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future of work

How ‘onlyness’ makes us powerful

How can you bring an idea to life?

In her upcoming book, The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World, Nilofer Merchant argues that each of us has the potential to create value in our own way. Ladders spoke with Merchant about the importance of “onlyness” and how we can empower ourselves and work with others to create change.

Ladders: What is “onlyness” and what makes it so powerful?

Merchant: Every one of us has perspectives that come from own own histories and experiences, visions and hopes. Onlyness captures the idea that the way we create value in this modern economy is tied to our novel, original ideas.

Onlyness isn’t “talent” because talent is usually quantified. You usually say someone is talented if they have the right degree or pedigree. It’s also not “unique” because we use “unique” contextually. For example, if someone is the only young person in a room, we’ll say that’s what makes them “unique.”

So what is this thing that says that you’re standing in a spot in the world where only you can create value? Onlyness is the way that each of us gets to add our bit of value to the world.

Sixty-one percent of people give up, conform, and hide themselves at work. That means that many of us are leaving our ideas off the table when we show up. The cost is innovation.

How can we empower ourselves to pursue our ideas?

I’d like to point to the story of Franklin Leonard, a twenty-something who was frustrated by Hollywood. He kept noticing the same scripts, the same archetypes and profiles, over and over again. He thought that Hollywood should be reflecting all of humanity.

One day he wrote an email to his friends under a blind alias asking them to send him the scripts they really loved that weren’t getting attention, and he would share the data with them. He compiled a list, and then went on vacation.

When he came back, he found that this thing that he started had gone viral. People told him that his project was really great because it pointed out scripts they should and could invest in.

The lesson I learned from watching Franklin do this work was how much credence he gave his own ideas. Most of us think “Oh, it should be different,” and then we say, “but that will never work.”

The first part of claiming one’s onlyness is answering: how do you claim that thing that you believe can be done better? As soon as you find meaning in that, you’ll find that other people give a shit about the same thing. And that’s when you can actually start to create real change in the world.

What does onlyness teach us about problem solving?

I love the story of Talia Milgrom-Elcott, who runs an organization called 100Kin10, which is figuring out how to get 100,000 STEM teachers into public education in 10 years. This is an unbelievable task. Think about it: getting 100,000 teachers trained when nothing like that had ever happened.

She figured out first how to brute force it and get as many people as possible. After a while, she realized that most of those people would leave education as fast as they had come in. The reason we didn’t have STEM teachers before was because the education context they were going into didn’t help them thrive. She realized that she needed to fix more than just training; she needed to fix the entire education system.

She then did this profound thing: she said, “I don’t know how to do that. But I’m willing to create a safe space for us to learn together how to do that.” Today, the organization is well on its way to hit its goal.

The lesson to take away is that she could have said, “That’s too big; I can’t do it.” When she realized there was a deeper problem to solve, she could have walked away. Instead, she was willing to sit there in uncertainty and ask the people she worked with how they could do this better.

That’s how all of us could show up at work: to realize we don’t know and to own that with other people. We can say, “For the problems that really need solving, how can I come to you not with answers but with questions?”

How important is building relationships?

The key is to ask: how can you have relationships with the people with whom you have an idea in common? How do you find them? How do you work with them? How do you learn to lean on them? Those are the challenges we have to face when working with a team.

Ushahidi is an organization based in Nairobi, Kenya, that got its start building an online mapping tool that let people who were dealing with an election fallout signal that they were safe. The organization was faced with an interesting work challenge. The lead engineer came to the former CEO and said, “I have a completely different idea for the product.”

At first, the CEO didn’t think it was a good idea. But he realized that the way to stay vibrant is to let the people disrupt the system. So he said, “Sure, let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll fix it together.”

To me, that’s the key for how we’re going to work in the future. In this complex world, the focus should be on how we can learn together, even if that means we fail together and get up with great resilience to go on. We have to say, “We’re in the this together, and we should all feel empowered to shape the future, not based on rank or title but on passion.”

What’s the biggest lesson you learned?

For years, I used to watch people from stages, either as an attendee or a co-speaker. People give audiences similar advice: “Just go do it!” “Be braver!” “Show more grit!” “Be more confident!” It always struck me that that was an incomplete answer.

After studying onlyness, I realized that the reason that 61% of us are denying ourselves is not based on our boldness but on how we belong to one another. Until we understand how to be in relationships with one another, we don’t know how to be ourselves.