer than I thought you'd be. And I'm like, what were you expecting?
Living on that edge has been something that helped me in lots of settings where there weren't people like me. The other piece, this I heard in a funeral for John Johnson, the great American entrepreneur who started Ebony and jet magazine, Tom Joiner, the disc jockey, said in one of the eulogies, John Johnson was unapologetically black. And I remember sitting in the pew at Rockefeller chapel in Chicago and saying, that's what I want to be. And I want to be unapologetically a woman. I do not want to apologize for who I am. I want to own this person and this packaging. And I think in doing so I could be unafraid of being different. So I always joke with people. Yes. A lot of times I've been the only one in the room. Go to conferences, people come up to me, they call me by my name. I'm like, how did they even know my name? Then I I'm like, I could be like Beyonce or Cher. I'm the only one. I don't even need a last name. Somebody use all this to my advantage. I'm going to make sure that if I'm interacting with people, they remember me and they know. And so it was the composite of all those things, you can be non-threatening, but at the same time, you can be authentically who you are. And in my case, that's authentically black and a woman.

Adam:
Mission accomplished. You have been very vocal, and also put your money where your mouth is when it comes to changing some of the broken systems around race in this country. Tell me about what the future ought to look like to build anti-racist workplaces, universities, and other kinds of systems.

Mellody:
What the future looks like for me, I'll just articulate it the way that I articulated for my seven-year-old, because I think it's very simple.
When I grew up, my mother used to say to me, Mellody, you can be, or do anything. I believed her. I really did. And at the same time that she told me I could be or do anything, she also explained to me all the obstacles I would confront in life and why those obstacles could be no excuse to my success. My daughter is seven years old, mixed race. My black girl child, I say to her, Everest, you can be or do anything, but I want you to believe that's true of anyone and everyone. That's the difference. That you go out into the world, looking at all that is in front of you and believing what you believe for yourself is possible for any person. No matter what their color, sexual orientation, gender, et cetera, that it's possible for them. That is when we really turn the corner in the society.

Adam:
That's a beautiful vision. How can we get there sooner?

Mellody:
Well, it takes work. It takes us holding each other accountable. It takes making sure that I tell people in corporate America, you get what you incent, that we incent the right behavior. If diversity and inclusion is a strategic imperative, which is in all of the annual reports, then you have to treat it like one. All the other strategic imperatives around product launches and profitability targets and the like, so people should have incentives tied to those outcomes. You also should have targets. That's not quotas. There's a difference. In corporate America, we're very used to targets, we have earnings targets. Again, profits targets, et cetera. You have to have a goal or there's no way to meet it.

And last but not least you have to count. If you're trying to have a more diverse organization, then you need to measure ethnicity by group across categories. C-suite, middle management, rank and file. No putting everyone together in a multicultural umbrella, that's what they do. Here's our multicultural population, throw every ethnicity together. It masks under-representation. And so at the end of the day, holding yourself accountable, as we do to so many other things in corporate America, will allow us to get to a better place. It's not just about, people say, well, you have the Rooney rule and things like that, where maybe you say that, you know, all of your slates will be diverse. Well, there's science and math around that. I'm sure, you know, the studies in Colorado where they say you have to have more than one person on that slate that is diverse in order for the diverse person to have any chance of being selected. Then when they sit there on their own, they stand out too much and they look too risky.

And so when you have two, it looks more like, oh, well, you know, here's our slate and should we choose from these? So there are basic ways of getting there. And I'd focus obviously in this conversation in corporate America, but when it comes to people in my TED talk, I said, invite people in your life who don't look like you, who don't think like you, who don't act like you and who don't come from, where you come from. And I tell people, you can make a conscious decision to do that. You could actually go, and in your workforce invite people that you don't normally see or know to lunch, and not in some creepy, weird way. But in a way of just, you know, trying to foster knowledge and information. And then I ask the person who was invited to stay open-minded and give people the benefit of the doubt. What if we lived in a world where there was all benefit and no doubt that we could actually create a scenario where we understand people are going to ask questions that are difficult and they're going to put their foot in their mouth, but they're well-intentioned, or they're trying to learn or know more?

And they're imprecise and awkward in the exchange, as opposed to you being annoyed by it. I gave a talk to a group of students at Princeton once. And they were like, “We're tired, tired of people asking us, ‘Do [you] get sunburn?’ And ‘How do we wash our hair when we have braids?’”—all of that stuff. And I was like, listen, easier than picking cotton in a field. If that is the worst of your job right now, I think our ancestors had a harder, harder road to hoe here. So if part of your responsibility is to educate people about what it is like to be us, because we know so much more about them than they know about us, I think you're up to it.

Adam:
I love that. One of my big regrets in my career to date is that when I have seen moments like that, sometimes I haven't spoken up. What advice can you offer in closing to make sure that I stand by my values as opposed to shying away from the conflict?

Mellody:
People are counting on you. There's so much injustice. It is so wrong. And Martin Luther King talked about the silence of the good person. That's the killer. It's not the person who tells you who they are and what they believe that is directly in conflict with your beliefs. It is a person who won't stand up for what they believe that leaves everyone else dangling. They always think that it's about power and influence. And I always tell them Rosa parks just didn't get up, this is this regular person and she shifted a whole society. So instead of saying my voice doesn't matter, I'm not going to make a difference, understanding that collective can be a very, very powerful thing. That's what we saw in the wake of the George Floyd murder globally. It was a movement that is about everyday people being unafraid. They were marching in a pandemic. It's a very brave thing to do, that's a values-based moment I cannot sit and stand by. So, I would only ask you every time you have that moment and you know, in your mind you should speak, do it because you have a lot of power.

Adam:
Well, thank you, Mellody. You are one of the people who gives me courage. I learned so much from listening to you and watching you in action. And I just really appreciate you taking the time to share your wisdom today.

Mellody:
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Adam:
Taken for Granted is part of the TED Audio Collective. The show is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and is produced by TED with Transmitter Media.
Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O’Donnell, Constanza Gallardo, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by JoAnn DeLuna.