Is Onlyness Selfish? (How to Find Your Onlyness, Part II)

In the last post <link>, I shared the first part of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with an e-pistolary friend about finding one’s Onlyness. Geoff, like so many of us, was having trouble identifying what his ‘weird’ is, that thing(s) that only he can contribute to the world. In this installment, things get pretty philosophical. Me? I think he’s trying to avoid feeling uncomfortable.

“Hey Geoff:

What is Onlyness if not your own ideas finding a way to be seen? Your own ideas, essence. Whatever the language you might use – purpose, passions, compulsions, the idea is the same. Squint at this for a second,” I wrote. “Keep stewing and then let me know where you are given the original question…”

Is essence a real thing?” he wrote back.

Geoff had mentioned that he was trying to do what all aware parents do – teach his kids to follow their passions, be purposeful, go after what they want. One of his kids asked him, he wrote to me, “what’s yours?”. And he wrote that “he was having trouble doing it and that was starting to eat away at him”. [He also referred to himself as a curmudgeon on more than one occasion. 😉 ]

“I think most people are just happy existing,” he wrote. “They come home from some mundane job and watch ‘Honey Boo Boo’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Game’ and are content. They don’t really find meaning in anything they do.

“Other people say they find meaning in what they do; but is it meaning, or just a rationalization, or worse, a way of making themselves feel better about themselves? (ie. giving to charity, not because it is the right thing to do, but because of a selfish need to make themselves feel better about all they have.)

“Is it possible to find meaning in something that doesn’t translate back to some selfish motive? Maybe that is OK?”

This part of the exchange really struck me. When you’re beyond what I’ll label “your early years”, people seem to be stuck, even lost when identifying onlyness. Telling our kids to ‘follow their passion’ seems right when it’s still all blank slate. But something else gets in the way later in life.

I didn’t write this to Geoff… but the issue he’s speaking of is that people become distracted by the “givens” – all the messages we have been given by society about who we are, the lives we lead, the obligations we have, the way we must behave.

Any one of the known narratives — the given identities – for example, husband, wife, provider, caregiver, CEO, mechanic, nationality, race, religion, whatever – comes with a to-do list and a not-to-do list. And, a cost.

Think about most of our parents. It was a given that when they grew up, they’d get married. In A Heterosexual Relationship. Have Kids. And typically in a particular order like…

  1. Get Married.
  2. Buy a home.
  3. Get a car. The best one you could afford.
  4. Produce heirs.
  5. etc

It’s almost like they had to leave their onlyness behind, and step into another body. I think of that as someone zipping themselves into some “grown-up” suit and kiss their “selves” goodbye. Men based on this old narrative would get jobs and provide food, structure, and discipline. Women confirming to this narrative would become mothers and cook the food, tend the home, and kiss the boo-boos large and small. (Forgive the over simplification, for the purpose of this story. My mind wanders to the Dads of friends who later came out after 20 years of heterosexual marriage and so on…) Deviate from this plan and prepare yourself for a lifetime of funny looks from friends and family. That generation had this weird list of commitments they accepted as “true” for them, if they wanted to fit in, be responsible, or “taken seriously.”

In other words, those choices weren’t really choices for the generation before us. And the trappings of their “givens” got heavier over time. And as much as we think our parents had it bad, some of us “zip into” certain suits of what we think we “should do”.


Of course, Geoff found it easier to talk about his kids. Talking to an actual child about their future is to try and create unlimited possibility. But when he talked about himself, he was effectively saying, “hey, I have responsibilities.” Which sounds so noble. And good. And adult. And responsible.

Don’t we all?  I asked him (and you and me) to think about living inside a set of constraints that are not his own and limit him. “Which parts are movable and which ones are not? Where is it real, and where is it caricature?”

And, where does money come into this?

As it turns out, there was something a little weird about Geoff that had been gently pried from him as a child. “When I was a kid I told my parents that I wanted to be an artist,” he posted on his blog, Coalescing into Art. “They were a bit frightened since they were sure I’d never be able to make a living as an artist. Even if I was very good, I’d never be able to support a family. Eventually they convinced me to go to engineering school since I have an aptitude for math and science. I finished a degree in Electrical Engineering, got a good job, married, a house and 2 wonderful kids.”

It’s a mature attitude, one that reflects a person deeply in touch with his own good fortune.

Yet, Geoff went on to explain that for all he has, the art thing never really went away for him. He was always that guy who drew – cool stuff for his kids when they were young, portraits of friends, whatever struck his fancy. And his day job still goes well for him. And so, last September (2013), Geoff gave his artistic side a little kick in the right direction. “I got tired of my twitter stream,” he wrote in his blog. “It was filled with engineers posting technical articles of pleas to visit and support their new website. I kicked them all off and added artists and animators from Disney, Pixar, Sony Animation and Nickelodeon. My twitter feed filled up with art.”

Now that he was hanging with the creative crowd (as we wrote about in the last series), synchronicity took over.

[It’s the same thing my pal Austin Kleon recommends by the way This is an undeniable best practice to chase your passions is to tune who you “follow”.]

He stumbled upon #Inktober, an online challenge to artists of any level to do a pen and ink drawing every day for the month of October. Gotta post it, or it doesn’t count.  He went for it. “At the beginning of the month my drawings were pretty awful,” he posted. “But by the end of the month they were looking pretty decent.”

Decide for yourself:

Geoff work
I personally love Geoff’s art. Just last week, I visited the newly reopened Picasso museum in Paris. And, my favorite pieces were the studies, the places where you could see the hesitation, the early try, the working-thru-the-kinks so the work could become better. You could see someone learning to become what they would become. Like all of us do.

So (and I say this with great love and honor towards him) Geoff is making a classic mistake so many people make. He was tying his search for onlyness to his ability to ALSO earn money with it, immediately. It’s like knowing how a book will end and how you will feel at the end of it, without ever opening the jacket and turning the pages. Which, it seems to me, requires you to know just about everything about how the story turns out, even before you start.

Is that ever possible? No.

And so if you make naming your onlyness TIED to your ability to make money (right away), it means you stay where you are. All this reminds me of another exchange with a friend, who started a Masters program at a later age. For some reason, she keeps assuming she’s not as qualified or “as something” as others there. She wrote this week saying, “I was starting to panic during the first day of class on the rather intimidating final project due for class at the end.” She’s not sure if she’s ready for what comes. And yet that discounts the process of learning that happens in the course.

We all want to know that the story ends well, before we start it.

The truth is always this: you learn what you need to learn to be good at something by doing it.

As Geoff’s vignette already reveals, he’s made choices early in his life that lets him earn money in one way. That part works after years of education, years of apprenticeship, etc. Letting go of that seems impossible. And he’s not alone in this feeling. But as I told him, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. First of all, onlyness doesn’t have to be your vocation, it can be your avocation. It can be the way you teach yoga to prisoners, or read books for the blind, or how you might stock library books in Ferguson, Mo. (all true stories of other Yes & Know readers).

Onlyness for some is incredibly focused, meaning a musician might have that calling at such a high level that is both vocation AND avocation. But it doesn’t have to be. And, this is the important part, especially at the beginning, it’s not clear what happens next. When Geoff shared his drawings, it was clear there was a nugget of himself he’d been denying for a long-time. And, then, as he gave himself permission to own his interests, he discovered new people, new opportunities. Onlyness can be the unfinished part of life. And, yet, it’s the beautiful part. And in these stories lie the key to how people discover their onlyness, not because it shows up in its complete picture on Day 1, but because you listen to it when it shows up. You pull on the thread of interest, you meet new people, you ask new questions, you take off old “suits” and the path to money becomes more clear, later. We’ve already covered how onlyness is not a lonely exercise, by a way in which you deeply connect to that which you want and then let those around you help you get there. In that way, onlyness is not lonely, it is not isolationist. It is deeply connected. Onlyness is the way in which you say, I count, and this counts. And that’s enough. In fact, it’s everything.

Join this conversation and share your take.BlogIcon_Right copy

What “suits” do you recognize in life? Kathleen Warner recently wrote about her experience in “being the good one” and the binding suit that was for her life. What are others you see?

15 Replies

  1. I’m enjoying this theme a lot. I’ve also been meeting with at least two people a week asking them about “What the see in me” and explaining this onlyness idea. I’ve invited these friends to lunch selfishly, but I know some of have been stirred by our conversations to ask some questions of their own.

    I think the temptation of jumping straight to the “But how do I make money with this question” is a strong one. I’m resisting it for now and just dreaming, and trusting I’ll figure out the money later.

    1. Thanks Adam. Someone on another platform (was it LI?) said in response to the question of this post (Is Onlyness Seflish?)
      His answer: No neither is worthiness…
      It’s not that money will miraculously show up, but that you’ll find new options once you start walking down the road.

  2. Adding this essay by Elle Luna: On the roads of Should and Must:

    Specifically pointing out how onlyness isn’t tied to what the outside “suit” is, but the interior passion is. Much better said by her than I:

    “Should is how others want us to show up in the world — how we’re supposed to think, what we ought to say, what we should or shouldn’t do. It’s the vast array of expectations that others layer upon us. When we choose Should the journey is smooth, the risk is small.

    Must is different—there aren’t options and we don’t have a choice.

    Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s our instincts, our cravings and longings, the things and places and ideas we burn for, the intuition that swells up from somewhere deep inside of us. Must is what happens when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own. Because when we choose Must, we are no longer looking for inspiration out there. Instead, we are listening to our calling from within, from some luminous, mysterious place.”

  3. Uhg, you chose the worst drawing. There are way better ones.

    Recently I read the book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport. It made me rethink the concept of “follow your passion”. I think you can find passion in almost any work if you have the disposition to let it into you. My parents talked me out of being an artist when I was a kid. I resent that a little bit, but went to school, got a Masters in Electrical Engineering and enjoyed it. I thought I wanted to do radar and theoretical signal detection theory. After a few years, I changed to writing Mac OS software for Digital Equipment Corp. and I loved it. I found passion in software engineering. I still find joy in writing software.

    Along with being an artist, I wanted to be a lawyer and also a physicist. (I started a PhD in Physics, but didn’t get far because I was trying to take the classes during lunch.)

    Even though I’m in my 50s, I still feel like an 8 year old, always trying to find something fun to play with. I find joy and passion and play with a lot of different things. What does this have to do with Onliness? I’m not sure. Maybe that’s why I’m having trouble with onliness. I’d prefer everythingness. Or is everythingness an onliness?

    1. Geoff –
      I hope you always feel like an 8 year old, capable of doing anything.

      And you’ve raised a great question on what is Onlyness — essentially, you’re asking is Onlyness = passions.

      Onlyness includes passions but it is more than passion. Far more. It is your point of view. In Social Era book, when the concept was first introduced, it was defined as “your history and experiences, visions and hopes”. What I see in what you just wrote above is a definition of interests. You are interested in many subjects. So are many polymaths. But what I don’t see is your point of view, what thing you’d like to see different / better and why. You’re not ever describing a vision and hope for the world.

      Onlyness as it was originally conceived was tied to the new networked way of getting things done. It was never defined as a solitary experience. It is your vital energy as part of the network of people, thus you are shaped by them and deeply connected to a group or many groups based on what your onlyness is. As was written in this post: “A lonely onlyness leads you to clearer self-awareness, which is good, but it is not necessarily tied to making a dent. Your onlyness is only able to make an idea powerful enough to make a dent, when it is coupled with others, rooted in a powerful shared idea.”

      That’s where I’d point your explorations — what is it you care about in the world. Look out as much as in.

      1. Hmmmm, that’s hard. I’ll have to think about it but the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s one of my mantras, “Always leave people feeling a little better than when you meet them. It can be a smile, a laugh, some help or knowledge.”

        I feel a bit like I’m loosing my grasp on what Onliness is. I may have to go back and watch the TED talk again…

        1. Geoff –

          Rather than watching the talk again, how about 1:1 take?

          Let me point out what you DO know, as a way of starting off on what you’re looking for.

          What you’ve named so far is your how (how you interact with the world). Kindness, laughter, etc. In our email exchanges you talked a lot about being hopeful for your kids and to be present to them. You seem pretty clear that you want to be a “good” person in terms of how you bring out the best in others around you. Remember that fellow reader who also pointed out to you some of your natural gifts in this.

          And you’ve also captured / defined what skills / passions / interests you might have in your tool set (physics, electrical engineering). These are your whats. I encouraged you to be inclusive of your art (as have others on Yes & Know). Because your onlyness is about embracing ALL of you. Until you do that, you never live an embodied life. You live a life in a shadows.

          Both are incredibly important. So you’ve got 2/3.

          What you’re missing so far in all these exchanges is your why, your purpose. You seem unable to answer a larger question: For the sake of what am I doing all this. For the sake of what do i GIVE A SHIT. Quite frankly, you could open up the paper and pick something because the world has many many issues to pick from. So your not unclear or losing your grasp, your acting oblivious. Because at a local to global level, there’s a community that you could contribute to in a meaningful way. You could care about inclusion, or about justice or about environmental care, or …

          But you seem to not be able to pick it / name it. It could be fear stopping you. It could be a lack of clarity, some concern you’ll pick the wrong thing, etc. Dunno. But YOUR purpose is the thing you are seeking.

          1. Uh…., yeah. I got nothing.

            But I do have a couple ideas about finding it. One has been stewing for a while, but I’ve been suppressing it. Maybe because I don’t have a “I give a shit about X”. The other popped into my head on the train ride home. I think I give a shit about that one too. 🙂

            Been reading “Choose Yourself!” I’m conflicted and interested at the same time. Which means it’s making me think and is always a good thing.

          2. Final thought and I’ll pose it as a challenge:

            One day, soon: stop reading another book, and contemplating. Instead start to live out your onlyness. Decide to give a shit. About something. Stop dwelling on the what or the how, and do you know enough or whatever. But pick something worth caring about, and starting caring for it. And in doing that, in the action itself, you’ll learn so much more than any book will tell you. I dare you. 😉

  4. Hi Nilofer, still thinking about this. 🙂

    Ummm, sorry. Some personal things happened. My instagram moved here: I deleted my blog.

    Can you have a bunch of lights? One for your spouse, one for your kids, one for work, one for friends and maybe a white light made up of all of them that is yourself? I find myself being a different person around different groups of people. One of the reasons I have trouble finding my light is trying to reconcile all these differences into a single identity when I think they are all a little different. Kind of a Venn diagram that all overlap to make a whole.

      1. 🙂 Doh! Actually, I did read it, but months ago and forgot.

        I guess I had trouble with part three because I was trying to build a Venn diagram of attributes that were me instead of a Venn diagram of personalities. Other people may be able to build a list of attributes that they feel like they have, or find out from trusted friends, but I can’t seem to do that. I feel like any attribute I come up with isn’t quite right.

        On the other hand, I think I can make a list of personalities that I use in different situations. Those personalities may be a bit fuzzy, and each may have a different set of attributes, but personalities feels like an easier way for me to label my Onliness.

        Does that make any sense?

          1. I may be trying to draw a distinction where there isn’t one. 🙂

            People may choose attributes like: engineer, dad, husband, animal lover, texan 🙂 , etc.

            I’d prefer to choose personalities like: focused on a task at work, interacting with peers at the office, talking to my boss, playing with my kids, alone time with my wife.

            I feel much more comfortable characterizing the personalities in the second group than the attributes in the first. It’s still a Venn diagram, but with different kinds of circles. 🙂

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