An Interview With Nilofer Merchant on Onlyness


I spent most of the last year feeling stuck in my career. My company, which I’d poured all my energy into for nearly five years, had shut down and I had completely lost track of my professional identity. Who was I now and what kind of job should I look for? And who would want to hire me, a failed entrepreneur?

Nilofer Merchant’s new book, The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World, spoke directly to that feeling and reminded me that my unique perspective is a strength, not a weakness. In the book, she introduces the powerful idea of “onlyness,” your spot in the universe that is unique to you, where your life experience and vision for the future collide. Reading the book reminded me that everyone, even me in my frustrated state, have ideas to contribute.

Finding my onlyness helped me focus on my passions, rather than my credentials, and think about the dent I want to make in the world—inside and outside the office. I may not look like a typical candidate for most jobs. In fact, I don’t look like anyone else, and that’s OK.

The Muse was lucky enough to sit down with author Nilofer Merchant to discuss her early experiences forcing a unique path and how you can use your onlyness to have more impact, in your current role and beyond.

How Do You Know What’s Within Your Control at Work if Your Boss and/or Company Follow Very Specific Protocols and Insist on Sticking to Existing Processes?

Often when I work with teams, they’ll say we’ve tried everything, or our boss won’t let us try everything.

So, I ask them, where’s the proposal of the idea that they rejected?

And most times, I get blank stares. Because, they never went that far. Instead, most of us act out of the fear of rejection rather than actually doing the work necessary to be rejected.

So, what I advise is this: Propose things so clearly that if they say no, you know you’ve done everything you could to give them a clear choice to act in such a way that grows the business.

If they reject that proposal, you know more about whether it’s a place for you. But if you’ve not done the analysis, gathered the data, and teed up the business case clearly, you’re not doing the part you can control.

What’s the First Step a Person Should Take if They’re Looking to Feel More Powerful in Their Current Role?

It’s counterintuitive to say big new ideas start by one person acting on what only they see. Yet, it’s the first step to being more powerful. Because others will see that action, and join in, so that you—plural—you, together make a new idea into a new reality.

This reminds me of a bank executive I recently met. She had an idea to serve the low-end of the market. But she didn’t tell anyone, because it might become evident that she grew up poor.

So her idea was stifled. Yet, if she spoke up, owning what mattered to her, based on that spot in the world where only she stood, she might very well find those who cared, too.

It could be an issue that bothers you, or a way something doesn’t work, or a question that perplexes you. But, by acting on what you see that matters, you go toward your own ideas.

How Do You Make Sure That Your Ideas—No Matter How Small—Are Impactful and Meaningful?

Now that you can grow and realize ideas through the power of networks, you have a new lever to move the world.

So, the key is to figure out why your idea deeply matters to you and use that to mobilize others. I mentioned the banker who cared about serving people? She knew that often the poor pay about 5% to cash their checks when they are the least able to afford that 5%.

It mattered to her because she had experienced that life. Imagine if she had shared how this idea was meaningful to her. Surely others would care about that problem.

This is how we scale an idea. By caring about the same things, your co‑denters become evident. Purpose can achieve something that money alone cannot, as it motivates the best in people and brings out the very best people.

When’s the First Time in Your Professional Life You Came to a Crossroads and Had to Decide Between Someone Else’s Choice or Making Your Own—and Made Your Own?

The General Manager of Apple Americans told me, “All of our products except one are declining in margin; only one isn’t, but that one has low revenues. Can you help me figure out how to grow the topline growth?”

To be entirely truthful, I didn’t know much about margins back then, or even growth strategies. But I answered, absolutely! Taking the spreadsheet, I went into my managers’ office and shared the exchange.

Instead of being excited, she said, “He’s been trying to tag everyone with that dog project.” She thought it was entirely unsolvable and proceeded to tell me all the super well-educated, and far more experienced people who had passed on it. And she advised me to do the same. I didn’t agree but I didn’t know what to say.

I could listen to her—or I could at least give it a shot.

So, I got going and did as many calls as I could that afternoon. One day later, I walked back into my boss’ office and said I had an idea for what would work. She was shocked that I didn’t listen to her. But, because I had a specific proposal, she listened. In the end, I got her support and the general manager’s, and ultimately the responsibility to run that idea.

Choices define us. The hand we’re dealt is just a starting point; it’s our choices afterward that reveal what genuinely matters to us. When we face these seemingly unmovable situations, we must decide between making someone else’s choice or our own.

It’s understandable how anyone can let the pressures of given situations, circumstances, or people around them define their next step. But it’s powerful–deeply so–to make your own choices, find your own path, open up your own door of opportunity— not just for yourself, but for your purpose.

Oh, and that business?

It was the Apple server business; which grew from $2M to $180M in less than 18 months. And I got to personally present that data to Steve Jobs in the first week he returned to Apple and helped bring it to back to life.

None of that was possible without acting toward solutions.

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