One True Thing (Part III of III on How To Know Your Onlyness)

As we wrap up our conversation with Geoff (which continues in the comments, please join us!) let’s highlight one of the more nuanced elements of Onlyness: It lives at the intersection of what you care about. The trick is not to focus on the tension, but the harmony. This is Part III of a series on How to Find Your Onlyness. Part I on where to look (and who can help), can be found here. Part II on roles that confine us and our need for money as it relates to Onlyness, here.

When Geoff and I started our exchange, the question was “what is my onlyness”. By using the word “is”, doesn’t it suggest it’s a single thing. The fact is, for most of us, what makes our onlyness is not one thing. It can’t possibly be! We are all so much more. It is more like living in a blend of spaces, the intersection of your ideas and history, visions and space. But the reason it’s singular is it resides in you. It’s all of you, all at once. Which is as complex as people are. It can be tough to maintain your Onlyness resolve when the world wants to quantify you as just one thing; you buy into ‘I’m an engineer” as a definition instead of owning all of you.

I wrote to Geoff:

“A 28 year old woman asked me this question on onlyness a few years back that is similar to the one posed by our dialogue. She is a tissue engineer — she can get any cell to act like a particular tissue, meaning she can get a cell to act as a heart cell would do or as a leg muscle would do. This is very central to pharma testing and science advancement. She’s got a PhD from Columbia blah blah blah in this field. But, she also teaches. And, she also does a variety of other things like yoga, and she came to ask me — what should I focus on? And by the time we were done discussing, what became clear is that living at the intersections of such things is actually what allows her to be her.

Her onlyness IS at the intersection of teaching because it informs her ability to talk about the future of the field. But it is also about practical development in the lab so she can keep testing her ideas. AND she is a devout yogi and for her this practice is about making sure the science doesn’t advance to the level where it turns humans into robots. And I challenged her to think about the blend of her work as being central to how she approaches, not as a tension, not as a conflicted thing, certainly not a bad thing. Living in the center of what I call her “Venn diagrams” is then the intersection point of interests/passions that then makes her a singularly distinct person – onlyness – pursuing her work. This is her one true thing.


So, I wrote to Geoff:

“if her lesson is transferable here, I might have you embrace all of you in a similar Venn diagrams kind of way – own your philosophical side which is about “why are we doing this / what meaning is here” to the engineering side of you that is about problem solving tough problems, and then the art which is to depict ideas and things in ways unique to you. My (attempt to) language your Venn diagrams is not to suggest my wording is right but to encourage you to doodle out your own Venn diagrams. You live in the center of these. Find mutually exclusive ones and then keep doodling yourself in the center of them. Maybe then, you can see something anew?”


The good or bad thing about life is we are always growing, changing. My area of focus ten years ago is different than now because the path becomes more clear as you walk it. If you wait to know what your onlyness is in some complete way, it means you’ll wait forever. In other words, we might think it’s about “knowing” an answer, but what if it’s about the qualitative way of seeing yourself. Not just seeing as in looking, but seeing as in Witnessing. How we bear witness to one another allows the other person to be seen fully. From that piece:

When we are witnesses to one another, we play a crucial role to experience the person, as they are, and also as they are become who they will be. We do not change them in our witness, imposing our will. Being a witness does let that person know that they matter and it matters to us that they become more of who they are meant to be. Without witnesses, we have no one watching us grow… into who we are becoming.

You can also witness your self. But it’s not enough to see yourself, one must do.

So, Geoff, own three circles, or own 20. But how you choose to live and act at the intersection of those now is what matters. What matters is the doing. It’s not enough to say you have these interests. What matters is how you choose to then act and apply your gifts. For example: my husband is a polymath  / engineer / blah blah blah. But 5-6 years ago, he started working on an economic development project to help share more information. I’ll skip ahead and say that a little project a few people started has now had 60 million views, over 1,000 members of a community focusing on how to create more economically sustainable projects by sharing viable ways to build things like cooktops. He chose to ACT in an area and the process of building / creating something is what has manifested his interests. You can now look at it, and witness his purpose in action.

But at the time he started, it looked like nothing. A few guys, blogging. You would have thought nothing would come of it. But that’s the thing, those guys followed their path and created. You can only see the path after they blazed it.


Better said by Steve Martin than myself, ” sidestep the anxious questions generated by the passion hypothesis—”Who am I?”, “What do I truly love?”—and instead put your head down and focus on becoming valuable.”

Geoff is still on the journey.

“I think people get too caught up in figuring out what their passion or onlyness is in order to get an answer to the question: “What am I supposed to do now?” We are in a period of human history, where for the first time, we don’t have a set path to just survive. We have a choice; and most people have no idea what to do with themselves,” he wrote me. “The question becomes a curse until you realize that you don’t have to answer it. You can choose not to decide.”

Fair enough. That’s Geoff’s choice. But I mind remind readers that not choosing is choosing. To not Choose Yourself! as James Altucher aptly named book suggests… is a great loss in the Social Era.

BlogIcon_Right copyGeoff? Let’s keep talking. (and thanks AGAIN for letting your story be shared). You have given all of us a great gift.

Some things are not “known” in an analytically rigorous way, but more “seen” through accepting all of ourselves. Onlyness could be like that, don’t you think? As we’ve been doing, share your ideas about what Onlyness means to you and submit them right here on the blog or you can communicate with me via Twitter @Nilofer or Google+, or your own blog. Just remember, it’s not one answer and you can find hints along the way, on your daily journey.

To thank you for your ongoing participation and and sharing in our growing community, our friend, Kara Goldin, Co-Founder and CEO of Hint Water is giving this community some gifts. (Yes, a play on my above suggestion about hints, but also an absolutely amazing product.) Later this month, one of you can win a 3-month supply of this delicious water that contains such a “hint” of fruit flavor and nothing else. Completely healthy with no sugars or other additives or chemicals, you will find it completely refreshing and healthy as well. Simply share your thoughts below, and you’ll be entered to win.


3 Replies

  1. The true test of following your onlyness comes when you hit the real world and at every turn you are asked to blend in.. The true strength of onlyness will come with true strength of character, self-belief and a being ready to be a bit of a maverick while the world expects you to blend in..

  2. I love the Venn diagram illustration. It makes it easier for me to see how the pieces overlap. I’m coming to my own “f-it” moment trying to manage these different pieces of me (musician, coach, trainer, author, blah blah blah), and I think there’s great value in the exploration of the pieces. It’s probably the only way to really come to Onlyness. And yet, it seems to still be so unacceptable/dangerous to do this exploration, to have these conversations in meaningful ways. How do we create a safe space for ourselves to explore? Or is “safety” simply not possible?

  3. Thank you Nilofer for the continuing discussion on onlyness. In your intro you make the statement “The trick is not to focus on the tension, but the harmony.”
    I have been part of a few groups that focus on chronic illness – folks who are talking about their their journeys – their struggles, their angst and sometimes their joy. I have come to believe that we do not define ourselves by our illnesses, but what we do, who we are and often I say it is important to “live life” – focus on the harmony.
    As an extension I have a friend who has become involved in the elder community and is working with folks who are involved in end of life issues…we have been discussing your concept of onlyness and what the impact of changing perspective on our lives by opening our minds to that which is possible -again harmony – looks like as vs. the “dead end” way of thinking. The realization is that in the digital age we live on well beyond the life of our bodies both in real senses and in the virtual world.
    So I just wanted to say the conversations about onlyness have powerful impact in changing the perspective of our conversations about self and our revelations by living life about who we are.

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