What Color Is My Weird? (How to Find Your Onlyness, Part I)

The first in a three-part conversation from a Yes & Know reader.

“Personally, I have no idea what my Onlyness is.” A new commenter appeared on my blog, sounding equal parts friendly, and plaintive.

“Do you want to?” I wrote back.

And that’s how Geoff Clements, whom I later learned had been reading Yes & Know for some time, launched a conversation that continues to this day. He’s a Massachusetts native, a software engineer for Kayak, a husband, and a father. This exchange gets to an important question I’m chasing right now.

But let’s back up a smidge.

The TEDx Houston talk on Onlyness was posted January, 2013. It was my first talk on the topic. It publicly affirmed what I believe to be the only guaranteed way to unleash human potential in the digital age: Onlyness. It’s not that everyone will, but that anyone can contribute. Onlyness is that thing that only that you can bring to a situation, the collective combination of all your experiences, hopes, dreams, achievements, setbacks, meanderings and accidents of birth. It is not a philosophy or a made-up theorem. It’s a catalyst of ideas, in human form. I believe that 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 our selves, our organizations and our economies.

At the end of my talk, I asked the audience to share if they wanted — their Onlyness — with the group. (Which, I now recognize, is too-big a question to ask in a big forum, with only a few minutes chance for exchange. But the connection around the idea still happened, with great laughter, and continues. )

Geoff stumbled upon the video in July, 2014 – about a year and a half after it was public – and got my attention with this comment:

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…

He gets a big thing right – this is way harder than it looks. And this shouldn’t surprise any of us. Why is that? Because the tools our cultures offer for personal clarity around purpose or even “introspection” tend to fall woefully short of providing true clarity. At best, it might help with self-awareness. To find your onlyness would be an entirely different process.

So, I asked Geoff if he would be open to talking with me about his own journey – privately at first, then with his permission here on the blog. “Sure. Naming me is ok. Keep in mind I’ll be jumping into any conversation that ensues. :)” At one point, Geoff emailed me with a quote from Meryl Streep that caught his eye:

“I went to the University of Lowell (now U Mass Lowell) and get the alumni magazine. In the latest issue there is an article about Meryl Streep giving a presentation and raising money for scholarships. This quote from the article seemed like her way of explaining “onlyness:”

Everyone thinks there is a perfect way to be … but your difference, your thing that is unique to you, is the most valuable thing you have. The weird thing about you is the thing that makes people remember you. … Whatever is weird about you maybe is your strength.

So the high level direction Geoff was clear with, but he was asking ‘what if you can’t see your weird?’ Like Geoff?

How do I spot it, he asked?

My answer back then started simply:

“A good way to understand Onlyness is by imagining that you were born with a bright red light bulb on top of your head, shining all the time.” I replied to Geoff.

This inspiration comes by way of writer and friend Justine Musk, when she was shared her take on Onlyness: When you walk into a room, people say, “Wow, it just got red in here!” Except that you can’t see the red light. In fact, you don’t even know what red looks like because everything you‘ve ever seen has been bathed in bright red light your whole life.

I like the red light analogy because it points to the fact that it’s hard to see that which you “just view as you being you”. To any of us, our onlyness is “just the way the world is”.

This is where others, a community can help. They can see the difference between the world when you’re present and when you’re not. But to be clear, you can’t get this insight by asking friends, “What do you think I should do?” because that is asking them to make your choice for you, and they aren’t you.

Instead, you can encourage them to describe what your “red” looks like, to compare the world with and without you, and to share what they can see that you cannot.

When I was going through the transition away from Rubicon to what I do now, I made a list of 10 people that I thought should inform my next steps. Quite intentionally, I mapped out people who knew me well enough but not too-well to just tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. Then I asked them 3 questions:

  1. What do you think I’m distinctly good at (independent of any job).
  2. Where could you see that applied?
  3. Who should I talk to next to explore that …

By this method, others informed me, but didn’t direct me. People can inform your insights and your understanding. But, you shouldn’t ask people to know you better than you know yourself. That’s your work to do.

The other place to look is at the things you already do, especially when no one else is looking or when you’re free to choose among several alternatives. In idle moments, where does your mind go? When you can talk about anything, what do you most often choose to talk about? What do you like to explain or teach to others? What books or magazines do you read in your free time?

BlogIcon_Right copyJoin this conversation and share your take.

What are ways you have used to “know your weird”?

21 Responses:

  1. Tim Krause. January 20, 2015 at 6:16 am  |  

    Nilofer,
    I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry when I read this post, because I had the very same conversation recently with someone I deeply trust. Except I didn’t trust them nearly deeply enough.

    They tried to tell me about my onlyness, my red light bulb.
    I told them I couldn’t see it.
    No, worse. I told them their lens must be wrong.

    (Can you imagine? I told someone that what they saw was wrong….. because I couldn’t see it through my blindfold! Shaking my head at myself)

    Their patient response: “just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t true”.
    They went on to tell me that my onlyness isn’t something I have to live up to; my onlyness is something that I live out every day by being authentically me.

    I think I get it now.

    The way I understood onlyness – and the way I understood MY onlyness – was way too small.
    Only I can change the world in the ways that I can change the world.

    And I can only do that by bringing my best me
    – shaped by everything in my life to this moment
    – and by all the moments to come
    – into every situation.

    I can do that.
    Thank you…again.

    And thanks to my friend, for helping me see what was there all along.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 20, 2015 at 12:50 pm  |  

      Tim –
      I’m often worried people listen to much to others, and of course the flip is true. We can tune out those that “get us”. Thanks for sharing that point of view. I’m sure it’ll resonate with others.
      N

      Reply
  2. Adam Pratt. January 20, 2015 at 12:48 pm  |  

    When I saw Geoff’s post the other day I had the same reaction. I wanted to know “What’s my Onlyness?” I’ve been asking other people what they see in me and home some sense of it already, but I don’t fully see my “color” yet or what that translates into as a new career. I’m bookmarking this now and can’t wait to see how the conversation unfolds…

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 20, 2015 at 12:54 pm  |  

      Adam,
      Geoff very generously emailed with me for months over this question and parts II and III focus on timing, money, and tie into career. Ask questions, or make comments, or even share what you’re thinking…. all of it is welcome, of course.
      Nilofer

      Reply
  3. Geoff Clements. January 21, 2015 at 7:12 am  |  

    Hi Nilofer,

    Told you I’d jump in. 🙂

    I still have no idea what my Onliness is, but I am thinking about it.

    The trouble I’m having with asking people around me is: I interact with so many diffent kinds of people, and each of their answers is “colored” by how we interact. If anything, asking other people has added to the confusion.

    I’ve been working on drawing lately. Part of this work has been asking for feedback on what I’ve done so far.

    Artists will ask others for a critique of their work. If they are lucky, they have a circle of trust to ask. A circle of trust is a group of people who will give you a critique that will help you grow as an artist. Not all of it is things we want to hear, but it all helps us grow. In return we provide critiques that help others in the circle grow. When we are looking for our “Onliness” (our red light) we need a circle of trust we can ask.

    I’ve been reading the book “How Music Works” by David Byrne (Talking Heads). It’s filled with ideas about creativity and art preception. One section talks about how David became a musician. He’d gone to school (Rhode Island School of Design) to be a fine artist. He sort of stumbled on music while at school. It’s interesting to see how he found his Onliness in music in a very round-a-bout way. Eventually he let himself become what his Onliness is. (The book is really good and worth reading even if you aren’t a David Byrne fan.)

    Onliness is a wide subject with lots of paths to explore. I’ll finish with a trap. There are a lot of resources telling people to “follow their passion”. This is a fallacy because they then go searching for their “passion” and never find it. Passion is one of those things you can’t search for. You’ll try one thing after another thinking “This will be it!” and never settle on anything. You have to let passion find you. David Byrne found it in music. You found it in helping companies solve management problems.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 22, 2015 at 2:18 am  |  

      Yes, Geoff, each of their takes is colored by where they sit, what they do. Even how the two people already interact (is it a hierarchical relationship like a boss or subordinate in an org chart, etc…).

      But the point is they can offer clues. And because you love drawing so much, maybe you could draw them, and what they say as a bubble over their head and then see the commonalities across ALL the drawings.

      Not sure it helps to share what happened in my situation post-Rubicon, but perhaps, …

      I chose 10 people, some were academics, some were vcs, some were ceos, etc. the academic told me I should be a teacher, the VCs tried to recruit me to join them, the CEOs reminded me of the joy of leading a specific thing. In other words, they all wanted me to join them in some capacity. But when I said, “why do you think I’d make a good teacher”, I learned the “red lightbulb” thing. That professor than said how good I was at spotting the future and translating it into exercises for today. The VC said how good I was at spotting the future and finding the company that is pursuing that path. The CEOs reminded me that I was very good at spotting the future and translating that into an actionable direction for today. After asking “why do you think that is true”, I got the same response — though in slightly different language — from all of them. Only 2 of the 10 were able to step outside their life’s work to suggest something entirely different. And the funny part is I said “there’s no way” to those people. We resist the new.

      So when you say it’s colored, that’s of course going to be true. But, I would hope you know to ask the next question. And then, listen.

      Reply
      • Geoff Clements. January 22, 2015 at 7:04 pm  |  

        I’ve been thinking about this all day and realized that I’d be terrified to ask other people what my red light might be. Not just uncomfortable, but scared witless. I have this feeling that if I ask I’d get, “Ah….” while they grasp for something pleasant to say. Eventually they’d mutter something about being a nice guy or something similar.

        Writing that makes me feel like George McFly. Yes, I’m projecting what might happen into a possibly irrational fear.

        I just don’t trust anyone enough to ask that question.

        So I’ll figure it out on my own. Which is making a hard task even more difficult. But that’s ok. I’m enjoying the search.

        Reply
        • Nilofer Merchant. January 23, 2015 at 12:09 am  |  

          When we say we don’t trust others, quite often what were saying is we don’t trust we can handle what comes. If it’s harsh or critical or somehow ego-busting, we won’t know what to say, how to rebound, what to do when we are uncomfortable.

          To trust yourself is to say, I can handle what comes.

          Which, you can.

          Reply
        • Steph Z. January 30, 2015 at 11:47 am  |  

          Hi Geoff, Some of your red light is shining out on these posts — even though we don’t know each other. First, I felt your courage to be vulnerable. You’re speaking up what’s hard to say opened up this incredible conversation with Nilofer, and now, many more like me. Thank YOU. Second, I’m really struck by your ability to pull wisdom from lesser known places (Meryl Streep’s quote in alum mag, and David Byrne’s book) and use them to see the world in a fresh way. I’m sensing this is something you do naturally, and if so, it’s a rare and important gift. I hope you dare to ask people about your red light — I’m POSITIVE you’ll be amazed at what comes back. Good luck!

          Reply
    • Marcus Dowling. January 22, 2015 at 3:39 am  |  

      Geoff…

      Intriguing points here. Instead of thinking of this situation (having numerous options for honest criticism available) as a negative, instead view it positively as the creation of a colorful “venn diagram of self” and always allow in the stuff that speaks to your “truest red.” To me, that’s the stuff that feels the most uncomfortable, or the stuff that creates the greatest amount of thought. Most happiness we receive from other people (be it compliments, etc.) is so benign and delivered without true thought or care that it actually doesn’t fall into that overlapping space of “true red.” However, somewhere in honest criticism there’s real space to discover the “true red.” To me, being able to see this as a venn diagram that constantly multiplies keeps the process not-so stifling and eventually quite fun, in that you’ll find yourself being more willing and able to engage your ability to become your best “only” self. It’s hard work, but certainly worthwhile in the end!

      Reply
  4. Shelby Hatfield. January 22, 2015 at 11:49 am  |  

    My first thought at the mention of the red light bulb was Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. An interesting comparison for a conversation about what makes you different.

    I would like to point out that your red light does not have to be confined or defined by what skills you are best at. Many times, especially in the context of work, the things that people notice about you are the skills you excel at. But just because you are good at something does not mean its something you will enjoy doing. A personal example, I worked as an accounting clerk for a year and was considered very skilled because of my low margin of error. What others saw as one of my strengths actually came from being stressed about not knowing what I was doing and constantly re-checking my numbers for fear of slipping up. I was praised, valued, and directed towards something that caused me nothing but anxiety.

    I think the clearest answers will come from action. Learning from others is key to getting started but to make sense of all those response, I recommend trial and error. So I agree and disagree with Geoff’s trap. Yes, many experts will tell you to go out and search for your passion, creating a false sense that the real you is hiding somewhere out there. The real you is and always has been inside, the more you look for a magic passion outside the farther you run from yourself. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try new things. Try your hand at what your friends and associates recommend. Maybe take a related freelance assignment, or attempt a personal project in your free time. Even if you dislike what you’ve tried at least you’ve crossed something off the list. And who knows, maybe like David Byrne you’ll stumble on something else you never would have suspected otherwise.

    If you’re struggling to create a new reality from where you’re standing now, perhaps you need to stand somewhere new to reframe your perspective.

    Reply
  5. Nollind Whachell. January 23, 2015 at 10:03 am  |  

    Here’s some things I’ve learnt as I’ve gone through this process in my own life (and how they relate to what’s been said here, especially in the comments).

    Passion is most definitely something you must seek but is usually never something you will so easily find. That’s because it is often found by looking back, reflecting on the patterns in your life. But it also often requires you to be an adventurous explorer because rarely will you see enough patterns to make sense of your passion. Therefore, you need to quest by asking curious questions and they in turn will help you find your Holy Grail through diverse experiences (i.e. meeting different people, reading different books, etc).

    The journey isn’t a straightforward linear path though but rather a meandering roundabout one. You are exploring a New World and trying to articulate and creatively express the essence of this passionate country you are exploring. Therefore visiting one place won’t do because one perspective is never enough to describe the complexity of it. You need to walk around, seeing it from all angles, to fully make sense of what you’re looking at.

    Then suddenly, yes, everything will click, coalesce, and make sense. And it will come to you. It will find you. But I can guarantee you that during your journey, you will reach waypoints where you will say, “Yes, this it is. I understand it now!” But then you’ll visit another place, seeing another perspective, only to say, “Wait, no. There is more to this than meets the eye.” That’s because it is more than seeing with the eyes or logical mind but it must be fully felt with an emotional, passionate heart.

    In effect, you more often must feel your way through the journey, using what emotionally pulls you as a compass, rather than just thinking your way through it.

    But even when you begin to fully grasp what you’re looking at, you will still fail to trust and accept what you are seeing. This is the final test because this New World is you, what you have been exploring, navigating, and trying to map out within you, so that you can tell the story of it to others. But often what you will see is something that won’t fit and conform to what people know within the Old World. Thus you will be fearful of letting go of the Old World, the old you, to step into this New World, the new you.

    When you do make the leap though, you will realize that this is the you that has always been within you, waiting patiently to show itself to you. All it took was for you to believe in yourself enough for it to show itself to you. This is how paradigms work. They are always there. You just need to believe in them before you can see them. Thus the end of the journey is the beginning, as you return home and become at home with yourself, accepting yourself as you are.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 29, 2015 at 2:26 am  |  

      The cartography reference of “old world” and “new world” is so interesting. It’s like so much. You can’t describe it until you’ve been there for a while. I really love this. Thank you. I had an old student from a course I teach at Santa Clara University write me over an email to say she was struck by this also. Your post is making the rounds, invisibly it seems amongst some.

      Reply
  6. Nilofer Merchant. January 26, 2015 at 12:03 am  |  

    I found these questions to help you find your passion kinda interesting. Less Oprah-ish and more useful than most.

    http://qz.com/330661/questions-that-will-help-you-find-your-purpose-in-life/

    Cutting and pasting this part because it might resonate with the conversation we’ve been having, Geoff….

    “Before you are able to be good at something and do something important, you must first suck at something and have no clue what you’re doing. That’s pretty obvious. And in order to suck at something and have no clue what you’re doing, you must embarrass yourself in some shape or form, often repeatedly. And most people try to avoid embarrassing themselves, namely because it sucks.

    Ergo, due to the transitive property of awesomeness, if you avoid anything that could potentially embarrass you, then you will never end up doing something that feels important.

    Yes, it seems that once again, it all comes back to vulnerability.

    Right now, there’s something you want to do, something you think about doing, something you fantasize about doing, yet you don’t do it. You have your reasons, no doubt. And you repeat these reasons to yourself ad infinitum.”

    Reply
  7. Lisa Robbin Young. January 28, 2015 at 12:45 pm  |  

    Onlyness is a pain point for me, since I sometimes feel TOO “only”. My passion is rooted in being in the spotlight: I’m a musician, performing artist, speaker, & trainer. Yet I’m also fairly adept as an entrepreneurial coach: I’ve worked with clients one-on-one, in groups, written books and created training programs to support their growth and development.

    I’ve fought with the confusion of marketing/branding myself for years and felt forced to pick one because it’s easier for people to understand. Yet every time I did, I felt like another “me too” on the block. I couldn’t embrace my onlyness and didn’t feel like it was safe for me if I did. It’s as if I have two groups of people who only get part of me, which makes finding the overlapping patterns challenging. Suggestions?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 29, 2015 at 2:49 am  |  

      Lisa,

      I feel ya.

      Years ago I used to have 3 different blogs: personal observations about the world, a strategy blog aimed at how to win in the marketplace which was more my business side, and so on. I had done that to “make sense” for the different audiences, and yet I felt bifurcated. Or I guess it was trifurcated, technically. Mostly, it was crazy making for me. I felt like I was “unexplainable” to anyone. Everyone would describe me as “she’s amazing” rather than “she’s the CEO of xyz”. I used to get PISSED at this to no end. Instead of saying I was a great speaker, someone would say they want to be my best friend. Even when I get people crying in an audience from feeling their own strength, the organizer will write how the audience “loved me” but what they don’t say is how the idea landed and made the conference theme resonate. How does this help me I thought that they “loved me” vs. describe the more transferable specific? And today even if you watch how people plug me on twitter, they don’t do it for my innovation expertise, they make it something personal and emotional. It’s because they can’t figure out how to describe “it” in a neat and easy package.

      But the more I thought of it, the more I realized I am many things that make perfect sense to me but might not make it neat. About 5 years ago, I consolidated all my blogs into what I call this my “f-it moment” (which the community named Yes & Know) It was my way of saying I won’t package myself up to make it convenient for some mysterious stranger. I’m going to chase ideas that I think matter on how to create value, on how to navigate this persistently changing world, on how to operate in a way that aligns values to value creation. I’m going to let the story unfold as it unfolds and stop stressing about whether it’s easily describable by someone else. Maybe it’s not describable now is all I say. And then remember when Julian helped me come up with the X of Y.

      I share all that in case context helps.

      But the thing that DID make a huge difference with the feeling you’re describing is finding others as “weird” as me. I did not find them where I kept looking. For example there is a woman’s leadership group in the Bay Area now called Watermark. It was very much my peer group on paper. Yet, I couldn’t believe how “weird” i felt when I was with them. Like a peacock amongst ducks. And because I was the “only” one I felt like I was the broken one, all alone.

      But I remember the first time I went to TED and met some equally weird people, like Tara Hunt. She had pink hair, thought about digital technology in a progressive way. I then followed her around at SXSW and met a whole bunch of people who were equally “weird” and so on. It took a while until I found “my” people but now that I have, I feel far less weird. I’m just me, fully me. I don’t need to worry about the package. Now I just see that I needed to look in different places. So might I encourage some spots for you? I love Renaissance Weekend (not that expensive) and DENT conference folks seem amazing. But you can probably ask around and see what kind of place attracts artists. Maybe SXSW music? I would imagine you’d like TED Active (about 2K to get in) but you’re going to have to look at where intersectional people hang out to find someone who looks more like you.

      Help?
      N

      Reply
      • Lisa Robbin Young. February 11, 2015 at 5:40 am  |  

        This is incredibly helpful. Thanks. It’s funny how we don’t always realize how “parochial” our world is until we begin to feel the pain of being the “weirdo” in the room.

        Reply
  8. Steph Z. January 30, 2015 at 11:59 am  |  

    Hi Nilofer, Since hearing you speak at Confab I’ve been really delving into finding my onlyness. It’s been a little easier capturing things like passions, skills that I love to use, positive experiences that shape me. I’m starting to identify how negative or unfortunately experiences have also shaped me (e.g. I’m an empathetic listener, I help people see their gifts or stories, etc). It’s turning into a rich and complicated narrative (because we’re richly human, right?). So I’m curious after your own process, when people now ask you “what do you do” or “tell me about yourself” how do you answer these questions today?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 31, 2015 at 9:01 am  |  

      Steph, thank you for your observation to and for Geoff. Supporting one another is so key and I really valued your participation in that way.

      And the fact that you are getting to a rich narrative is a GOOD sign. A really good sign. The only person it needs to make sense to is you. So if you see it more fully, it’ll help you make more choices.

      And wow this a great question to ask. It got me thinking. One thing that I did was start having some fun with it, hence the name “jane bond of innovation” and a writeup of that name: http://bit.ly/JaneBond. Because owning ALL of you can be fun, a little irreverent and staking out a clear territory of 1. I don’t worry about the lack of my traditional contexts and instead aim for just adding value where I can and building on the body of work. So maybe the simple answer is got me to stop worrying about it so much. As long as I accepted the fuller narrative the easier it got to not worry about others’ take.

      N

      Reply
      • Steph Z. February 3, 2015 at 10:19 am  |  

        Nilofer, it’s a relief to hear that rich/complex = good. I’m usually the person in the room who spots opportunities to bring disparate, seemingly unrelated things together. Cross-pollinating and building bridges between ideas and people is what I love to do. A manager called me “Slice and Dice” because she’d come to me when she needed 24 possible ways to solve a tough problem. Having a wildly explorative brain works great for ideation meetings, but made the elevator pitch question torturous for me to answer. Reading your JaneBond essay helped me realize that: 1) I have a portfolio career too (no WONDER I can’t neatly button this up into a title); 2) I’m not alone — more portfolio people out there (I’ve been the wild card candidate for many of my so-called “plum” jobs); and 3) I should diss the search for a title and find a nickname instead. I recall hearing that in the early days of Google, people had internal titles (aka nicknames) that described who they were — I LOVE that. I’m going to write down the nicknames people have given me plus ones I associate with myself. I just posted a nickname question to my friends on Facebook — just to see what comes back and why. This may help me find the pithy, authentic words I’ve been looking for. Thanks, Nilofer. p.s. I do hope Geoff finds my comments helpful because he’s oozing with gifts that are dying to get out in the world more.

        Reply

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  1. Five Things I Wish I’d Known Sooner | Smithery - January 22, 2015

    […] We’re not simply the work side of what we do; we are whole people. Everything you do, everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve ever practices or tried… it could all come in handy, and you just never know when. It’s what the brilliant Nilofer Merchant calls Onlyness: […]

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