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Nilofer Merchant

January 26, 2015 by Speakers' Spotlight

What Color Is My Weird? (How to Find Your Onlyness)

A bestselling author on innovation and collaboration, a TED speaker, and a business leader with 20 years of experience, Nilofer Merchant challenges audiences to do more than just think differently—she asks them to act differently. Merchant has personally launched more than 100 products that, in total, have netted 18 billion dollars. Her leadership and business models encourage innovation and growth, and she collaborates with teams to create this enduring advantage. In this post, Nilofer explains her concept of “Onlyness” (and for more on her Onlyness talk, see her topic of the same name, here):

“Personally, I have no idea what my Onlyness is.” A new commenter appeared on my blog, sounding equal parts friendly, and plaintive.

“Do you want to?” I wrote back.

And that’s how Geoff Clements, whom I later learned had been reading Yes & Know for some time, launched a conversation that continues to this day. He’s a Massachusetts native, a software engineer for Kayak, a husband, and a father. This exchange gets to an important question I’m chasing right now.

But let’s back up a smidge.

The TEDx Houston talk on Onlyness was posted January, 2013. It was my first talk on the topic. It publicly affirmed what I believe to be the only guaranteed way to unleash human potential in the digital age: Onlyness. It’s not that everyone will, but that anyone can contribute. Onlyness is that thing that only that you can bring to a situation, the collective combination of all your experiences, hopes, dreams, achievements, setbacks, meanderings and accidents of birth. It is not a philosophy or a made-up theorem. It’s a catalyst of ideas, in human form. I believe that until we celebrate Onlyness, we are not honoring the person. And, until you unlock your Onlyness, you are not fully alive. And, collectively, until we honor Onlyness, we are limiting our selves, our organizations and our economies.

At the end of my talk, I asked the audience to share if they wanted — their Onlyness — with the group. (Which, I now recognize, is too-big a question to ask in a big forum, with only a few minutes chance for exchange. But the connection around the idea still happened, with great laughter, and continues. )

Geoff stumbled upon the video in July, 2014 – about a year and a half after it was public – and got my attention with this comment:

“I thought it was interesting that people had an onlyness by the end of the talk. I’ve been thinking a lot about myself and who I am as a person, and I have no idea. I truly expected someone to say “I have no idea.” Maybe they are the ones that stay quiet since no one wants to admit they don’t know. Personally, I have no idea what my onlyness is…”

He gets a big thing right – this is way harder than it looks. And this shouldn’t surprise any of us. Why is that? Because the tools our cultures offer for personal clarity around purpose or even “introspection” tend to fall woefully short of providing true clarity. At best, it might help with self-awareness. To find your onlyness would be an entirely different process.

So, I asked Geoff if he would be open to talking with me about his own journey – privately at first, then with his permission here on the blog. “Sure. Naming me is ok. Keep in mind I’ll be jumping into any conversation that ensues. :)” At one point, Geoff emailed me with a quote from Meryl Streep that caught his eye:

“I went to the University of Lowell (now U Mass Lowell) and get the alumni magazine. In the latest issue there is an article about Meryl Streep giving a presentation and raising money for scholarships. This quote from the article seemed like her way of explaining “onlyness:”

Everyone thinks there is a perfect way to be … but your difference, your thing that is unique to you, is the most valuable thing you have. The weird thing about you is the thing that makes people remember you. … Whatever is weird about you maybe is your strength.

So the high level direction Geoff was clear with, but he was asking ‘what if you can’t see your weird?’ Like Geoff?

How do I spot it, he asked?

My answer back then started simply:

“A good way to understand Onlyness is by imagining that you were born with a bright red light bulb on top of your head, shining all the time.” I replied to Geoff.

This inspiration comes by way of writer and friend Justine Musk, when she was shared her take on Onlyness: When you walk into a room, people say, “Wow, it just got red in here!” Except that you can’t see the red light. In fact, you don’t even know what red looks like because everything you‘ve ever seen has been bathed in bright red light your whole life.

I like the red light analogy because it points to the fact that it’s hard to see that which you “just view as you being you”. To any of us, our onlyness is “just the way the world is”.

This is where others, a community can help. They can see the difference between the world when you’re present and when you’re not. But to be clear, you can’t get this insight by asking friends, “What do you think I should do?” because that is asking them to make your choice for you, and they aren’t you.

Instead, you can encourage them to describe what your “red” looks like, to compare the world with and without you, and to share what they can see that you cannot.

When I was going through the transition away from Rubicon to what I do now, I made a list of 10 people that I thought should inform my next steps. Quite intentionally, I mapped out people who knew me well enough but not too-well to just tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. Then I asked them 3 questions:

  1. What do you think I’m distinctly good at (independent of any job).
  2. Where could you see that applied?
  3. Who should I talk to next to explore that …

By this method, others informed me, but didn’t direct me. People can inform your insights and your understanding. But, you shouldn’t ask people to know you better than you know yourself. That’s your work to do.

The other place to look is at the things you already do, especially when no one else is looking or when you’re free to choose among several alternatives. In idle moments, where does your mind go? When you can talk about anything, what do you most often choose to talk about? What do you like to explain or teach to others? What books or magazines do you read in your free time?

Nilofer Merchant/January, 2015