Some readers might be skeptical of Nilofer Merchant’s new book, The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World. Yes, Sara Blakely cut the feet out of her pantyhose and became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, but there is still essentially no chance that this will happen to the rest of us. Readers on alert for pipe-dream selling will be relieved when it quickly appears that The Power of Onlyness will not be just another sophisticated, anecdote-filled pep talk.
In the early pages, Merchant, a former Silicon Valley marketer who, the book jacket tells us, “has personally launched more than 100 products netting $18 billion in sales,” does oversell a bit the idea that anyone can change the world: “Without permission or a need to be appointed by someone. Without specialized expertise. Without a ton of money. Without the external credentials of titles or education. Without investing loads of time.”
Changing or “denting” the world, as Merchant phrases it, is not so simple. It’s true that Samar Minallah Khan, for example, almost singlehandedly eliminated the barbaric practice in Pakistan of letting murderers go free if the murderer’s family “gives” one of its young girls to the victim’s family. Khan, however, was a well-connected Pakistani anthropologist and a devout Muslim who could speak to the rural people of Pakistan in many of the local dialects of the areas where this practice took place.
However, one finishes reading the story of Khan, and the many other detailed stories in this book, with a full appreciation of how anyone can, indeed, launch a world-changing idea if, as Merchant argues persuasively, they focus on what makes them unique and different.
From Only You to Scaling With Others
This brings us to Merchant’s term “onlyness.” The “only” part refers to that which belongs to only you, what Merchant refers to as “your spot”: not just your experiences, knowledge, personality, skills, habits and strengths but also your decisions and choices as well as the context in which you have lived. “You’re standing in a spot in the world that only you stand in,” she writes, “a function of your history and experiences, visions and hope.”
For example, Merchant tells the story of Kim Bryant, who time and again in school and in her tech jobs found herself to be the only black and often the only woman (“We got a two-fer” is how she was introduced at one company). This experience and the persistence and resilience she learned growing up in the rough areas of Memphis, her schooling and work experiences at Vanderbilt and DuPont, and the desire to help her daughter and young black girls succeed in STEM professions all converged to put Bryant in position to launch STEM training camps for minority 6- to 17-year-olds, called Black Girls Code (BGC). More than 7,000 girls have learned skills such as robotics, app development and computer programming through BGC.
“Only,” however, is only the beginning. For your idea to make a difference, you need to scale, Merchant writes. You need to connect with other people to join you in your quest — what Merchant calls “connectedness.” Unfortunately, she writes, many people believe that they have a wild idea that no one else will share.
Put your idea out there, Merchant writes, and you’ll be surprised who shows up. When Leo Bretholz wrote his memoir of being deported to Auschwitz aboard the French national railway system, SNCF, he had no idea that his book would lead to a 10-year international legal battle to get SNCF, paid handsomely to transport Jews to the concentration camps, to apologize and pay reparations after 70 years of rejecting responsibility. The successful two-continent campaign would involve high-powered law firms and the 165,000 people who signed Bretholz’s Change.org petition.
The stories in The Power of Onlyness inspire because they emphasize how people can change the world if they start with who they are — a grounded, realistic approach that can inspire even the most skeptical reader to break down any limits that they might have put on their dreams.