This post is revised and updated from one I wrote in 2015, after hearing Nilofer Merchant’s fabulous TEDx talk. Last week, I listened to her interview with Jonathan Fields at Good Life Project on her new book, The Power of Onlyness.

onlynessWhat value do you bring to the world? I presume that some of you will find this question uncomfortable, perhaps narcissistic. You might think that it’s not up to you to say what value you bring to the world. Or even that you don’t bring any value.

However, I believe that it’s an important question to ask throughout your life. Because I also concur with writer and thinker, Nilofer Merchant, that each one of us has ‘onlyness’ – something to contribute that is unique to us.

“Onlyness is that thing that only that one individual can bring to a situation. It includes the journey and passions of each human. Onlyness is fundamentally about honoring each person: first as we view ourselves and second as we are valued. Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. Some of those experiences are not as “perfect” as we might want, but even those experiences are a source for what you create.” ~ Nilofer Merchant

I find it interesting that onlyness rhymes with loneliness. Because your onlyness can make you feel lonely when it is not recognized or heard. Your onlyness may be considered weird or eccentric by some. Yet, paradoxically, your onlyness is the way you ultimately connect with the world and provide value.

In the interview with Jonathan Fields, Merchant says that we often shut down the ideas of those who do not have some form of societal status or power. Many are conditioned to believe that they have nothing special to offer. If your ideas are not being recognized, Merchant says it’s a matter of changing the context. And, she suggest ways of listening to others that could open the floodgates for many new ideas.

Your onlyness manifests (or not) through your relationships, as well as your jobs, hobbies, and passions. Merchant believes that everyone has something of value to add to the world, not through their titles or positions, but through owning “their perspective, their vision, their talent, their creativity, their oddness.” It can manifest in small, subtle ways or big, visible, world-changing ways. Each is important.

If someone asked me about my onlyness, I’m not sure that I could articulate what it is. I do know that I struggled for a long time to share my inner world. Photography and the Internet were the context I needed. I know that my workshops are unlike anyone else’s. There may be similar topics or practices or methods, but I have my own way. And, those who can benefit from these workshops are drawn to them for a reason; we share a connection.

My onlyness, as well as yours, continues to unfold.

Carole King’s Onlyness

Recently, I experienced the musical, Beautiful, about the life of Carole King. If you don’t know her story, she met and married Gerry Goffin while still a teenager. They had one of the most successful songwriting partnerships of all time. King wrote the music and Goffin wrote the lyrics; then other performers made them hits – think The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva, etc.

Carole King manifested her onlyness through songwriting and she became aware of this drive to contribute in this way from an early age. However, she also felt that she was too plain and ordinary to perform the songs herself. There was a piece of her onlyness yet to be discovered. It wasn’t until her marriage broke up ten years later that it came to fruition. Faced with being a single parent and having to make a living on her own, she had to write songs without her partner.

The songs from the album, Tapestry, were born from this difficult time. These songs were so personal that she couldn’t think of anyone else who could perform them but her. And, the rest is history. Her recording, Tapestry, is one of the biggest selling albums of all time. It was awarded four Grammy’s in 1972, including Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance for a female. By sharing her onlyness, she touched millions.

Carole King is an example of someone who had massive success with her onlyness, yet even she only fully discovered it over time and through her own specific circumstances.

Thomas Merton and Onlyness

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and one of my mentors in seeing, is known for having an epiphany on the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.  He suddenly felt a sense of oneness with everything and everyone around him. I believe that he saw the onlyness in every single person walking by.

“There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” ~ Thomas Merton

I, like Merchant and Merton, believe that every person has his or her own brilliance to share with the world. You may or may not agree with this proposition because sadly, many never do realize their onlyness. However, the potential is always there. Your onlyness may look similar to someone else’s, but it’s still subtly, uniquely you.

How can you discover your onlyness?

1. Listen to your inner teacher. We all have one. Pay attention to what attracts you, repulses you, makes you angry or sad, lights you up. These all hold clues to your onlyness.

2. Ask the people closest to you. They know your onlyness and can tell you how they see it manifesting in the world or how it affects them. What do you bring to a room, a conversation, your relationships?

3. Be brave about sharing what matters to you. You can start small by telling a trusted friend about something that moved you and why. Gradually get a little louder by speaking up at work about something you care about. Share your art with friends or online. Write a letter to the editor.

“Until you unlock your onlyness, you are not fully alive.” ~ Nilofer Merchant

For me, writing online and sharing my photography opened up a whole new way for me to contribute and add value. My work has evolved as I’ve continued to follow my inner teacher.

What are your thoughts on onlyness?


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