Don’t Be The Lonely Only

The NYT gender section recently ran an article advising those of us who are tokenized to “realize that their ideas matter” and to “practice self-care.” Instead, what women actually need — and what ALL of us need — is to fix the issue which tokenizes someone based on gender (or race, or age, or whatever) in the first place.

First off, don’t be the lonely only. And if you’re being tokenized and dismissed in the room, go build new rooms. 

I published this first on LinkedIn for two reasons. One, this newsletter wasn’t scheduled to go out the week I wrote this piece, and you regular readers have seen different parts of this argument already. Still, I wanted to make sure you saw it and forward it to those who are “lonely onlys” at work.

If you’re being tokenized and dismissed in the room, you can build new rooms.

How to get original new ideas to count

If you’re the ‘only one’ – the only woman or the first black engineer or the most, ahem, “mature” person – in an organization, you know what it feels like. You will be watched, scrutinized, and stereotyped. 

Would it be helpful advice to be told to realize your workplace needs you? How about a reminder to practice self-care in response to the many aggressions you experience daily? Or to “defy the stereotype” (as if that was something you could actually do)? Well, that’s advice the NYT gender section recently published. 

Women don’t need patronizing advice to realize that their ideas matter, or to take sudsy baths. Instead, what they need — and what all of us need — is to fix the issue which tokenizes someone based on gender (or race, or age, or whatever) in the first place.

Why do we all need it fixed? Approximately sixty percent of new ideas are currently silenced or ignored, which research done at Rotman University says represent at least atrillion dollars of untapped value. The missing contributions from those seen as the “only ones” could be the cure to Alzheimer’s or solutions to address climate change. Those missing ideas are why we need the issue fixed and quickly.

We fix the issue by centering correctly. By using the framework of “the only one”, the NYT centered on the existing room, with its existing power dynamics that undervalue ideas from people who look different. The alternative is to center on the source of ideas, that distinct spot in the world only one stands. This shift turns out to be tectonic. 

Here’s why. 

People cannot realize themselves to power all by themselves. 

Research across sociology, psychology, and anthropology shows that when individuals are seen as the “only ones”, they are made to feel “different” as compared to the dominant norm, and are pressured to conform to it.

Forty years ago, Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School studied those “only”s and found three things always constrain their ideas. 

  1. They feel watched, so they’re super self-conscious.
  2. They are excluded from social settings, where lots of work happens.
  3. They feel tremendous pressure to assimilate to existing group norms.

Note that no one conforms because they want to. “Realizing their workplace needs them” will not make the others in the room see the only ones. They conform because they need to. Because human beings are social beings; because belonging is a more fundamental need than asserting one’s original idea. 

The problem is social; so too is the solution. 

After all, it’s a social construct that is causing “the only ones” to be seen through a subjective lens, rather than as the subject of their own story. Comparisons to dominant norms strip them of power and the capacity to be heard as the individual they are. Asking a lonely only one then to enact change by “defying the stereotype” is akin to asking women to “Lean In” as if systemic pay inequity could be addressed by each one of us asking for a raise. It’s an oft-told lie that we so want to believe, like the stories of “rugged individualism”: the business executive who “bootstrapped” himself (Jobs, Bezos, Musk, take your pick) to success while denying the role that legacy wealth and male-and-white-dominated networks play. The common thread of these myths? If you’re not succeeding despite all the bias against you, you’re not working hard enough. 

As if. 

It’s an appealing myth, but the NYT gender team should recall what Carol Hanisch famously said, “there are no personal solutions; there is only collective action for a collective solution.” Publishing distortions keep people working on solutions all by their lonesome, which allows those in power to maintain the status quo. 

What we need is to be able to tap into the ideas of each of us, from that spot ONLY we stand. To achieve this, we must acknowledge that being the “lonely only” is actually the problem, not merely a nuisance. After all, every new idea starts out as a fragile fledgling thing, susceptible to indifference, needing gentle friction to shape and hone it to be viable, and the right collection of people to coax it into reality. Every one of us needs social cohorts to do our work well. But, if you are the “lonely only,” you are – by definition – set up to fail before you even start. Your ideas will die a stillbirth if you don’t have the social structuresof belonging so that your early idea can be (a) incubated and later (b) scaled. 

Don’t be the Lonely Only. 

 What does this look like in real life?

It’s what Ava DuVernay has created with Array, an independent distributor of films by women and people of color, amplified by artists and advocates. She left the rooms where she was ignored and built the cohort of writers and producers who shared meaning. Her latest film When They See Us has already changed a long-held narrative.

In politics, it’s New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez building a broader voting block and the related coalition of politically progressive leaders to advance their agenda, best reflected in The New Green Deal.

In business, it is banking tycoon Sallie Krawcheck who, after getting fired from Merrill Lynch and Citi, creates a cohort of female investors through Ellevest to change the financial frontier for how women invest and get invested in, or as she says doing what “only” she can do

These stories are instructive. If you’re being tokenized and dismissed in the room, go build new rooms. In the Social Era, when connected people can do what once only large organizations could; the connectedness of meaning allows original ideas to be (a) incubated and (b) scaled. 

Onlyness 

I coined the word “Onlyness” in 2011, to center the source of new ideas. Because it is. 

The word wasn’t in the English dictionary at the time. I turned to David Peterson, the Game of Thrones language creator, to guide me on how to create a new word. He reminded me of the difference between a suffix and a circumflex. A suffix is a term added to a base word. For example, the plural “‘s” is added to the base word, “cat” to make more of the base. In this structure, Onlyness is to say be more of what only you can be. As I researched 300 case studies (and published 20) of what actually unlocks new and original ideas, I learned it’s not enough to ask ‘only’s to be more of themselves. Which is why the second definition of “onlyness” is a circumflex, which requires both parts to fully form the word. To tap the source of all ideas, the power of onlyness? First, you stand in that spot in the world that onlyyou stand in, second, through connectedness, you (and, more to the point, your ideas) have a new pathway in.

Onlyness (noun) Source of ideas; the power we each have based on that spot where only we stand.

New ideas matter; they rupture the status quo and incubate the future. At least half if not close to 70% of ideas are currently silenced or ignored because of the lonely only problem. Not because those ideas were vetted and deemed unworthy as per Adam Galinsky’s research but because the idea came from a person deemed unworthy of being heard; we’re not hearing and therefore selecting from the most powerful ideas.

While it’s approachable to talk about “change” in bite-sized pieces like affinity groups or sponsors or personal empowerment messages…. the sad part is that even if it helps somefew people, it won’t effect change. And, it won’t unlock those ideas we so desperately need. 

So, let’s join together to do the work to enable onlyness broadly by building the social spaces – the scaffolding and systems that we need — so that people (including you) canactually contribute from the spot in the world where only they stand. 

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