“Onlyness. It’s not a word in the English dictionary, but it should be.” We sat down with author, TED Talk speaker and innovator Nilofer Merchant to talk about her new book The Power of Onlyness, and the role that the PatientsLikeMe story plays in it.
Advocating for “Onlyness”
Nilofer has been championing the idea of “Onlyness” since 2012, when she first introduced the term in her Harvard Business Review-published book 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era. “Onlyness” is the idea that “each of us, every single one of us can add value in the world. Not just the credentialed people, not just the educated people, but each and every single one of us.
“The young, the sick, the neglected – these are not typically the people whose ideas are heard.” She says. “Most often, whether ideas are considered or dismissed is based on who contributes them, and how powerful their sponsors – not the ideas themselves – are.”
Raising a collective voice
Nilofer studied over 300 examples of companies bringing “Onlyness” to the forefront and chose 20 to feature in her book, including PatientsLikeMe.
“PatientsLikeMe is allowing the levers and power systems to benefit the user,” she says. “It’s also letting users actually say ‘here’s my experience with this medicine’ which is an incredibly empowering thing. It lets us compare notes, it lets us not feel alone, we start to ask better questions, we can help each other. So of course it’s going to change the healthcare system because in the past the doctor was the expert, but you’re the only expert of your own life and your own body.”
The book dives into how current systems, from healthcare to business and more, are set up in a way that keep the “experts” in charge. Nilofer, however, explores and reveals the power of what she refers to as a “distributed network” where each of us can gather around a shared purpose, and, by connecting our shared will, become powerful enough to make change happen.
Turning up the volume
In the book, Nilofer shares the story of Ed Sikov, a PatientsLikeMe member living with Parkinson’s disease. Ed visits PatientsLikeMe every day, as he explains, because it can “help the next guy.” By sharing about his treatments, symptoms, side effects and more, he’s joining a powerful collective voice that demands to be heard.
“When I share information, I help others,” says Ed in the book. “It might become clear that one treatment works better for people my age, or that simple shift of when I take a drug changes how I respond. Sharing my own data lets all of us have more insight.”
Harnessing your “Onlyness”
Nilofer says she wrote this book “to try to talk to how much we screen people out based on titles, based on packaging…and we do it to ourselves, too. 61% of us tell ourselves that our own opinions and ideas don’t count. We negate ourselves instead of celebrating that thing only we can bring. We end up seeing ourselves through the boxes that other people see us in.”
So how can you own your “Onlyness”? “It’s about claiming your own life story as relevant,” Nilofer says. “The first step of claiming “Onlyness” is to claim that spot in the world where only you stand. It’s to accept, and celebrate and embrace all of it, whatever it looks like, even if it doesn’t look like conventional thinking. That’s how really new ideas come to bear.”
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