Staff Picks

The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World

Sally Haldorson

August 29, 2017


Nilofer Merchant’s message is so critical now, calling us to identify what is good in ourselves and to connect with what is good in others so that, together, we can dent the world.  

Two weeks ago, a group of Milwaukeeans gathered around a long table in the private dining area of a new hotel, Nilofer Merchant at the head. A warm summer night pushed up against the large windows stretched behind her, young couples walked dogs, cars parallel parked, the light slowly dimmed. A nervous excitement gathered in the room, circling like a Harry Potter ghost above the long table. This was a new kind of event for us at 800-CEO-READ to pull together—an author dinner via personal invite—and we hoped the outcome was satisfyingly inspiring for all.

Taking their seats was an eclectic group of social innovators from Milwaukee. While it might have been tempting to invite a smattering of the young professionals that make up some of the more edgy, work-share, start-up, coffee-klatch, network-over-a-craft-beer-wish-fulfillment groups that, don’t get me wrong, do great work in the city, we wanted to bring experienced, on-the-ground doers to the table. We welcomed those who, through their daily work, seek to educate, to teach, to serve, to inform, to champion those who face hard realities and yet continue to look for and create solutions to improve their lives. We welcomed champions of literacy, of the disabled, of urban housing, of racial repair and reconciliation, of education, of investment in passion projects to celebrate ethnic heritage, and those media voices who work to tell the story of all Milwaukeeans. And we were thankful they came.

Everyone at the table that night represented, in person, in passion, the concept that drives Nilofer Merchant’s new book: onlyness. Newly-coined terms can be a challenge to embrace. They feel slippery when you try to grab onto them, inexplicable once you do. When you are lucky enough to have Nilofer Merchant, warm and animated, in the room, physically embodying her concept, you have a leg up in understanding; but thank goodness everyone will have her new book, full of stories to illustrate the concept, full of connections to the real world, because The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World truly is a book for our times.

Let me pull back a moment to explain that last assertion, that The Power of Onlyness is a book for our times. The weekend before our author dinner, America watched as Charlottesville experienced a violent 48 hours, sparked by a clash of White Nationalists, rallying to “Unite the Right,” and counter-protesters that led to one death and many injuries. Since that weekend, the media, and our personal conversations, have masticated on all aspects of race in America, both historical and urgently now.

One such media piece I read last week was this GQ article written by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah about Dylann Roof, who, in July of 2015, killed 9 attendees of a prayer group in a church in Charleston. The telling will make you sad in your bones, but Roof’s story, and the victims’ stories, and the author’s story, makes very real the myriad challenges to making effective societal change. While not expressly about Charlottesville, the main players—race, class, violence, denial, progress, history, and fear—of so much of our current unrest are all fleshed out and made relevant in reflection. In response, we wonder if we, as one person amidst that din, can make a difference. We wonder if one step will truly add up, over time, to a thousand or a million steps toward progress. The Power of Onlyness says yes, emphatically, and we couldn’t need that kind of encouragement more.

Nilofer Merchant acknowledges that coining a term is a risky endeavor. When I spoke to her during her visit, she mentioned being pushed by an interviewer to “define” onlyness even when she’d just spent an hour talking about, you guessed it: onlyness. People generally like new words to get assimilated into our vocabulary organically. Text message shortcuts becoming similar verbal shortcuts is only one example. And some traditionalists don’t embrace any such assimilation at all. (Announcement of new words added to dictionaries are often met with horror.) Resistance to a new term is one thing; resistance to the term describing something “self-helpy” or “soft” or “unquantifiable” is equally common, and perhaps stronger. But, just as Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, or E.Q., eventually became a widely used phrase describing what was previously thought of as a “soft” personal quality—“In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels”—onlyness has the potential to change the way we think about people and the ideas they generate.

In her book, Nilofer explains that onlyness is a concept of value, and at it’s simplest, explains that onlyness means “anyone’s—quite possibly everyone’s—ideas matter....” Think about the myriad of scenarios in which we—as business leaders, managers, mothers, fathers, organizers, volunteers—ascribe value to individuals in a group of people gathered in a room. We listen to the folks who raise their hand, sit in the front row, speak louder than others, have an extensive vitae, can bring experience to bear. And, sure, those people often do contribute important ideas. But, what about those people who don’t step forward? Does that mean they have no ideas, or that their ideas aren’t of equal value?

Susan Cain, in her popular 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, sought to redefine our assumptions about introversion. She asserted that organizations miss out on the ideas of one-third of the population by placing more value on extrovert qualities, and not seeking the input of less assertive people, those who prefer solitude or individual endeavors. After all, she wrote: “There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”  

Similarly, Nilofer Merchant is asking us to look less at types of people, as Goleman did, or groups of people, as Cain did, and instead appreciate the individual as having a unique perspective that no one else can claim. From that position, your ideas are unique to you:


You’re standing in a spot in the world that only you stand in, a function of your history and experiences, visions, and hopes. From this spot where only you stand, you offer a distinct point of view, novel insights, and even groundbreaking ideas.


That seems obvious, right? Well, for those of us who, as I listed above, raise our hands, sit in the front row, speak louder than others, have an extensive vitae, can bring experience to bear, yes. But, as Nilofer explained during a local radio interview: “It’s the most ordinary idea in the world, and also the most revolutionary, depending on who you are.” For people who have been marginalized, those who don’t fit into the dominant narrative, onlyness is a foreign concept.

The “rules of power” or the “social constructs that shape and constrain who gets to bring ideas to the table” are not the same for all people, Merchant says, because “whenever you don’t fit into an existing category (or the category doesn’t exist), your ideas and freshness can all too easily be lost in a packaging-focused world.” One central story in the book is Merchant’s own. She speaks from a position of experience, both as a daughter of traditional Indian parents who expected her to conform rather than excel, and as a “brown woman” in business who is either overlooked or stereotyped.

Defining onlyness isn’t Merchant’s true pursuit here, and if I accomplish anything with this review, it is to move us away from the emphasis on terminology, and explore instead the book’s prescription for how we, each of us, can truly change the world. It would be remiss to think that this book comes from any perspective other than one of use. Merchant brings her 25 years of operating experience to help turn new ideas into new realities.

When Nilofer spoke at our dinner, we watched as she stood and physically illustrated the three important phases of onlyness by using her arms and hands to reenact the growth of a tree. First come the roots: your sense of self, your onlyness, bursting up from the ground to form the trunk (Part 1). Then come the branches: this is your unique idea spreading to your immediate community of like minds (Part 2). And then the leaves and fruit, the “galvanization” and “virality” of the idea (Part 3).

Merchant spends the first section of the book engaging us in a kind of preparatory self-empowerment exercise. To claim one’s only, you need to: define what your history and experience means to you, understand your social context, and value your full self. This is onlyness, and finding your story allows you to launch yourself out of that story, use it as a starting block for busting out and making a “dent,” as she very purposefully calls making an impact.


Remaining silent means you never have the opportunity to join and support something you believe in.


But certainly there are many people, similar to Cain’s introverts, who simply aren’t comfortable driving an idea, or becoming a magnet for other’s enthusiasms. And here is where, I believe, Merchant’s book truly starts to shine, because she offers alternatives to playing the role of hero.


It could be that your dent right now isn’t a thing to do, but a way to be, perhaps to find onlyness in people around you and help them to make their dent.


We can be conduits to change even when we haven’t the clarity or desire to make it ourselves. And for those of us who are less burdened by marginalization, or privileged enough to be in the position to expand the conversation, to be comfortable with the knowledge that all people have valuable ideas, the question is: how do we create safe spaces for all people to bring their onlyness to the table? “There’s systemic work that existing power players can do to unlock onlyness,” Merchant says. And to do that we need to redefine credentials, broaden qualifications, become self-aware of how we exclude others. The potential for change when we clear the barriers to entry, when we enable people to use their unique voice, is most potently felt from this point in the book.  “We each want to add value and be valued,” Merchant affirms, “We need to design systems to enable that.” The cost is little, the benefits unlimited.

Through onlyness, Merchant isn’t calling for a cacophony of voices, disparate and competing. Her book is not about individualism as much as it is about community. And that’s a surprisingly important aspect of The Power of Onlyness. Onlyness “is the first step to being powerful,” she insists, “The next is to find potential allies with whom you can join forces.”

In the second section of the book, Merchant shows how one person’s idea can act as an invitation to co-create. The image that comes to mind is a simple one: I extend my hand, another grasps it.  


Onlyness—the word itself—conjures up for some the idea of a singular hero. But the underlying power of it follows the duality inherent in the word “individual,” which is the smallest member of a group. An individual is therefore never isolated; he is always connected. Onlyness contains a similar duality: it is born of you and unites you meaningfully with others; it is the connected you.


An idea for ideas-sake will do little to dent the world. Or rather, one person with a distinctive vision can wield a hammer to drive a nail, but five, or ten, or two hundred people wielding hammers can build a house. “Community is central to onlyness,” Merchant explains, “for it enables you to progress from being the ‘only one’ to enlisting the strength and scale of a group.” Think about the marginalized person who, once claiming her onlyness, connects with others who believe in the same vision as she does. That onlyness isn’t lost; instead it is multiplied.

The third section of The Power of Onlyness is all about getting an idea to go viral, to gain thrust.


An idea is simply a steering wheel pointing to the future, and as such needs thrust and fuel to be realized. Thrust comes from the deep ties formed by many others wanting that idea to become a reality, and their collective action is the fuel that moves the idea into the stratosphere.


And it is in this section that Merchant stretches her own narrative beyond the confines of the self, beyond the walls of the organization, and proposes how onlyness can be a change agent for battling against greater societal ills. For instance, she offers a number of stories about how a kind of "crowd-sourcing" can lead to life-saving medical breakthroughs and cultural sea-change. To understand that better, let’s revisit the tree image that Merchant introduced at our company’s dinner event. First the roots and trunk and branches, now the leaves, the flower, the fruit. An inspired idea, supported by close relationships, thrust into the public for grand action—that’s where real change comes from.

As we’ve already reviewed, Merchant spends quite a bit of time in her book sculpting the kind of language she believes is needed for the conversation to become optimally inclusive. We can be individuals, but also communities. We can believe in a common purpose without requiring commonalities. We can claim our onlyness, without ostracizing otherness. We can think with nuance, problem-solve by holding the door open, and we can do this when we begin from a place of onlyness.  

And how timely. If onlyness was a concept embraced by every person, if we made room for every person's ideas, supported the ideas from every source, especially the marginalized, that we felt connection to, would we have less division now? After all, as Merchant so succinctly states:


Dissatisfaction with the status quo gives you a reason to leave, but not a place to go.


We have to look no further than our socio-political system to understand how out of hand the dichotomies in our culture have gotten. If individuals experienced a greater sense of value and belonging early in our lives, would we be less inclined to resort to violence or disruption to be heard? Would those who feel left behind in our country feel less marginalized? Would everyone understand that “Black Lives Matters,” one of the examples Merchant includes in her third section, always did include the word “too”?

“Imagine a world where a lot more of us can solve the problems we see,” Merchant encourages, “or build something only we can imagine.” And that’s why we invited a group of Milwaukee social innovators to meet with Nilofer Merchant over dinner the other night: to imagine more. The people around that table strive every day to amplify their personal passions, their wild ideas, to make change in our city. The Power of Onlyness, we believed, would offer fresh inspiration and a prescription for success when bringing people in this city together.


Onlyness offers a different path to unity—not by demographic but by purpose; it is a way to connect with people who have the same hopes and dreams but may not share a common history and experiences. This shift keeps the focus on the idea—not on competing personal identities—so it can grow mightier.


It’s that last line above that articulates just what makes Nilofer Merchant’s message so critical now. We are so often preoccupied by pointing out our personal differences that our ideas become imprisoned by our defensiveness, undernourished because we refuse them the fuel of other people’s wisdom. Merchant forces us to dig deep, into the book and ourselves, and it goes beyond self-knowledge and self-empowerment, obliterating the fear of otherness with an understanding of the onlyness of us all. The Power of Onlyness calls us to identify what is good in ourselves and to connect with what is good in others so that, together, we can indeed dent the world.  

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