There once was a school that taught all the wonderful things. Anything in the world that anyone could ever want to do, learn or be could be studied and mastered. All the best people taught there, so getting in was a big deal. But once you were in, you had to choose your own path forward. There was no syllabus, curriculum or even an app to get you by. You had to invent it as you went. It was a school that was completely different for everyone who was lucky enough to attend.
Which turned out to be the hardest part.
One day, a particularly promising student came to talk to the Principal. He knocked on her door, and tiptoed in tentatively. He was nervous. She stood with her back to him, looking out the window. He listened to the ticking of the clock for a while, then cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he said politely. “I have an idea of what I want to study,” he said.
“Excellent!” she said turning around. “Now go do it.”
He frowned. “Well, wait a second. I need some information first.” She nodded as if to say I’m sure you do. “First of all,” he said, “what do I study if I want to have the most friends?”
The Principal walked across the room and slowly sat down behind her desk. “Don’t you have friends now?” she asked. “Of course I do!” the student said. “I just want more of them.” She nodded. He leaned in and whispered. “Actually, I’d like better friends.”
“You said ‘first of all,’” she smiled. “What else do you need to know?”
The student chewed his lip. “Well,” he said, “I’d like to know what to study that will make me a lot of money!”
The Principal opened the top drawer of her desk and started rooting around for something. “Uh huh,” she said. “What else?”
The boy looked pleased with himself. “Well, finally, I’d like to know what to study that will make people admire me. I want to be on a cover of a magazine!” And not just study. “I need to know how to cut my hair, what glasses to wear – you know, that will make me look smart – what kind of girlfriend to get, should I play tennis or golf, is it better to learn how to cook or to sail boats, what books should I have on my shelves….”
“Here it is!!” The Principal interrupted him. She looked happy. “Now, close your eyes,” she said to the boy. He shut them obediently with a growing smile. “Okay. Hold out your hand.” She put something that felt something thin and cold in his palm. Then, she bent his elbow so it was in front of his face. His stomach had butterflies. “Now, open your eyes.”
He opened them with a gasp of excitement. Then, his smile disappeared almost instantly. He was holding a mirror. He was staring at his own confused face. His eyes filled with hot tears. “Is this some sort of trick?” he demanded.
“Not at all,” said the Principal. “The only person who can tell you what path to take is you.” “But what if I fail?” the boy was getting angry. “What if nobody notices me? How can I be powerful with my place in the world? Where is the answer??”
The Principal smiled sadly. “The only sure way not to find your place in the world is to let someone else choose for you.”
The boy stared into the mirror for a long time.
Then he looked up at the Principal who had been sitting quietly, hands folded. “You.” He glared. “Are an asshole. I want my money back,” he said coldly. “And you’ll be hearing from my parents.” Then he threw the mirror to the ground. It smashed into dozens of pieces. “Would you close the door behind you?” The boy glared at her, turned on his heel and slammed the door with a bang.
“Thanks,” she said with a chuckle.
The Principal calmly swept up the pieces of glass, and put them into a huge bin in the back of the room. Then she walked over to a closet behind her desk and opened the door. Hundreds of hand mirrors were stacked on every shelf. She took one down and returned to her desk. “Send the next one in!” she shouted cheerfully.
Now, what did the principal try to teach the student about how to Find Your Onlyness?
Onlyness as the way to make an idea powerful enough to dent the world is really simple: It’s about what matters to you. How you can contribute. That’s why it’s both easy and hard. Finding your authentic voice, charting the way you want to bring your gifts and abilities to full fruit is full of risk. Yes, tests can help a little and so can some introspection but these tests and navel-gazing might just be you avoiding that thing you already see (or what others see in you). You might just be avoiding the inklings you already have about your onlyness. By chasing the trappings of success, or the mimicking the efforts of others, or even saying you can’t see it … we each run the risk of wasting precious time that can be better put to use pursuing our passions, occupying our capabilities to grow them more, and tapping our networks (the most magical of schools) to help us fill in our blanks.
The only sad thing you need to worry about with this parable… is trying to be anything else than you.
Knowing your onlyness is not like knowing facts. Knowledge is perfectly fine and serves a role, but it can also lead you on a continuous search for “the perfect answer”. No, Onlyness cannot be found like knowledge but more like finding love. Onlyness — it comes in all forms, and the more you look for it, the more you see it. The more you live into your onlyness, the more it builds up.