"Through the power of onlyness, an individual conceives an idea born of his narrative, nurtures it with the help of a community that embraces it, and, through shared action, makes the idea powerful enough to dent the world."
In her first two books, Nilofer Merchant taught us how to “create business solutions through collaborative strategy” (The New How) and shared the 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era. Now she’s back with a new tome, The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World, where she’s striving to help us all discover our purpose and leave our unique imprint on the world.
“I had often wondered whether anyone could actually be eligible to have a shot at success, or whether people had to fit a particular profile to have their ideas be valued,” Merchant writes. “The tension between those two alternatives had profound effects in my own life, so let me share three stories of how I discovered my own onlyness.”
This summary focuses on how you can begin to define your onlyness for yourself, and then proceed to act on it.
Defining Your Onlyness
"…the journey that leads you to yourself doesn’t require knowing exactly where you’re going or a map outlining precisely how to get there."
It’s very likely that the path to defining—and realizing—your onlyness will be messy. It will probably leave you feeling vulnerable, and perhaps even scared. That’s invariably part of the process. As Merchant reminds us, “discovering purpose is exploratory and therefore leaves you especially vulnerable.”
Merchants says that there are three “skills that will enable you to discover your purpose”. They are:
- Notice – Become conscious of “what it is that you are drawn to, what matters to you.”
- Act big – “Don’t just be you, do you.”
- Act small – “Don’t give a damn what others think.” This forces you to tackle and vanquish fear head on.
In the GEMs below we’ll explore how questions (a component of noticing) are often the first step to defining your onlyness, and then how to take action.
The Power of Questions
"It’s when you encounter such questions—ones that you can’t answer, but can’t stop thinking about—that you also have the first clue to discovering what matters to you."
What’s the one question that’s keeping you up at night? That persecutes you throughout the day, and weasels itself into your mind at the most inconvenient times and doesn’t give you a moment’s peace? It’s highly likely that annoying question is the key to unlocking your onlyness.
That one question might seem highly unusual, and if it does, all the better. It means you’re onto something. André Delbecq wanted to explore spirituality in business, especially in terms of leadership. He was repeatedly told that “faith and fortune don’t mix”, but pursued his ambition anyway, and ultimately found his co-denters (those individuals who believe in your onlyness and will help you you achieve it). But isolating the question is just the beginning. “Give yourself permission to pursue the question you have, even if others might view it as a bit nuts,” Merchant advises. “Then, do the necessary work, even if you don’t know exactly how it will turn out. It’s in the process of doing that work that you become ready to make a dent.”
But what do I do, you might be asking yourself, if I don’t have a question that’s tormenting me night and day? Not all of us have that one question we can identify right now, and it’s very likely that it may come in time. As Merchant explains, often “it could be that your dent right now isn’t a thing to do, but a way to be, perhaps to find onlyness in people around you and help them to make their dent.”
Don’t Waste Time Navel-Gazing
"Devote the greater part of time and energy to action, because that’s when you discover what you care about, [and identify and] meet the people who can help you, to form the [basis] to be successful in the new thing."
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, Dictionary.com defines navel-gazing as “self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue, at the expense of a wider view.” We’ve all been reminded of the importance of introspection time and again. It is a valuable tool, but too much of it, especially in the context of realizing our onlyness, can be detrimental to action. When we’re naval-grazing we’re remaining firmly within the bounds of our comfort zone; we don’t learn anything and we don’t grow. As Merchant points out, “if you navel- gaze at the beginning, you won’t have any new information to parse, and your existing tribe will likely tell you, ‘That idea is too weird, too wild.’ Because for them, it is.”
If you need more impetus to get going, consider this sobering fact, and perhaps file it away for future reference: “powerful people actually take more action than those less powerful.”
The important thing is to make like Nike and just do it!
Nilofer Merchant’s The Power of Onlyness is a powerful reminder to each of us that, regardless of our position in the hierarchy, we all have the potential to make a dent in the world if we just take the time to harness our onlyness. I’d like to give the last word to the great Martha Graham, who Merchant quotes in the text: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.”
What is your onlyness?