I was in my midtwenties when I met Gwen. My college days were over, and it was a matter of working, investing in my calling, and building my adult life. I started working at my local church, and for the first year, I felt like a fraud on a daily basis. My favorite band, the Brand New Heavies, had an album track with a line that went, “Why you such a FAKE!” and I heard it in my head most days.
If only I had the skills and gifts and personalities of some of my peers.
Gwen was the director of a community gospel choir, an incredible soloist, and a vocal coach for singers and public speakers. We met in her living room. Gwen knew how to cultivate and encourage those in a community to use their voices in all their distinct beauty, so she could tell immediately that, though I was breathing well and doing all the basics, though I was using a voice, I hadn’t quite found my voice yet.
I wanted to sound like my favorite artists. I wanted to sound as smooth as Anita Baker, as deep and soulful as Toni Braxton, and have the vocal genius of Whitney Houston. I wanted to sound like anyone who I felt sounded better than boring old me. And the “sound” I idol¬ized wasn’t in my range or a natural fit. Gwen challenged me gently one day to try to embrace my own voice rather than see it as a limita¬tion, and I burst into tears.
In the weeks and months that followed, Gwen coached, nurtured, mentored, and encouraged me to allow my voice to come out, choos¬ing pieces that suited who I actually was rather than who I aspired to keep up with. And I was better for it, not only in singing but also in how I viewed every aspect of my life.
Einstein once said, “Be a voice, not an echo.” One of the chal¬lenges in uncovering our voices is that we allow ourselves to be who we actually are. To live and lead and contribute to the world just as we are. It’s understandable that we sometimes assume only the voices deemed popular are the ones worth listening to and that we shape our voices in their images (or again silence our own). It’s as though our contributions—the way we lead, raise kids, negotiate, create art, serve—aren’t valid if they’re not in the same form as those celebrated around us.
It can be a challenge to discern where inspiration crosses over to unhelpful copycat imitation.
I recommend asking some of the following questions to help you uncover your voice. Not every question will be relevant. See which ones lead you forward in uncovering your voice, or use them as a springboard into the question you really want or need to ask yourself.
•Inspiration is still an important place to start, but to ensure you don’t become an echo, dig a little further. Who inspires you and why?
• You’ll find your voice at the core of your values, the things you stand for, the passion you won’t let go of. What change would you like to see in your world, work, community, family, and society? What do you think should be done to make the world around you a better place?
• Take a moment to reflect on your childhood, what you wanted to be when you grew up. Where are your child¬like dreams, signposts to your identity and purpose?
• Another way to uncover your true voice is to remember who you were before life, people, and expectations interrupted or invalidated you. What would you say or do differently if you were not afraid of failing or of what people might think of you?
• Think about your personality type. What tools and resources might help you understand how you’re wired? Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, StrengthsFinder, Ennea¬gram, DiSC Profile?
• Consider your skill set, qualifications, and experience. What are you good at? How would you describe your accomplishments?
• Imagine someone gave a speech about your life’s work and accomplishments. What do you hope they’d say about you? What would you want your legacy to be?
• Gwen saw and valued something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. Then she constantly affirmed who I was until I believed her. What do the trusted voices in your life say about your voice and potential?
What are you learning about your voice?
Jo Saxton is an author, speaker, podcaster, and entrepreneurial coach. Born to Nigerian parents and raised in London, Jo brings a multicultural and international perspective to her leadership training for women. A sought-after speaker, Jo has a diverse calendar addressing universities, churches, national conferences, nonprofits, and corporations, including Q, Catalyst, Evereve, NoonDay Collection, LakeShore Media, and internationally in the U.K. and Australia. She is co-host of the podcast Lead Stories and the founder of the Ezer Collective, an initiative that equips women in leadership. Jo is the author of three books, including The Dream of You.
Excerpted from Ready to Rise: Own Your Voice, Gather Your Community, Step into Your Influence. Copyright © 2020 by Jo Saxton. To be published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on April 14.