Try Mind Tools for 7 days FREE Start Trial
Gain essential management and leadership skills
Busy schedule? No problem. Learn anytime, anywhere.
Subscribe to unlimited access to meticulously researched, evidence-based resources.
Join today!
Join Mind Tools

Sign-up to our newsletter

Subscribing to the Mind Tools newsletter will keep you up-to-date with our latest updates and newest resources.

Working on it...
Successfully subscribed to the newsletter
Sorry, something went wrong
May 28, 2019

Nilofer Merchant Joins Our #MTtalk on "Onlyness"

Yolande Conradie


Share this post:

"I believe that at the very root of our humanity is a passion to create value with heart, to work alongside others who care, and to make a difference. I believe that each of us has something of value to offer – all 7.5 billion of us."

- Nilofer Merchant, author, "The Power of Onlyness"

Do you know how important your unique perspective on the world is? And have you ever stopped to think about all the facets that make you, you?

Do you know what unique combination of attributes you possess, which could give you insights and ideas that no one else has?

If so, you may be experiencing "onlyness" – and we were thrilled when onlyness originator Nilofer Merchant accepted our invitation to join our recent #MTtalk twitter chat!

Stuck Under a Bridge

Before we look back on the chat, with Nilofer's contributions, allow me to share an illustration of what onlyness can be in practice.

A few years ago, I saw a television advert that showed a truck, loaded just a few inches too high to pass under a low bridge. A group of engineers were animatedly discussing the problem, and arguing about how to make the bridge higher.

A small boy was watching the scene as he fixed a punctured tire on his dad's old bicycle. Thinking about his own task, the boy approached the engineers and asked why they didn't just let some air out of the truck's tires to lower the load by the few inches needed.

The men fell silent, then one of them let out a whoop of joy! The boy's plan was brilliant and would save them lots of time, effort and money.

The Little Boy's Onlyness

The boy was the only child amongst adults, a new schoolboy among highly educated engineers. They were used to solving problems in a world where resources were plentiful. The little boy had learnt that his family had to find solutions using whatever was at hand.

In a similar situation, many of us would scarcely have noticed the child, or maybe we would even have seen him as a nuisance. However, he brought a few valuable "assets" to the table: simplicity of thought, looking at the problem from a different angle, physically, because of his height, and his recent experience with a flat tire.

He was able to generate an idea that had nothing to do with the bridge or what was on the truck: he was able to generate an idea from his onlyness.

Are You Experiencing Loneliness or "Onlyness"?

In the workplace and social situations, "only ones" often feel pressure to conform with the rest of the group. They might experience loneliness, and feel isolated.

Nilofer Merchant (@nilofer), the author of "The Power of Onlyness" says that one of the antidotes to this kind of loneliness is to find others like you. She says that your power is no longer determined by your status, but, "by onlyness – that spot in the world only you stand in, a function of your distinct history and experiences, visions and hopes."

Nilofer also joined last week's #MTtalk discussion about loneliness and onlyness. Here are the questions we asked and a selection of responses:

Q1. Have you, or someone you know, ever been "the only... " in a group? For example, the only man, woman, carer, technician, or person of faith.

It's easy to think that "only ones" must be a racial, cultural or educational "only," or  LGBTQI. @JusChas said, "Absolutely. I have been the only black person, and several times, the only considerate person and courteous person in an array of environments."

@nilofer said, "I started the study of onlyness by first starting to understand what keeps all originality from the tables of business. And so ended up finding that research from @RosabethKanter on 'only ones.'

"'Only one' research says three things: pressured to assimilate to existing group norms, isolated from social contexts where work actually happens, and watched. Which is why I started to get clearer on the antidote, which is don't be the lonely only. FIND YOUR PEOPLE."

Q2. Did you/they feel ignored, included, under pressure, proud, lonely or... ? Why?

@temekoruns The biggest challenge for people in the "only" scenario is to "be yourself" and get delivered from people's opinions of you. If you are qualified to be there, own the timing and be your best. No pressure needed.

@itstamaragt It depends. I am proud of my differences, but sometimes I do feel a sense of isolation.

Q3. How much do other people take your views and experiences for granted? Give us an example.

@Midgie_MT, who doesn't live in the country of her birth, said, "At times people have made assumptions because I was the only 'foreigner' in a group. Coming from a different culture, people assumed I understood what they were saying and the references being made."

James (@Jikster2009) shared with us that he is often the only gay person in his work setup. He said, "People are aware of the particular perspective and experience I bring to the table. I am often asked what I think about situations and how it will affect people."

Q4. What makes your views and experiences valuable?

@ThiruHR Each of us is living in this world with a purpose, everything has its own reasons for existence. The valuable life is one where you do not feel regretful, but the lasting impression is of contentment.

@harrisonia Using logic and facts make my views and experiences valuable.

Q5. What can you see from your unique place in the world that no one else can?

@Yolande_MT I'm able to tell of my experience/journey of growing up in a religious sect inside apartheid South Africa, and how it influenced me to ask difficult questions and go the other way than I grew up!

@J_Stephens_CPA I am sure there is someone who looks at things and can't see the ties that I do but the question comes "How did you know that?" To me some things seem just logical, so often I pray, "Why am I different?"

Q6. Nilofer Merchant refers to this distinct insight and vision as our onlyness and encourages us to celebrate it. How might you do this?

@Jikster2009 I recently learnt about the concept of building a "belief wall," with bricks highlighting the achievements that cannot be taken away from you. Really does help to encourage understanding of your own unique talents.

@nilofer  There are five responses to onlyness. 1. I am not that only (almost always insecurity). 2. I am totally an only (as in superior to others but doesn't regard everyone's onlyness). 3. I want to solve everything (typically not grounded in what only they can offer). 4. I can't see anything to solve (typically about an internal fear to change). 5. Lightweight fluffy onlyness (typically only owning the socially acceptable constructs of identity and not the light and the shadow of themselves).

Q7. According to Nilofer Merchant, "Onlyness is to celebrate the light and the dark as not perfect but perfectly yours." What could you claim as not perfect but perfectly yours?

@MicheleDD_MT Surviving a difficult childhood & being self-reliant at 17. Provided the strength & resilience that is so much a part of me today.

@JusChas One of my favorite lines that describes me is, "I may not be perfect, but I am always genuine."

Q8. How aware are you of your co-workers' and team members' onlyness, and how could you find out more?

@YEPBusiness This question is a great opportunity to distinguish between passive & active listening; or effective listening. Don't be so quick to fill the silence. Let the other people fill the silence. People need a minute to formulate a thought.

@PIPability I have intentional conversations where I listen. I want to know what is important to them and how I can feed that in the workplace. Yes, we have things to get done, but it is also about meeting individual needs. We spend more time at work than home during the week.

Q9. What benefits might an awareness and celebration of onlyness bring to your wider organization?

@nilofer Organizations need to value onlyness. Because they are missing 70 percent of all ideas. That's the irony. Some of us seen for their "distinct" original ideas and others dismissed for being "different." Truth? We're all different, each standing in that spot where only we stand.

@lg217 The benefit is that being aware of onlyness can help to bring a team together. You learn from the side what it is like to be lonely and the only person in the group. Teach to be equal toward everyone.

Q10. What will you do differently at work as a result of discovering your and others' onlyness?

@JKatzaman Being aware of your and others' onlyness will help you to remember that there is no one right answer to any issue or problem.

@ZalkaB I've refrained from trying to control every part of the process and not to expect from others what I find acceptable. And, most importantly, I'm not everyone's cup of tea – and that's OK!

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat, here.

Coming Up

A part of everyone's onlyness is the stories they have lived, and stories play an important role in our education. Next time on #MTtalk, we're going to talk about using storytelling as a workplace tool. We'd like to know why stories are important to you. Please vote in our Twitter poll, here.

#MTtalk Resources

In the meantime, here are some resources relating to our discussion on onlyness:

Managing Mutual Acceptance in Your Team

Cross-Culture Communication

Minority Influence Strategy

Appreciative Coaching


Avoiding Discrimination

Dealing With Discrimination

Eight Ways to Cope When You're a Team of One

Avoiding Unconscious Bias at Work

Religious Observance in the Workplace

Making the Most of Employee Resource Groups


Share this post:

Gain essential management and leadership skills

Busy schedule? No problem. Learn anytime, anywhere. Subscribe to unlimited access to meticulously researched, evidence-based resources. Join today!
Join Mind Tools

You may also like...

November 6, 2023

What's Your Story?

"A story never ends because it changes who we are, how we think, what we do. Its threads and impact continue to grow in ways we know, and don't know." - Yolandé Conradie

, ,

November 2, 2023

Dyslexia at Work: How I Learned to Live With My Dyslexia

How can organizations help dyslexic employees? Jaye O'Farrell-Stevens shares his journey with dyslexia – and gives his tips on how to help.

, ,

October 19, 2023


Some transitions are harder to face than others. The Mind Tools coaches share their experiences of going through transitions, and their tips on how to deal with change.


© Mind Tools Ltd 2024. All rights reserved. "Mind Tools" is a registered trademark of Mind Tools Ltd.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram