Onlyness (The Topic and the Talk at TEDxHouston)

The first step to unlocking talent in the #SocialEra is celebrating something I’ve termed onlyness.

Onlyness is that thing that only that one individual can bring to a situation. It includes the journey and passions of each human. Onlyness is fundamentally about honoring each person: first as we view ourselves and second as we are valued. Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. Some of those experiences are not as “perfect” as we might want, but even those experiences are a source for what you create. For example, the person whose younger sibling has a disease might grow up to work in medicine to find the cure. The person who is obsessed with beautiful details might end up caring about industrial design and reinvent how we all use technology. The person who has grown up under oppression might end up advocating for freedom of speech and thus advance the condition of his country. This individual onlyness is the fuel of vast creativity, innovations, and adaptability.Speaking at TEDxHouston_niloferMerchant

Someone can be (for example) only woman in a crowd, but this is not her onlyness. In this case, she is unique because of the context. Onlyness may be present in that story, but onlyness is not a relative thing. It more about what makes that person unique based on their own story, or their “through-line” of their own story, their own narrative. I am trying to point out the inherent source of each person.

Embracing onlyness means that, as contributors, we must embrace our history, not deny it. This includes both our “dark” and our “light” sides. Because when we deny our history, vision, perspective, we are also denying a unique point of view, that which only we can bring to the situation. Each onlyness is essential for solving new problems, as well as for finding new solutions to old problems. Without it, people are simply cogs in a machine – dispensable and undervalued – and we’re back to the 800-pound gorilla approach in organizations (and our economy). With it, gazelles [employees, community members, and partners] are singularly unique and able to contribute meaningfully.

Now, this fall I gave a great many talks, and I learned a lot in the process. This talk that follows is on Onlyness and is — by far — my FAVORITE (and quite possibly the best — if I put my humility aside for a second) talk I’ve ever given. Not only is the topic one I care about deeply, it resonates because it speaks to a universal truth. Which is this:

It’s not that everyone will, but that anyone can contribute.

And until we celebrate onlyness, we are not honoring the person. And, until you unlock your onlyness, you are not fully alive. And, collectively, until we honor onlyness, we are limiting ourselves, our organizations and our economies.

57 Responses:

  1. Jay. January 17, 2013 at 6:53 pm  |  

    Good talk.

    I will remember to ask what is person’s pattern recognition so I know.

  2. Marie Cameron. January 18, 2013 at 7:45 pm  |  

    I was very impressed with myself that I knew about V. C. pattern recognition (I guess I’ve lived in the Silicon valley long enough )! As an artist pattern recognition artist is a positive thing but we hardly use it to the exclusion of all the fabulousity at our disposal. Love the talk on Onlyness. As artists we live by it – I guess our secret is out and it’s certainly worth sharing!

  3. Todd. January 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm  |  

    How incredibly brave of you to throw the last 4 minutes open to the crowd. The risk was worth the reward…

  4. Marise Lehto. February 26, 2013 at 8:36 am  |  

    Thank you Nilofer for such a fantastic post. Having just recently found my ‘key’ and unlocking my ‘onlyness’ it really resonated with me. The ‘onlyness’ concept is one that also supports the notion that ‘reflection in’ and ‘reflection on’ our actions/experience can also promote better leadership practices – and in so doing – perhaps delimit our organisations and celebrate leadership at all levels!

  5. Hugh. October 22, 2013 at 9:09 am  |  

    I recently read an article attempting to apply the Onlyness concept to brands and social media. My takeaway from Nilofer’s talk is that this “philosophy” is directed at, and applies to, human beings, not Inanimate objects attempting to exhibit human traits. Am I wrong? I’d be curious to hear how Nilofer would respond to this application of her concept.

    • Nilofer Merchant. October 22, 2013 at 11:25 am  |  

      Hugh –

      Yes, I’ve seen people try and apply onlyness concept to brands. How can a brand have an onlyness idea — onlyness says “each of us is standing in a spot ONLY YOU occupy” — a product of YOUR history and experiences, visions and hopes. It is a point of view. It is inherently personal not corporate. So while I get the desire and almost compulsion to apply it to marketing stuff, I wouldn’t. When I think of the parallel concept for a business organization, I want to use the term Purpose. Why are you doing what you are doing — and ideally what is it you want to achieve / change in then world that your customers ALSO want to do. Then you are aligned — and chasing a vision of the future. It also creates a certain centrific force within an organization to know why you collectively care. Thus individual onlyness can be tied to an organizational purpose / reason for being.

      • Hugh. October 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm  |  

        Thanks Nilofer for clarifying the issue. I’m relieved to see you differentiate between humans and objects seeking to be human-like. It’s a critical distinction that we must be careful not to blur.

  6. Tanveer Naseer. January 23, 2014 at 1:10 pm  |  

    Hi Nilofer,

    In reading your piece, I was reminded of this saying from the Zulu language – “Umuntu ngumuntu nagobantu” – which means “a person is a person because of the other person”. In other words, as you point out, who we are and what we can contribute – whether it’s to an idea, a concept, a cause, or even a conversation – should not be limited by what we are; that is, the things we were born with and of.

    Instead, what we contribute is a reflection of our life experiences framed within the native talents and creativity, experiences which we’ve had as a result of the people who surround us.

    A thought-provoking idea, Nilofer. Thanks for pointing it out.

    • Jennifer Sandoval. March 18, 2015 at 6:24 pm  |  

      Tanveer – I love your thoughts on the interconnectedness of our onlyness – they are a reflection of our life experiences, native talents, and the people who surround us…and our onlyness is connected to another’s onlyness, which helps us feel less alone. :)

  7. geoff. July 14, 2014 at 10:57 am  |  

    I thought it was interesting that people had an onlyness by the end of the talk. I’ve been thinking a lot about myself and who I am as a person, and I have no idea. I truly expected someone to say “I have no idea.” Maybe they are the ones that stay quiet since no one wants to admit they don’t know. Personally, I have no idea what my onlyness is…

    • Nilofer Merchant. July 16, 2014 at 7:25 am  |  

      Would you like to? I can offer some ideas to help you discover.

      • geoff. July 16, 2014 at 7:44 am  |  

        Oh, heck yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am, where my life is, where I’m going, and should I be there? So, yes, suggestions welcome.

        • nilofermerchant. July 16, 2014 at 8:28 am  |  

          Let’s move to email and brainstorm strategies. Afterwards, assuming you’re okay with this, we can also share what worked, what didn’t and so on.

          • geoff. July 16, 2014 at 8:35 am  |  

            Sure. Can you get my email from the post or do I need to post it? (I’d rather not post it if I can help it.)

          • Nilofer Merchant. July 24, 2014 at 9:54 am  |  

            I hope you got my email?

          • geoff. July 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm  |  

            Umm, no actually I didn’t get your email. :(

            I have been thinking about this though. If I had to choose something, I guess I’d have to say “Idea Collector” Not just ideas, but concepts, beliefs and faiths. Anything a person might use to identify who they are.

            I’m still very interested in hearing your ideas. I’m baldmountain on just about all the social networks: Twitter, Instagram, even gmail.


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