The power of Onlyness – make your wild ideas mighty enough to dent the world….
The denting the world stuff is a very attractive concept to me. I enjoyed the Breaking Out book for the same reasons and tried to pursue John Butman’s ideas about identifying my fascination, creating a framework and breathing the idea with an audience.
In a sense Nilofer Merchant is making a framework for us all in this book and it is an inspiring read packed with case studies of minnows making their dent.
Onlyness is about identifying the thing that only you can be and only you can bring to the work we do together. To believe in this concept, you also need to believe that everyone you work with will be unique and offer useful and different contributions with different motivations – but that doesn’t mean we all need to work in isolation, or some ideas need to rise to the top. Merchant sets out to explore how people have made their dent, why each dent has motivated so deeply in them and to show us a structure for doing it ourselves.
Step 1 is about discovering your onlyness, the power of your own meaning. This is a combination of where you find yourself, your history and upbringing and what they gave you, and your particular passions. In contrast to John Butman, Merchant sees the whole as your uniqueness, not just the particular fascinations that have caused you to pursue ideas.
I have a sense that my onlyness is about South Australia. This is my home and I have made conscious decisions not to stay in other parts of the world, but to return here and entwine my pathway with its. Although my ideas and passions are about our energy transition, there are plenty of folk doing the same thinking as me – far fewer of them are concerned about how South Australia’s particular story pans out.
And Step 1 is not easy, it includes rejection and self doubt but at the end of the journey you know what matter and why. No one in the case studies found their onlyness easily and many found it difficult to accept that this was their work to do. At the end of the chapter she quotes J. Ruth Gendler,
Power made me a coat. For a long time, I kept it in the back of my closet…I didn’t like wearing it much, but I always took good care of it. When I first started wearing it again, it smelled like mothballs. As I wore it more, it started fitting better…
Finding your co-denters is step 2, the power of meaningful relationships. One of the best parts of this book (well for me at least) is the richness of references to studies on networks, leadership, followership and numerous other realms that help cast standard management studies into the theory of onlyness. The overarching message, though, is ‘only not lonely’. Good work is achieved together and working with the right peeps makes any project. You also need to understand how to work with people who don’t share your passion or beliefs as many different folk can be key to the changes you want to make in the world. Finally, building trust is a key to scale.
Part three is about making the dent, acting as one – meaningfully. Galvanising many to care, giving the commission to own it and allowing everyone to bring their onlyness. This section talks to the special type of leadership that people have shown in order to bring about changes that they care deeply about, because more people can usually make a bigger dent.
Overall, this book is inspiring for its instruction to everyone – to be unique and to use that uniqueness to make our own difference in the world. Read and enjoy.