Oprah. Oprah. Oprah.

I’ve been trying to act oh, so nonchalant about it, but my first column appeared over at Oprah.com …

It’s on the idea of personal reinvention, and specifically how do you find and claim your Onlyness. I’ll excerpt a bit here, and let you wander over to Oprah (did I say Oprah? I did!).com to see the full article.

In the search for our purpose, people are often told to look inside themselves. I don’t know about you, but for me, that feels a bit like looking into an abyss. It’s dark, and even though I know some important things are in there, finding anything requires groping around to find the shape and form of clues. Having reinvented what I do several times now, I’ve figured out how to do a search for “what’s next,” one that leads to clarity and momentum:

A. Name Your Invisibles

Several years ago, I was shutting down a company I had grown from scratch to be a several million dollar business. This meant starting over, which I conceptually had no problem with. I was, however, missing clues about what I could bring to a brand-new situation. I made a list of 10 people from varied backgrounds whose opinions I respected. Most of them had known me for some time, but not closely, which gave them perspective. I asked them to help name the things I was good at, or attributes they had observed.

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They named many things that were largely invisible to me—things I had taken for granted. For example, many of them pointed out my economics background and how I was often the person who spotted early the little things (the micro, in economic terms) that were signs of bigger trends (the macro). Some insights were positive, like “You honor the dignity of each person” and others less so, like “You are impatient.” Their comments illustrated different aspects of what made me utterly me. You see, each of us is standing in a spot no one else occupies. That unique viewpoint is born of our accumulated experience and perspective and our vision. This is your onlyness—the thing that only you can bring into a situation. You are getting others’ help to see and describe what you naturally bring to any situation, independent of prior roles.

Working with new editors is always illuminating. More on what I learned throught that process, later…

Before that, one request — if there is a natural question that follows this post (like does owning your onlyness lead to loneliness?), post it either here or on Oprah’s site and it will provide fodder for what I write next.

12 Responses:

  1. OHC Solutions (@ohcsolutions). May 20, 2013 at 10:52 am  |  

    Thank you for this excellent piece. Looking at onlyness from a leadership angle. Could onlyness be the core of authentic leadership?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. May 20, 2013 at 10:55 am  |  

      That’s a good one… Do you know of any leadership books that have talked about authenticity?

      Reply
      • OHC Solutions (@ohcsolutions). May 20, 2013 at 12:16 pm  |  

        Bill George’s True North is a good one.

        Reply
        • Nilofer Merchant. May 20, 2013 at 3:47 pm  |  

          thanks, that’s helpful!

          Reply
  2. Eric Nehrlich. May 21, 2013 at 11:28 am  |  

    I don’t know about loneliness, but pursuing a path of onlyness is difficult. I’ve been pursuing my own path for years, where I jump from function to function and career to career to build up a set of soft skills based in my multiple perspectives. It has worked out, but along the way, I’ve had many people question what I’m doing, and asking why I can’t just stick with doing one thing rather than bouncing around. And I actually had to brand myself as an “unrepentant generalist” to remind myself that I was explicitly rejecting specialization.

    People like putting others around them into boxes. And when you don’t fit into a box, you threaten their conceptions of the world and make them uncomfortable, and they often react by trying to force you harder back into the box. It’s difficult to have the strength to say “No, this is right for who I am, even though it doesn’t fit your preconceptions.” and the world does not generally support those who pursue onlyness.

    As we transition from an industrial mass-production world to a highly customizable one-off world, finding your onlyness is going to be ever more crucial. I only hope that our social norms evolve as well to support people in finding themselves rather than just finding a spot on an existing ladder.

    Reply
  3. Adam Miles. May 23, 2013 at 7:42 am  |  

    Great piece Nilofer and congratulations on working with Oprah! I learned as a student long ago at UC Davis that we “are” the intersection of who WE think we are and who OTHERS think we are so I love the concept of outside feedback from trusted but honest observers. The question would be: When there is conflict or differing views about my path ahead, how do I know which to apply more weight: who I want to be or who others think I should be?

    Reply
  4. sailaja. May 28, 2013 at 12:01 am  |  

    Insightful, thanks Nilofer =)

    Reply
  5. Michael Felberbaum. June 3, 2013 at 3:56 am  |  

    The question that comes to mind is whether onlyness matters. Playing Devils Advocate here to challenge the idea…just because I stand in a position no one else does does that imply I have something to offer? Onlyness frames as a matter of position what is more a matter of skill and intention, this might mislead people into thinking its easy when what you pay for it is all your fears. So is it the onlyness that matters or is it the courage to stand in your own shoes and reach out your hands?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. June 3, 2013 at 11:55 am  |  

      Hey Michael, from the very beginning the point of onlyness is this: it is not that everyone will,but that anyone can. Of course not all will. Today, most of the economy does not tap onlyness. It makes people cogs in a machine. This idea is a core idea in socialera rules book (in case you are interested in learning more..)

      Reply
      • Michael Felberbaum. June 3, 2013 at 1:40 pm  |  

        Thanks Nilofer. I look forward to learning more. The promise of attaining onlyness, if I’m understanding it from some of your earlier writings, is large part recognition of a singular starting point, the individual, and the importance of that individuality. Your example of finding ten people to interview for external feedback illustrates that sometimes the individuality is too close to see.

        Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    [...] ourselves, true and genuine. So let us be all that we are, our beautiful unique selves, sharing our onlyness with the world. And let us not wait for tomorrow, or next year, or in 2020. Let’s start right [...]

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    […] One of my favorite people in the world, Nilofer Merchant, describes this in her concept of Onlyness. She describes it like this: […]

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