The Power of Onlyness

  • Status: reading
  • Started: 2021-02-09

Chapters 1 & 2

When she was younger, the author Nilofer Merchant was attending college and expected to start university a year later when her family arranged for her a husband. An arranged marriage, as it is still common in certain cultures. Afraid that her new husband would forbid her from continuing her education, she left home. Based on that, she says she learned that choices define us and reveal who we are and what matters to each one. In university, she felt she finally found a group to provide a sense of solidarity and shared purpose, people who encourage her to invest in her education.

Finding “your people” sometimes means having to walk away from places you don’t fit in rather than trying to squeeze yourself into a too-tight space with the aim to belong. It isn’t until people make that choice that they are able to find others who share something meaningful with them.

Having attended a community college, she felt for a long time that this was a negative experience for her as opposed to others who attended only prestigious institutions. Later on, after using her experience that came from having attended a community college to contribute to discussions on education reform, she started realizing how her personal experience not only shaped her and contribute for her to be successful and achieve what she wanted to, but such experience provided her with an uniques perspective to contribute with something that others who didn’t live something similar could not, no matter what prestigious institutions they attended. Other later experiences shaped her and provided unique learnings, including being fired from her then dream job in what she called “my biggest professional failure and an epic personal failure”.

Meanwhile, her husband (by choice!) decided to do something new. Tired of corporate life, he wanted to do something good for the world. Encouraged by the author, he forgot his initial idea of giving up everything and then started working on his vision by doing something small: he set up a blog where he wrote about things he cared about, such as economical and social development for developing countries and areas. Despite his non-existent readership, doing so allowed him to explore and refine his ideas by expressing them. A person discovered his blog and invited him to join a newly created and also scarce in membership wiki dedicated to the subject. The members of this group didn’t have expertise or credentials in the subject, but they all shared a deep interest, you could even say a passion. This small wiki project has become Appropedia Foundation, a collaborative effort to provide information on projects that people can do to tackle problems like obtaining clean water or preventing malaria. Despite its small scale and the fact that all its founders have worked on it on the side, it has grown to impact millions of people from all over the world.

These personal experiences have made the author start thinking about her idea of “onlyness”. Companies scale by betting on sameness and avoiding reliance on individuals at all costs: each person is and must be a replaceable cog in the corporate machine, and scale and efficiency are achieved by doing the same things exactly in the same way in larger and larger amounts of time/quantities. Her experiences made her realize that there are groups, projects, maybe even some companies that rely on the opposite: the collective power of multiple people, each one bringing what only they can do or what only they do best. In the case of Appropedia, thousands of volunteers dedicated their time to contribute: create new content, translate content, moderate discussions, spread the word so that those who could benefit from their content could access it. All of that without much coordination, monetary compensation, or even requiring a large amount of time from people. This was in 2006, only five years after Wikipedia started. Although such modus operandi might seem trivial and normal nowadays, it is interesting to see it for what it is, and what it is is a very powerful idea. Being so used to such a collective collaboration environment on the internet, we might not appreciate or understand its power enough and what an incredible idea it is when compared to how things worked only a few time ago.

The Internet has allowed regular people to make an impact, or “making a dent” as the author puts it. Previously, making an impact would require one to join a powerful organization: a government, a large corporation, the military, the church. People would have to attain power. To do that, they would need to invest in expensive (and ofter useless) credentials. They would need to play politics and invest in “networking” that would give them power and credibility but didn’t directly contribute to their vision and project. All of that created a waste of time, energy, and other resources. Also, people would need to fit in with their organization’s culture. Bad luck for those naturally unable to fit in, such as minorities or anyone who tended to be labeled as outsiders. Having to do all of that to be able to make an impact naturally caused less innovative ideas to come up. What the internet allowed is for people to bypass the organizations and hierarchies that were previously necessary. By being able to easily find like-minded people with shared interests, the creation power has shifted from hierarchy and organizations to individuals and networks.

When value creation is institutional and hierarchical, the vast majority of people are treated as cogs, dispensable and replaceable. But when value creation is networked, the distinct ideas, judgments, and decision making of individual players—you and I—matter more as the fundamental building blocks of value creation. This seems the ultimate game changer: While organizations and hierarchies continue to serve many useful purposes, we no longer need them to attain big goals.

As part of this book the authors present the story of multiple people who made a dent and explains their story under her idea of “onlyness”. Chapter 2 presents two stories: Kimberly Bryant and Zach Wahls.

Kimberly Bryant is the founder of Black Girls Code (BGC). It all started when she brought her twelve-year-old daughter to a coding camp. Seeing the lack of diversity in her class, and hearing her daughter complains about her teacher’s lack of attention to girls, she decided to do something. This situation reminded her of her own stories. Growing up in a rough neighborhood, no one thought she would join Vanderbilt University and graduate in engineering. While in university she overcame a terrible start, having finished the first year with a 1.3 GPA. She felt alone. After finding friends in the black student community and getting involved in student activism, she overcame her initial difficulties to graduate with a B. She also participated in student movements that forced her university to adopt a new policy regarding South Africa apartheid through the university endowment fund investment strategies. When Kim graduated, she joined the corporate world where she faced racism. A manager was happy about hiring her since he managed to do a double strike: hiring a woman AND a people of color. Having highlighted her gender and her color, and not her ideas, potential, or capabilities, made her feel the effect of being the “only one”.

In 1977 Rosabeth Moss Kanter has researched tokenism, which is the practice of symbolic efforts like minority-focused hiring with the goal of achieving good PR and overall achieve the appearance of having a diverse and supportive environment without actually promoting changes and having a really diverse environment. Her study showed that when someone is a member of a group who represents less than 15 percent of the total, this person experiences certain effects:

  1. They feel watched and monitored, and suffer extreme performance pressure.
  2. They feel isolated from the group and they are less able to form meaningful social bonds with the colleagues.
  3. They are pressured to assimilate into the group.

Kanter described this tokenism as difference being allowed in, but in such a small amount as to never affect the power structures.1 People who are “firsts,” “onlys,” or “the exception to the rule” feel this effect. And what it means is that they are more likely to adapt to the context rather than dent it to reflect their own ideas.

{All of these effects makes people feel less confident and unwilling to express their ideas. Worst yet, no matter how good they are able to express their ideas, other people won’t value them the same as if the idea was given by a “credible” member of the group. That creates situations where the same idea proposed by a whither member of the group, or a male member of the group, of a member of the group who conforms with the majority ethnical group; is valued and the same idea proposed by a member of the group who is not part of the “majority” might go ignored. Ill intentioned people even go as far as to purposefully ignore the minority ideas, and then steal their ideas, presenting them as their own later; or they can find a way to get credit for work that was done by someone who is a minority. As individuals, how can we assert ourselves in these situations and prevent it from happening to others as well?}

Going back to Kim. Her personal story affected her in a very individual way and gave her a distinct power that included a passion, or one could say a sense of indignation. In response to her daughter’s situation, she started by forming a small study group and invited five of her daughter’s friends. She prepared a curriculum, lessons, and exercises. Later she started to invite other people and networked with other moms interested in the idea. The group has grown to form chapters in several cities around the world, and Kim’s goal is to teach one million girls to code until 2040. Kim’s work is essential for a new generation of black women who will face a new world: millions of jobs will become obsolete, and the best jobs are (and will be) related to engineering and technology. Overcoming the racism and sexism that drive black women away from those challenging, fascinating, and high-paying jobs is essential to contribute to promote equality. From a small study group, she formed a large organization that has been recognized by the likes of Oprah and Barack Obama. It all started with a passion, a vision that mattered to Kim, and a willingness to dedicate a few hours of her time. That’s how it started, but it grew through the power of networking with other like-minded people.

The author says that Kim’s story demonstrates three things:

  1. Defining or redefining your history and experience is important. Define it if it hasn’t yet, or redefine it if it has been defined already by someone else. When the author valued her until then shameful attendance in a less prestigious community college, this gave her the knowledge, ability, and perspective to contribute to state-level debates on educational reform. Your history is also, and in a large part, the history of your decisions. Each decision you take shape yourself.
  2. Context matters. Where you grow up affects you. Where you live affects you. Be it your neighborhood, your state, your country, your culture. All of that has an effect on you.
  3. It is important to value yourself, even or especially those faulty or shameful parts. See the beauty in brokenness. Hold what makes other laughs. Don’t hide the things that make you unique, but don’t let others define you by that, and don’t accommodate yourself to their expectations and preconceptions.

The meaning you assign to what happens to you and to the decisions you take is the most important thing, not those things by themselves.

John W. Gardner, the former secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, said, “Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or a prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. [But], you are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.”

Starting new ideas as side-projects is good. The author claims most of the examples she studied started as side-projects with low investment and commitment in terms of time. Doing so allows people to invest in bold ideas without having to justify whether they are truly good or worth the investment (financial, time, emotional). Also, even things that grow over time to become big projects and ideas usually seen at the time they were created like small, simple, or even frivolous endeavors.

In 1997 Tom Peters wrote an article called The Brand Called You. He starts by reinforcing the importance of branding: a tiny shoe shop can build an incredible brand to the point of rivaling a big name like Nike for a specific niche; a person uses some sort of branding indicator (a mix of trust, quality semblance, values) to decide which sites to read or which email to answer; a worker creates a brand for himself in terms of his skills, role, and contributions in his workplace. In a world of so many possibilities and information (remember, it is 1997…) branding is the factor that dictates where people spend their attention and their money. He urges people to forget about their titles and ask themselves what is the unique value they create in their jobs, what makes one stand out? He then advocates way for one to promote their branding: start a side-project, either at work or outside it; do some freelancing work to extend your network; start teaching something at work or a local college; start writing to a local and small newspaper (1997..); show up in conferences and conventions and give a presentation. Invest in “word-of-mouth marketing” (1997’s organic growth). He then says that all of that provides a different and new type of power: influence power, as opposed to hierarchical conventional power. This power is based on influence, recognition, perceptions, and network, as opposed to credentials and titles. He talks about the “project world”: work started being organized around projects, as opposed to ongoing tasks and roles. Projects have deliverables and measurable impact. This presents a perfect opportunity to grow yourself and your “brand”. If you are not working on a project, organize your tasks in a way to create a project for yourself. He then talks about loyalty: loyalty to a company has been replaced by loyalty to colleagues, your team, your project, your customers, and yourself. The future, he says, is not vertical anymore. Instead of a ladder, there is a checkerboard.

Peter’s ideas and vision are valuable and they were ahead of his time. In a way he described what is nowadays called the “knowledge economy” or “ideas economy”. They make a lot of sense still today. The author, however, regrets his excessive focus on branding, marketing, and the corporate world. In fact, a critical person might say they even sound a bit shallow: a guide to corporate slavery success teaching you how to advance the corporate checkerboard now that the corporate ladders have been removed. That would be “conflating the wrapping with the gift”: learning how to gain credibility, build networks, and build a brand (which are all part of the packaging) without much care for the actual ideas and projects you are building (the gift). The author says that that’s not Peter’s key ideas. He provides a pathway and ideas to leverage yourself, and that can be used in a valuable way as opposed to creating branding for the sake of itself.

And it’s probably worth noticing that “onlyness,” the word, does not represent more of you; […] Instead, it is a word that braids together how people create value in this modern economy: First, you stand in that spot in the world that only you stand in, then you meaningfully connect with others so that you (and, more to the point, your ideas) finally have a new pathway in.

Community is central to onlyness, for it enables you to progress from being the “only one” to enlisting the strength and scale of a group. Research from sociology, psychology, and anthropology has consistently shown that when individuals are in the position of being the “only one” in a group with a different norm, they will be pressured to conform to it. Nonconformists are typically dismissed and made to feel “other.”* In those circumstances, “others” can be set up to compete with, to judge, or even to betray one another in order to win one of the limited number of seats at the table.* In many respects, conformity or competition is not a choice but simply a matter of survival. To crack the code of acceptance and belonging—the most fundamental of human psychological needs—you’ll naturally suppress the qualities that set you apart.

Chapter 2 also brings the story of Zach Wahls. He succeded in making the Boy Scouts of America to change their policies and stop discrimanating against gay members. Until then, they adopted a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Zach managed to convince important donors to stop donating to the organization while they did not change their policy, gained widespread adoption through open letters and manifests signed by hundred of thousands of people, and his actions inspired more people to take similar actions and put pressure on the Scouts organization.

Without belonging, the odds are good that you will give up your own ideas. As a result, your fresh perspective and novel ideas are either deferred, in the best of cases, or extinguished, in the worst. That dynamic changes when you find people who share a common cause.

As mentioned previously, social media and the internet gave immense power to regular people. People now have an unprecedented ability to find others who share common interests and ideas. This has been described by Andrew Solomon as people’s “horizontal identity”, as opposed to their traditional “vertical identity” based on heritage/family/language/culture.