The Power of Onlyness

“I believe that at the root of our humanity is a passion to create value with heart, to work alongside others who care, and to make a difference.”
– Nilofer Merchant

Ranked #22 on the 2017 Thinkers50 global ranking of management gurus, Nilofer Merchant has launched over 100 products that have generated nearly $2 billion in sales. She’s a published author who thinks deeply about strategies, frameworks, and cultural values. Her latest book is a clarion call to identify, embrace, and actuate our distinctiveness in a way that promotes the common good. She titled it The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.

Ms. Merchant shares her perspective on onlyness within the context of inspirational narratives (including her own). The successes generally adhere to the following story arc:

Individuals tap into ideas or issues that prove deeply meaningful. Their histories, backgrounds, and surroundings influence what they notice and what evokes their response. When an idea or issue comes to the fore and ignites passion, it gives clarity of purpose going forward.

Individuals bring their distinct gifts, skills, experiences, passions, and insights to the enterprise. They value themselves for who they are, just as they are, without getting tripped up by what other people think. They simply focus on doing what they can. This orientation toward action confers its own reward. As Ms. Merchant says, “discovering yourself is a function of being yourself.”

the power of onlynessThey align with others who share their passions, purpose, goals, and values. Ms. Merchant argues that onlyness does NOT result in loneliness. Quite the contrary! Cultivating community transforms the individual from being the “only one” who gives voice to an idea or issue into a powerful force for change based on the scale and strength of the collective. Finding community may take time and effort. Social media helps! It may also mean letting loose the bonds with other communities for which the pressure to conform has proven stifling. Yet it promises the freedom to feel deeply attached to the world and others while standing firm in one’s own beliefs and ideas.

They invest the time and energy to forge trusted, cohesive communities. Such communities balance the distinctive ideas and contributions of the individuals with the overarching mission and goals of the collective. They forge trust. Ms. Merchant writes:

“To move an idea into reality, everyone involved with it needs to know how to be curious enough to discover the right problems to solve. They need to listen to one another as options are explored, and be vulnerable enough to accept help from one another. Also, they need to tussle together on tough decisions so that, ultimately, they can lean on one another as they prepare to move into action.”

They commit to taking effective action. They build frameworks that enable individuals to contribute based on what they see while ensuring that the end results contribute responsibly to the overarching purpose. They foster collaboration using all relevant technology and make sure there’s ample room for in-person gatherings. They give ideas room to grow without suffocating them with unrealistic expectations or a mandate to be “successful.” To that end, side projects and extracurricular activities can provide relatively low-risk testing grounds.

Mr. Merchant warns that the road ahead may not be clear, and the journey may take a number of twists and turns. That’s OK! As she says: “Until you do the actual work, the strength and specificity of your goal will not become clear – to you or to others.”

While Ms. Merchant’s book contemplates making a dent in the world, I find the concepts germane to crafting one’s life plan. It argues for spirited and intentional exploration rather than adhering to a conventional road map. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”