It was 1986. The aroma of my mother’s biryani, a chicken rice dish spiced with masala, greeted me as I returned home from my day of classes at the local community college. So did all my aunties and uncles. The whole family had gathered to celebrate: My marriage had been arranged. I was 18 years old.
Despite living in the U.S. since I was four and a half, my “job” in my Indian family was to “marry well” in exchange for a dowry. I had fully accepted this fate, but had asked (and asked and asked) for one thing, for myself; that I could finish college first. I knew an education was the key for me to set my own direction in life, and though that opportunity was typically reserved for boys in Indian families, I wanted it, too. Since my father was long out of the picture, my uncle was negotiating the marital arrangements, and the first thing I asked him was if he had discussed my education with the groom. He told me that he hadn’t — because my mother hadn’t allowed him to. She had other priorities. She was negotiating for a house of her own, to ensure that her future was provided for. Out of respect, I waited until the extended family left before I made my case to her. But she was having none of it.
In that moment, I felt inconsequential, invisible — the people I loved had heard me, but then found me unworthy of actually being listened to.
Grabbing a cardboard box from the kitchen, theatrically filling it with my college books and just one outfit (but, mind you, not my toothbrush), I began pleading with my mom: “I am the product. You cannot do the deal without me. Please change your mind.” I walked out the door not knowing where I was headed, only deciding as I reached the end of the driveway to go to the local donut shop.
“If you’re seen by your silhouette, not your soul, the world will never get what you have to offer.”
An apple fritter and a donut hole later, I called home. But my mother wouldn’t relent. Having made a stand, she wasn’t going to back down — and I wasn’t going to, either. I’d found a place to stay the night, at a friend’s. Surely she’d agree by the next morning, or possibly in a couple of days. But nearly 30 years have passed, and that time never came.
Because of my refusal to do as my mother wished, I was disowned; entirely cut off from my family and the community I loved.
What was hardest to see then was that my family and our Indian community of friends didn’t see me as the individual “Nilofer,” with her own distinct history and experience, visions and hopes. They saw me instead as little more than a silhouette in the shape of an Islamic Indian woman; an indistinct stock character, a stock character with little power, no less. They certainly didn’t see that I had the potential to become a businesswoman who’d spend 25 years launching 100 different innovative products and working with the biggest companies around the globe. They didn’t see that I would shape and win a major battle with Microsoft to rescue Symantec’s $2.1 billion business from destruction. They didn’t see that I would be worthy of being called a “visionary” by CNBC, that I would be a recipient of the 2013 Thinkers50 Future Thinker Award, designating a person likely to influence the future of management in both theory and practice. And they certainly didn’t see that I could help reform community colleges out of an outdated mode of trade school to provide the most cost-effective access point to a college education.
But those things would take a while to come.
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While still attending college — the same education I valued more than anything, and the one I’d almost been denied — I landed an administrative assistant position at Apple supporting a small strategy team. One day, the team said they were holding a brainstorm to come up with ideas for a big business problem, the specifics of which still elude me to this day. I remember how thrilled I was to be included — and, determined to carry my weight, I researched the problem, making a list of questions to ask and potential ways to tackle the challenge.
But once in the meeting, it only took a minute or two to realize: no one was making eye contact with me. I was, once again, invisible to those around me; but this time, it was because I was a low-status, under-credentialed admin who didn’t have an MBA. And while I can’t actually know if my ideas were any good, what I do know for sure is that the people in the meeting had no interest in even hearing them.
Now, I know that this feeling of invisibility wasn’t just in my head.
In 2017, researchers Adam Galinsky and Joe C. Magee of Columbia University gave language to this dynamic when they published an article about how power and status act as self-reinforcing loops: How much status a person has directly affects whether their ideas are heard. So, if you’re high status (the boss of the PTA, a legacy student applying to a top-notch school, or a man in almost any context), you and your ideas are met with greater receptivity starting early on, and thus get the time and emotional support to develop nascent ideas into more complete and robust ideas. That, in turn, leads to more results, which then further boosts your status. Loop de loop — up and up you go.
“Onlyness is fundamentally about honoring and appreciating each and every person. It includes us all.”
Equally, if you’re a person of relatively low status — because you lack a pedigree or credentials, or you’re old or a woman, or young or a person of color (I was many of these) — the likelihood is you’ll get none of the same support. If you lack status, you’ll likely be told your idea is either too risky or just weird, either too far ahead of the market or passé, or — the one my friends hear the most — that it is “too much” (whatever that means). You’re rendered invisible.
Again, it’s not because an idea was weighed and deemed unworthy, but because it came from a person who was deemed relatively powerless, and therefore unworthy of being seen or heard.
But here’s the irony.
Originality — the quality of being novel or unusual — is widely celebrated and understood as the basis of innovation. Yet so many of us (in fact, the vast majority of us), because of our present low-ranking status, are not seen for what we specifically and distinctly offer. We’re not only often invisible, when we are seen it’s through the lens of an “other.” This otherness denies you and your truth and your ideas, it takes away what you distinctly bring to the table, and it keeps strong, innovative, valuable employees from being heard. When you’re “otherized” you’re seen only by comparison with those already in charge; you’re seen as “different.” And different, in these conventional work settings, is not considered good.
Yet most of the popular, go-to books and theories on innovation — books like “Originals,” “Outliers,” “Where Good Ideas Come From,” or “The Evolution of Everything” — largely ignore this power and status dynamic. Don’t get me wrong; these works are valuable. But they also overlook a massive elephant in the room — bias — that well over 50% of people face.
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So, how do we characterize a more inclusive form of innovation, which can’t be otherized?
Well, let’s start with what it is. Each of us stands in a spot in the world only we stand in, with our own specific set of history and experiences, visions and hopes. This spot is singular and distinct, one no one else occupies and the source of all new ideas. It is never comparative or relative, but contributive. From our spots, each of us is then able to give or supply our bit to the world. This applies even if some of our experiences are not as “perfect” as we would want; because they are still perfectly ours, and thus exactly right as a source for what each of us creates.
I call this phenomenon “onlyness,” and last year, I wrote a book about it, called “The Power of Onlyness.”
Your onlyness starts from that place you are born into, including your family and faith, gender, race, and even language. This is your “vertical” identity, where the story starts. But onlyness also includes your visions and hopes, those things you care about or yearn for, even if you can’t name them, and especially if others don’t see what you see. It could be a passion for education (like my early story), or wanting to use your skills to bring new voices to market, or even something as grand yet nebulous as working toward world peace. Since it’s the horizon you’re aiming for, this part of onlyness is a “horizontal” identity — it’s how the story advances.
“Changing context changed my capacity to be seen, to be heard. This is how agency works.”
Onlyness is fundamentally about honoring and appreciating each and every person. It includes us all. First, as we value ourselves, and second as we are valued. Onlyness is the fuel of vast creativity, innovations, and adaptability. It’s an inclusive framework that argues that each of us — maybe even all 7.5 billion of us on this earth — is worthy of being seen and heard and fully capable of offering something of value to the world.
Yet shifting to this new frame isn’t easy. Because it means addressing how pervasive bias is, and bias is often unconscious (though plenty of fully conscious prejudice is also still at play). Bias unconsciously intended doesn’t make it any less harmful. For example, a comment toward a pregnant woman asking if she’ll return to work can take on a determinative quality: To “help” her, she is given “less taxing” roles, which are actually lower-status and less-career-enhancing, and that leave her so unsatisfied that she decides to stay at home with the baby. The domineering white male who cuts off his younger colleague mid-sentence is often viewed as just being his usual forceful self, but is actually reducing the chance of fresh ideas being seen and heard, so his loudmouthedness is also his way of keeping his power position and maintaining the status quo. A boss who introduces his new employee as a “two-fer” as a way of characterizing that the person is both a woman and a person of color; by pointing out her difference rather than what she distinctly brings, others her and sets her up to be and feel isolated and alone. And so on. And so on. There is no end to the obstructions our current biased framework creates.
These often get discussed as if it’s about how someone feels, but what’s more insidious is how ideas and one’s capacity to add value are consistently and repeatedly — even systemically — being shot down.
Research conducted by Christie Smith at Deloitte found that 61% of people “cover” this way at work, hiding what makes them distinct, finding ways to fit in rather than bring forward their originality and their fresh takes and ideas. Noticeably, Smith’s research says it’s not just the traditionally underserved and underseen groups — women, people of color, those in the LGBTQ community, etc. — that “cover”; 45% of white men do it, too. It’s a new dad who doesn’t feel comfortable saying that he’d like to spend the first few weeks of his child’s life to bond, and so conforms to “alpha male” expectations. It’s the deeply religious person, who hides their observance in their OOO message and so tries to hide his values and thus himself from his colleagues. It’s the young person who wears glasses he doesn’t need to appear more experienced, as if acting out a part rather than being himself.
Those who are screened out as “others” bear the brunt of biased frameworks, but all of us inhabiting lower rungs of power feel bias’s harsh sting.
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All of this still leaves us with a problem: How does one get beyond bias from others or internalized bias, in order to actually change things up … so that ideas born of onlyness get to count?
Some would suggest a “just do it” approach. After all, when icons like Malcolm Gladwell ignore the bias issue in talking about the role of outliers in innovation, one could easily believe success is just a matter of working harder, of grit, of using one’s voice more effectively. This sounds reasonable, until you realize that an overwhelming amount of research shows that there is a severe penalty and backlash for those who speak up when they lack status. For the vast majority of us, to “lean in” is to take on a suicide mission. If not for our careers, certainly to our spirit.
So how to change things.
Remember when I walked down that family driveway to head to the carboland of donuts? I didn’t know what would happen next. How, after a few days of couch surfing, I would open up to my dean of admissions about what was going on, and that he would so strongly share my belief that education was for all, not just the boys, that he would act on it. I couldn’t foresee how he would endorse me to line up a few flexible jobs on campus: a Friday afternoon accounting gig at the history museum, ushering at the theater on Saturday nights, a programming project in the office of matriculation that could be done in a few hours between classes. How he would vouch for me at the bursar’s office to get me 500 bucks so I could rent a room of my own. As I claimed what mattered to me, I found the community to whom I belonged. In fact, this community was always there, but it wasn’t until I fully showed up, committed to what turned out to be our shared purpose, that it became clear that they were mine, and I was theirs. We belonged to one another. With them, I wasn’t the silhouette of Indian/woman/Islamic. I was simply myself. I was seen as Nilofer, a person who wanted an education so I could steer the course of my own life.
“I wasn’t the silhouette of Indian/woman/Islamic. I was simply myself.”
Changing context changed my capacity to be seen, to be heard. This is how agency works — it is the capacity of individuals to act and thereby direct their own life. But agency, despite being called personal, is not just an act of willpower, or a solo act. Agentic capacity is also shaped by one’s context, one’s community. Success is talked of as if it’s just a lucky mix of talented ideas and hard work. But success is nearly always about the structural and social context into which those ideas are seen and, thus, actualized. With belonging, your ideas can be seen and can grow, and eventually, maybe even become powerful enough to change the world.
A lot has been written about how the internet has revolutionized and democratized ideas. That it offers a “new power.” What is more true is that the internet makes efficient what was once laborious, so that more white males — those who already have all the power — can make money. It is this “new power” that allows a company like Facebook to have some 500 million people share information (for free), so that one white guy and his mostly white male board continuously make money while repeatedly apologizing and taking virtually no responsibility for how the platform is destroying our collective democracy.
So, no — the internet has not automatically democratized ideas. So what does it do? It enables you to more efficiently structure your surroundings, without changing location. If you’re students at Parkland who have survived a horrific school shooting, you can update the phrase #NeverAgain and expand the national conversation from a little school in Florida, and change a conversation which the NRA has long-controlled. The internet allows you to find, bond, and act with your people, those with whom you share a purpose — and this set of trusted bonds is the scaffolding and social structure that matters. Why? Because it enables agency. And this is the reason we, as humans, can finally make the choice we’ve wanted to make all along.
Research from sociology, psychology, and anthropology has consistently shown that when individuals are in the position of being the “only one” in a group with a different norm, we will be pressured to conform to it. In many respects, conformity is not a choice — but simply a matter of survival. If we have to pick between our ideas and belonging — the most fundamental of human psychological needs — belonging always wins. Every. Darn. Time. But now, thanks to this connectivity, you can be true to yourself, your onlyness, and belong. This new capacity resolves a tension thousands of years old. Finding, bonding, and acting with your people — this is what matters. It gives us the social context to live into our onlyness. With shared onlyness, you are never lonely. And that’s why it would be inaccurate to describe this as a “new power” for individuals. It’s actually about a change in structure which offers a new pathway, so that all originality, or onlyness, can be celebrated.
This social structure gives us choices we’ve not had before. It allows us to stop trying to be heard by a culture that doesn’t want to hear us. It allows us to stop knocking on the door of the castle, begging to be let in. It allows us to stop trying to change patriarchal sexist cultures from within, and acknowledge they don’t want to be changed — because we can, instead, go where we are seen. We can build trusted networks of people with whom we can build newness. We can act as one without giving up originality. Leaving is often characterized as giving up. We’ve told ourselves (and been told) to use our voice to change things. But the data would suggest otherwise. So let’s try something new.
Whoever surrounds us, affects us. So the answer to being fully ourselves, to offering our onlyness to the world? It is not the symmetrically balanced notion of “you be you,” or the supremely Instagrammable idea of “always hustling,” but instead, to answer the far more complex, rich, and satisfying question, “To whom do you belong?”
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People often think it’s OK if an idea gets shot down, because that idea will manifest through someone else. But that denies how fresh ideas actually come to change the world. The fact is, you are the only one who sees what you distinctly see. It grows out of your specific blend of history and experience, visions and hopes. Your onlyness.
The wildly creative choreographer Martha Graham once said, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.”
“Before we can solve our problems, we need to celebrate the capacity each of us has to add our bit to the world.”
If you’re seen by your silhouette and not your soul, the world will never get what you have to offer. And we will lose it, too. So we need you to find that social context that enlivens you, that gives you the space for your ideas to grow and have their proverbial shot.
Those of us who’ve been otherized actually hold the keys to the breakthroughs the world so desperately needs. That’s not an overstatement. Karim R. Lakhani, a Harvard-based open innovation professor, and Lars Bo Jeppesen, of the Copenhagen Business School, did some research, opening up 166 previously-unsolved scientific problems from the research laboratories of 26 firms to over 80,000 independent scientists around the world. The new players were able to solve one-third of the problems that the research laboratories were unable to solve internally. One-third. Those are new solutions that were previously non-existent. And who were these creative innovators? The research described that “social marginality” played an important role in explaining individual success. Nearly 100% of the solution creators came from women and other underseen groups, what the researchers described by the comparative language of “left field,” but we could (and would and should) call onlyness. Because we recognize the value of that distinct spot in the world in which each of us stands.
The answers to so many things humanity most needs — from curing cancer or Alzheimer’s, to building livable cities and working societies, to fill-in-the-blank-to-whatever-you-deeply-care-about — are close at hand. But to get those solutions, we need to celebrate the capacity each of us has to add our bit to the world.
So, let’s do it. It might just save us all.
Nilofer Merchant is an author, most recently of “The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.” She’s also a Fellow of the Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management and has previously taught at Stanford at Santa Clara University.