What I Got Wrong About Onlyness At The Beginning


I saw this tweet today where Marie Forleo was saying “There’s only ONE of you in the whole damn world! Forget about being something you’re not.” And I wanted to tweet back, this is so unhelpful.

Now that might surprise you, dear reader. Given that I do believe there is only ONE of you in the world. But I think saying what Forleo did is like asking you to simply believe in yourself. As if it’s somehow a mental act of weakness on your part that you’re not believing it already. 

But I didn’t always see this so clearly. I do now, but it’s because of research I’ve been doing for the last five years, starting back in 2012 or 2014 (I can’t remember which).

My research tool? This pin.

You see, I was at a conference with some very creative and original people so I filled my lanyard with pins I had made just for this occasion, on Etsy. I knew that innovation, progress, solutions come from new ideas; and new ideas come from people. And, not just people generically, but from onlyness specifically. From that spot in the world ONLY one stands. But what I didn’t understand was why those ideas never make it through.

So this pin was a starting thesis: that it was because we just needed enough confidence in our own kickass-badass selves.  

The pin said, “Composed of 85% Kickass, and 15% Crippling Self-Doubt”. One side of the lanyard from my neck to the sign had the ratio 99/1 and the other side 85/15. People could get a pin from me, for free, IF they told me what gave them their power.

The answers ended up being a big clue. Things like…

  • “Barnard alumni”
  • “I’m from TEXAS baby”
  • “I lead a great team at Google…”

It took a long time to analyze the answers and understand the underlying logic.

What I didn’t understand back when I was sharing the pin on “crippling self-doubt” was that there was a valid reason why doubt won. After studying well over 10,000 pages of research — compromising of work on power, agency, conformity, purpose, and identity — I now get it. Power is often described as entirely personal; as in, he or she has power. But the thing I learned by studying everything I could find is that our collective understanding of power is flawed. To talk about it as if power is personal denies the other half of the equation; we live in a system of power that shapes things, too.

I wish I knew then what I know now.

The promise is that anyone can rise if they just have enough confidence, get educated enough, if they are good enough, or if they work hard enough is to believe the myth of meritocracy. It’s a false promise. The dearth of women or people of color in leadership cannot be overcome if they just jump higher.

(Well, that’s not 100% true; A very few determined people might run through the gauntlet of power and get through… but the vast majority won’t. And more importantly, running through the existing gauntlet of power means you have adopted ALL the existing norms of power, whether it’s which schools one goes to (Haaaarvard), or how loud you need to be to assert one’s opinion as valid, denying the value of the Quiet. So even if you do make it in, you’ll act like the other people who came from that existing system of power. Which is still limiting the wide range of ideas.)

To be sure, a bunch of us believe the myth. And for good reason. First, it gives you the illusion of control. But it’s also because that myth is sold and resold generation after generation. Check out the line of books; few advocate how to change the system but how to change yourself. In recent history, this POV has been advocated by very notable thinkers like Angela Duckworth (Grit), or Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In). But their work is part of a long history; this myth has been sold by countless others before them. Including even … Queen Oprah herself. Even notable researchers in the social sciences who have gotta know how big a role bias plays in limiting ideas write material that 100% ignores the significant role of bias, as Adam Grant did in writing Originals.

Which is why this idea I’m advocating is not breaking thru the noise. It is going against the very brightest and most known people to say we’re missing something BIG. But one day we will all come to know that…

Power is not simply personal; Power is profoundly social.

We conform not because we WANT to, but because we NEED to, because human beings are social beings. So to those 61% of people who cover and hide themselves at work, we ought to be sympathetic. And see that it’s because their surroundings — their work culture — says it’s not safe to be you.  Because we know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: belonging is more fundamental than asserting one’s original idea. Let’s call it what it is; People aren’t conforming because they are weak-willed, or even full of self-doubt… They are simply doing the smart thing… doing what they need to…to survive.

My original thesis on what limited true originality, onlyness, was deeply flawed. I thought it was personal when it was systemic. But it’s okay I got it wrong. As long as at one point, I can help people see what I have now learned. It’s what I just gave a talk on at TEDxUniversityofNevada.

I hope one day you’ll get to see that talk posted on TED.com.



1 Reply

  1. I so get this.. We are all part of a system, no, many systems. And each system provides allows or prevents us from being who we are. This is why people behave so differently in different social situations…

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