December 2, 1995

Strong Voice: Get Comfortable but not Addicted to Your Own Sound

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“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another,
you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.
That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the movie Ray, there’s a scene where Ray Charles’s record producer, Ahmet Ertegun, challenges his protégé. “Ray,” he says, “I want to tell you something and I don’t want you to take it wrong.”
“Then give it to me straight.”
“I signed you because I sensed something special in you not because you sound like Nat King Cole or Charles Brown.”
“I thought you like what I do,” Ray replies.
“We … we love the timbre of your voice, we like your virtuosity, your energy …”
“But not my music …”
“C’mon man, I didn’t say that.”
“Ahmet, this is what I do, man. I gotta make a living. This is what people want. I don’t know no other way.”
“We gotta help you find one.”
The incomparable Ray Charles, the accomplished singer and songwriter, the dynamic performer was told to find his own voice. Not the pitch or the tone of his voice, but rather the substance behind it. He had all the tools a singer needed to make a living, but he hadn’t yet caught hold of the one thing that would set him apart: his unique signature. To this point, he was simply a talented copy. He didn’t know who he really was. Once he figured that out, once he found his voice, that’s when something really special happened.
Your voice is not just the sound coming out of your mouth. It’s the signature coming out of your life. It is that unique sound emerging from the chorus of life messages within you. It is the singular music that resonates forth as you operate within your created and discovered giftedness. It is the discovery of that which is distinctly me, or in your case, distinctly you. Having a job, getting a paycheck, or even succeeding, though, doesn’t necessary mean we have found our voice.
One of my mentors and teachers, the late Howard Hendricks often said, “All people are born original, but most people die a copy .” When I consider what it means to be ‘born original’, I think of the uniqueness that is woven into each of God’s creations. I think of my createdness. I was born with a certain skillset. I’m good at things that you’re not good at. You can do things I could never dream of doing. The ancients referred to this uniqueness as our vocatio, what many folks today refer to as “calling.” You and I are geared for something specific. Like an intricately constructed timepiece, we are built with a series of gears that perfectly run when in sync. Some possess a wide range of gears. Others only possess a few or even one. The amount doesn’t matter. What matters is that we realize that we were created with a purpose and were given the tools to carry out that purpose.
Unfortunately, many of us make decisions about our life and work based on what other people tell us about our voice, about how it should sound, and how we should use it. Because of this, we tend to choose careers, rather than callings. Putting aside what we know we were made for, we opt for stability and comfort over God-given passions and wiring. We say, ‘It’s just not practical,’ or ‘I’ll do that when I retire.” All the while, we suppress our unique voice until it’s so quiet that we hardly hear it, or even recognize it ourselves.
Why? Why do we so willingly lay aside something as profoundly important as our calling, and instead pick up something as common as a career. At least in part, it is because we have constructed a false dichotomy between the two. We’ve said, “You can follow your passions and do what you were made for, or you can be prudent, find a steady job and take care of your responsibilities. Prudent or Passionate. One or the other. You can’t have your cake and eat it to.
To that, I say, “Why Not?” Why can’t we be practically minded good stewards, and yet still honor our calling? Even if your current job doesn’t perfectly line up with your voice, that’s no excuse to ignore it.
Consider my friend Kyle. Not too long ago, Kyle spent several years working in a print shop. He knew he needed the job, but he also knew he was meant for something specific, and so the whole time he worked in the print shop, he also free-lanced as a writer. He worked hard at his career, and equally hard at his vocatio. Today, he’s a published writer.
My point here is that my friend didn’t let someone wedge him into a career that he wasn’t suited for. He dove deep into his createdness, his vocatio, and developed a strong voice. He’s an original not because he’s the only writer in the world, but because he’s found his unique voice in a career he was created to do.

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