The Power of Onlyness, by Nilofer Merchant

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When I met Nilofer Merchant at a Seth Godin workshop several years ago, I was impressed by her presence and her clarity of thinking on the emerging social-network-based world. I finally got around to reading her latest book, The Power of Onlyness, where she makes the emphatic case that each of us has the power to change the world if we embrace what makes us unique. We will not achieve that power by following in the paths of others, but by acknowledging that “from the spot where only you stand, you offer a distinct point of view, novel insights, and even groundbreaking ideas. Now that you can grow and realize those ideas through the power of networks, you have a new lever to move the world.”

The book reinforces that message by sharing wonderful stories of people who embraced their “onlyness” to shift the world, from the LGBTQ-supporting boys who convinced the Boy Scouts to change their discriminatory policies, to the woman who started Black Girls Code so that her daughter didn’t feel excluded at coding camps, to the Pakistani woman who used her documentary film making skills to influence Pakistani tribal culture to turn away from using girls as reconciliation payments. Merchant doesn’t hold them up as extraordinary unattainable ideals, but as people who had a vision of the way things should be, and decided that they were going to work to change the world in the direction of their vision. Their experiences and background made them uniquely qualified to tackle their particular challenge…and Merchant asks each of her readers to seek out the challenge that they are uniquely qualified to tackle in the world.

However, finding that challenge is difficult, as it is not as simple as following a well-worn path. It is more like tracking an animal in the wilderness, where you are looking for tiny signs in the environment that you are moving in the right direction. As Merchant puts it, “instead of a map, then, which offers directions to well-blazed trails, you need a guide that will help you to navigate a topography of newness. For this, you’ll need the skills of navigation, and the tools of orienteering, to head into uncharted territory, where you’ll discover your own path.” Once you have an idea of your particular path, Merchant exhorts you to do “what you can”. It’s not about finding the “right” choice, but about finding a way for you to overcome your fear of not fitting in, and to contribute from where you are.

After finding the purpose with which you want to engage, the next step in changing the world is to build a community that is aligned with you in that purpose (as opposed to a community that is interest-driven or neighborhood- or identity-based). As I mentioned in my Find the Others post, that first requires signaling your purpose to the world. That will allow others interested in the same challenge or purpose to find you and follow you. And once you have enough people aligned on a single purpose, anything might be possible.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead

This sort of purpose-driven community can only be built on trust, as Merchant points out in her chapter titled “Without Trust, You Don’t Scale”. She refers to the trust equation created by Charles H. Green, which suggests that trust is built on “credibility (can you), reliability (will you), and intimacy (we get where each other is coming from) in the numerator, but the one that can undercut it all is in the denominator, which is self-orientation (will you choose yourself over us?)”. The community will look to its leaders to see if they are living into the community ideals, and if they do, the community will grow as people are willing to commit more of themselves to the community.

Once you have built trust within the community, the next step is to let go, and let each part of the community have “the power to add its own value and to take its own share of responsibility”. She calls this “distributed work” (as opposed to a centralized structure or even a decentralized structure where the global structure is replicated in each region), where each person is trusted to own the work. The more they are trusted, the more responsibility they take for the cause, and the more they will put their own resources and reputation on the line to advance the cause. Each act of leadership and ownership from a community member has a synergistic effect of inspiring others to put more into the community, which is how a purpose-driven community can grow beyond the founder’s wildest dreams.

I love Merchant’s model of Onlyness where “You will claim an idea, find allies with a common purpose, and doggedly organize together to make a dent in the world, all because you, collectively, dream of a better way.” And that “When your life has meaning, it is because you have defined that meaning.” I am inspired by her vision of each of us having the opportunity to make a dent in the world in a way that is uniquely tied to our own experience and meaning.

But her vision also intimidatingly suggests that what is standing in the way of me making a difference in the world is either not being clear on what I want to change, or on not taking the first step to do something about it: “Until you do the actual work, the strength and specificity of your goal will not become clear – to you or to others. Until you do the work, you won’t know yourself well enough to signal your mission clearly, which will be a key factor in finding and recruiting your fellow dent makers.” So, to echo a previous post of mine, what will you do differently?

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