Finding Your Voice

There’s a world in which finding my voice would mean me confidently wearing Kuboraum’s whacky Venetian-inspired frames. In other words, not any time soon. Far more likely would be me cruising the Cape in one of these classic Merc 240s, beautifully captured by Moroccan-based photographer, Yassine Ismaili.  Almost certainly, if coupled with a lucky lottery-endowed windfall, it would mean a Larry’s List interior like these ones. Who wouldn’t want a Basquiat and a bright pink couch or a flying blue polar bear?

In other Africa art news, the website for one of the continent’s most prestigious art competitions – the Absa L’Atelier – has been nominated for a Webby Peoples Voice Award in the Arts and Culture category. The Webby Awards are the world’s leading awards for excellence on the Internet. You can vote for the L’Atelier site here.

/STRATEGY

The theme of today’s letter – Finding Your Voice – was set when stylish photographer Ed Suter, after reading last week’s letter building your brand, recommended that I listen to this conversation between author, Michael Lewis and acclaimed radio broadcaster, Ira Glass.

Both Lewis and Glass are well regarded in their professions of choice. They’re successful, but reflecting on their early work, they’re pretty scathing. Glass says that when he listens to his early radio work he thinks “How did this even end up on air?”

He recalls, years later, referring a producer back to some of his early work, suggesting that she may find something there that they could use. She came back to Glass, astonished, and told him that not only was there nothing usable from that early work, but also that “there was no sign that you have any talent for radio. There’s no sign that you’re going to make it.”

Glass laughs and says “I was wilful. I liked doing it and so I kept going.”

Lewis is similarly critical, reflecting that there are whole passages in his first book that make him cringe. Like Glass, his enjoyment of the process kept him going. He says, “The pleasure that I took in my own company while I was writing was central to the energy in the book.”

Neither of them intended to become who they now are. Glass says he ‘stumbled into’ his internship at National Public Radio. He laughs saying “I was just out for fun.” Lewis was determined to build a career on Wall Street. He had no inkling that he would become a best-selling author, nor did he plan to. It was his frustration of reading the financial press and thinking that the journalists were missing all the texture that prompted him to start writing.

This is a valuable clue to shaping a strategy for life or business. What frustrates you? What is fun for you? How might you solve that which frustrates you? It probably frustrates others. Do it in a way that is fun for you. Like Glass and Lewis, you’ll then keep going. We all start out clumsy. Even the most gifted athletes need training and coaching, but when we love doing it, we have the energy to get better.

Like Tyra Banks in last week’s letter, they remind us not to look through the wrong end of the telescope. When we are beginning a new phase in our career or building a new business, we can feel inept, and, to some degree, we are, but with intentional application we will get better. Starting out, we all need improvement. But, with effort and increasing clarity of vision, it changes. We get better. We build momentum.

Glass reflects that after years of radio journalism he is able to intuitively see how the pieces of a story will fit together. He can see it form before he creates it. Lewis draws an analogy with experienced fly-fishers; their years of knowledge allow them to ‘see’ the fish even when it’s invisible. In both instances, it is focused action and learning, experiencing failure and success, and looking for opportunities to improve and strengthen that lay the basis for mastery. With time you develop the capacity to know the unknown.

They reflect their frustration that their early works lacked authenticity. They were imitating ways of working that they felt were more appropriate, probably more professional. As they developed in confidence, their style become more personal, more authentic, and more powerful. They were themselves, therefore unique, and thus had something to offer.

The most powerful thing you can do in your business is to help your colleagues find their authentic voice, the place where their daily actions are fun and add energy to their lives. It might mean they leave your business. That’s fine. They’ll be happier. You can find someone who is enlivened by what your business needs. Don’t force people into boxed ways of doing things. Give them the outcomes, guide, and coach them as they find their way to achieving them.

The most powerful thing you do for yourself is to know yourself. Find your voice. Listen, and act accordingly.

/SELF

In January, a controversy erupted around audio-streamer Spotify’s policies on misinformation. If you’re interested in the full backstory, you can read it here.

What fascinated me, amidst all the noise, was how acclaimed author Brené Brown responded. So often I encounter binaries in how we think about the world. We can have high performance, or we can care for people. We can pay attention to standards and outcomes or emotions. We can do what the world requires or be authentic to ourselves.

Brown is known as the world’s vulnerability doyen. Her famous TED Talk is the Power of Vulnerability. The New Yorker’s extensive piece about her was titled Brené Brown’s Empire of Emotion. She has written books like The Gifts of Imperfection. With a billing like that, it would be easy to put her in the soft and fuzzy box – all emotion no performance. Her response was a powerful demonstration of what can happen when you have found your voice. She injected an AND into all those binary statements showing care, authenticity, bravery, and a commitment to excellence.

As the controversy gathered momentum, Brown received hundred of comments asking about her view. She decided to pause her podcast on Spotify until she had engaged with Spotify’s leadership about their policies.

The binary world of social media erupted. She reflected that “Sadly, on social media, my post has turned into a shit show, driven by unfounded accusations of censorship” but stated, “For everyone who said this pause was out of line with my work, you clearly skipped all of the places where I’ve talked about pausing, getting curious, and asking questions.”

She goes on to systematically address the issues with great clarity, saying “our collective well-being is best served when we approach debates and discourse with curiosity, critical thinking, and a healthy skepticism of false dichotomies.”

Brown concluded powerfully; “No matter what I say or what I do, some of you will be frustrated, disappointed, or pissed off. That’s OK. I will never stop sharing my opinions and beliefs to make anyone feel better, or more comfortable, or to gain your approval. Not now. Not ever.”

If you’re in a position where you might one day need to publish a statement in response to a crisis, you should read her piece. You can find it here.

/SOUL

This can all sound so easy. Find your voice and all is well. I don’t know about you, but I have had, and have many different voices. It’s not always clear to me which one is me, and even when I know it is me, it can have so many different tones. Being human can be bewildering. It is for this reason that I return to fiction. In telling stories we can explore the complexity that is often hidden. The great author takes into their characters’ imaginations often revealing our own fears and hopes.

Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novel Crossroads immerses us in the complexity of being human. He tells the story of the Hildebrandts. The father, Russ, a pastor, is unseated by a more charismatic youth pastor. As he searches for relevance, he steadily unravels. He makes decisions he finds absurd, that leave him despairing.  The mother, Marion, journeys to reconnect with her past that, with time, seemed to hold more promise than it had, only to find it repellent once again. The children chart their own journeys, also filled with humbling reversals compensated for by moments of understanding and closer connection.

Franzen explores the moments in which we betray ourselves. He shows us losing and discovering ourselves. Multiple, messy times. It’s not an easy read. Yet, somewhere in it I found some comfort that we are all, always evolving. Or perhaps, I am feeling overly contemplative as on Wednesday I enter the last year of my forties. Maybe, as Brené Brown taught us today, it is both. My birthday is soon, it feels like a significant landmark, so I am feeling contemplative AND I love that we are all always evolving, that as Banks, Glass and Lewis show us, following our strengths can help us evolve our purpose.

I hope that you have a restful long weekend, if you are fasting that you are finding a place of peace, if you are celebrating, that it is joyful. Whichever it is, I hope that you hear your voice and the voices of that who guide you.

Karl

PS: If you’re curious about what it is like to work with me, click here for recent comments by my clients of mine. If you want more insight, read the ‘recommendations’ section of my LinkedIn profile.

Strategy, Soul and Self

Register to receive reflections on leadership and life