Entrepreneur and author Nilofer Merchant kicked off ASAE Annual by encouraging attendees to embrace new ideas and innovation that can come from anyone and anywhere.
Nilofer Merchant has an impressive resume. Once an administrative assistant, she went on to work with some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley tech, including Steve Jobs at Apple.
Merchant has also been a CEO and a board member, and she has launched more than 100 products that have generated approximately $18 billion in revenue. And most recently, she’s a best-selling author.
But speaking Sunday morning to attendees assembled to officially kick off ASAE’s 2017 Annual Meeting & Expo in Toronto, Merchant shared a memory of a time when she was out of a job and felt like no one. Standing in a circle of business and tech leaders at a networking reception, someone asked, “Who are you?”
Her reply: “I am nobody.”
“In that moment, I didn’t know how to identify myself,” Merchant says. “I no longer had a place to be in relation to these other people.”
Maybe you’ve felt that sinking feeling before—a moment of self-doubt when you felt like an outsider or imposter. It’s a common experience, Merchant says, because often we are defined by external factors like our job, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. While those are important identities, she says, every individual has something more inside.
That something is each person’s “onlyness.”
Merchant describes onlyness—a term she coined—as the idea that every person is capable of contributing ideas to fuel innovation, progress, and economic growth. These ideas can come from anyone, anywhere.
In her book, The Power of Onlyness, Merchant shares almost 300 stories of people who exhibit and live out lives of onlyness. The study she undertook in writing the book helped her to realize that only through a feeling of belonging can someone turn an ordinary idea into a great one.
Merchant challenged attendees to embrace their onlyness and seek out others to form meaningful relationships around this identity.
“We don’t give up ourselves because we want to,” she says. “We end up giving up ourselves because we don’t know the one thing we need to know—how to be in relationship with those we want to be in.”
Merchant notes that onlyness has not always been valued. In the history of our modern economy, organizations and businesses generally have placed higher value on being able-bodied and productive.
But that has changed, she says. You don’t have to be the fastest or biggest talent anymore, but rather the one with a great idea. “That’s how I came up with the word ‘onlyness,’” she says. “Ideas can come from anywhere. They’re no longer limited to capital and no longer limited to organizations.”
Associations that embrace onlyness stand ready to make change, Merchant says, because they exhibit two important qualities: an ability to bring “onlys” together and a commitment to cultivate their ideas into action.
Merchant calls this the “gateway of belonging.” And both individuals and organizations can create it. “For many people, it’s the connectedness that helps people to stand up,” she says. “Because if you can claim for yourself what is important and make it meaningful with others, it can fuel your work.”
Only Can Feel Lonely, Too
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. Onlyness can be challenged when an organization’s culture makes people feel the need to fit in. “Often, we belong in hobbled ways, and in doing so, we end up fitting in, which is the greatest cost to our own ideas,” she says. Such an experience can lead to a sense of isolation.
Merchant challenged attendees to break through the “loneliness of onlyness” by creating dynamic communities where ideas are cultivated, celebrated, and recognized.
The tools to create this ideal are all around us, she says. Empowering people is easier in our hyper-networked world. Social media and other digital platforms are making connections quicker and easier—one example is online petitions, which can gather and unite people behind a cause.
So why should your association embrace onlyness? Because it stands to benefit from the ideas and talents that staff and members are ready to contribute.
And associations should be looking for onlyness at the intersection of what Merchant called people’s horizontal and vertical identities. Horizontally, people might be defined by innate characteristics—things like language, birthplace, or ethnicity. Vertically, people connect based on inherent values and hopes.
That’s the sweet spot, Merchant says.
“This is how change is going to happen,” she says. “Stand in that spot where only you stand and see the ripples that go out into the world.”