Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work

Find Your Voice

Writers use the expression “finding your voice” to describe the process of developing a unique style that suits one’s personality. You could randomly select a paragraph from any book by Hemingway or David Foster Wallace or Eudora Welty and in reading that paragraph you could deduce its author, if you knew the author well enough, devoid of context, just by noting the author’s language. When a writer achieves that type of distinctive style, we say that they’ve “found their voice.” Who they are emanates from the page in the language they choose.

The same could be said of any musician or athlete or artist. Or, for that matter, any professional who has mastered his or her craft.

Most of us think of high-level success and assume that talent is the basis for top performance. And of course, talent is a pre-requisite to world-class performance. But we often underestimate that world-class performers must also create and master a unique skillset to pair with that talent – a style or a voice that is sui generis – before achieving world-class performance. High-level performance isn’t just about talent and work ethic. It’s about talent, work-ethic, and a long process of self discovery to maximize talent by leveraging unique gifts to achieve a result that cannot be matched by anyone else.

What we think of as “finding your voice” is about harmonizing strategy and technique in a craft to match unique personality and skills. When two individuals have clear differences in talent, the need to adjust style to talent is obvious. To use an easy basketball example, John Stockton and Shaquille O’Neal are both Hall of Fame basketball players. Still, each had to develop a style to reflect their very different physical gifts. At 7’ 1’’, 325 pounds, with quickness most people a foot shorter would envy, O’Neal probably knew he was going to play basketball, and play it the way he did, with sheer athleticism that could overwhelm almost any opponent. At 6’ 1’’, John Stockton was more of a long shot. If he had tried to play like Shaquille O’Neal, using size and athleticism to overwhelm opponents, he wouldn’t have made his high school basketball team, much less the basketball hall of fame. That strategy might have worked on a middle-school opponent, but as we move up the competitive ladder, our skills must be more exceptional to remain competitive. So he developed a style with a series of exceptional skills: near-perfect free-throw shooting, top-class ball-handling, transcendent passing ability with both hands, excellent three-point shooting, and relentless defense based on his elite stamina. Despite totally different physical gifts and less stereotypically valued basketball skills from what Shaquille O’Neal had, Stockton still became one of the most successful basketball players ever, and he did it by nurturing a style that reflected his talents.

Josh Waitzkin, Renaissance Man, Meta-Learner, Purveyor of Voice-Discovery

I first started thinking about this idea when I heard an interview with chess prodigy and Tai Chi push hands world champion Josh Waitzkin, who was the subject of the book and movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer. Waitzkin is an expert on meta-learning, or the study of how to learn. He wrote the book, The Art of Learning, where he describes how he applied the principles he had learned in becoming an 8-time-consecutive national chess champion to become a world champion competitor in Tai Chi.

It could be that Waitzkin is just that talented, if we believe that success is all about talent. But that’s not what he believes. He believes, and he has convinced me, that his true talent isn’t either chess or Tai Chi, but rather that “what [he] is best at is the art of learning.”

Waitzkin had a precocious ability to incrementally improve his skills and absorb new information as a student of chess. And when he found a new love in Tai Chi at the age of 20, he realized that the skills he had developed in teaching himself to learn at an accelerate rate in chess could also be applied to Tai Chi. Though one sport was mostly cerebral and the other mostly physical, the model of learning he had created as a chess prodigy was replicable in the new field. That’s what made him realize that what he had uncovered was not just an exceptional reservoir of talent, but rather a model of how to learn that would enable him to become a world-class performer in multiple disciplines.

Today, Waitzkin is a coach, and he spends his time teaching hedge fund managers and other aspiring top performers how to maximize their talents and to achieve world-class performance.

I recently re-read the Art of Learning, and I was struck by the degree to which Waitzkin emphasized the importance of discovering voice as a pre-requisite to success. It would be an oversimplification to try to distill his philosophy into one principle, but he repeated time and again that the more he studies high-level performance, the more he believes in the need to develop an introspective sensitivity to discover, refine, and master a unique voice in one’s craft.[1] To be great, you need to discover and refine skills that you possess that no one else can replicate. He references this throughout his book, The Art of Learning:

I believe that at the highest levels, performers and artists must be true to themselves. There can be no denial, no repression of true personality, or the creation will be false – the performer will be alienated from his or her intuitive voice. p. 210

In my experience the greatest of artists and competitors are masters of navigating their own psychologies, playing on their strengths, controlling the tone of battle so that it fits with their personalities. p. 217

For this reason, almost without exception, champions are specialists whose styles emerge from profound awareness of their unique strengths, and who are exceedingly skilled at guiding the battle in their direction. . . . Sure, I am a good athlete, but frankly there would be many fighters in Taiwan who were more gifted than me physically. But there would be no other fighter who could keep up with me strategically. p. 221

To have any chance in the in the ring with him, I would have to dictate the tone of battle and make Chen Ze-Cheng play chess with me. p. 221 (emphasis added)

Of course, like all world-class competitors, Waitzkin spent endless hours in the gym and in the ring putting himself in the best shape possible. But this was only a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to his success. The thing that got him to the pinnacle of Tai Chi wasn’t training, it was self-discovery.

Work as Art

Most of us don’t think of our work as art. Work is work and art is art.

Throughout most of my career, I certainly didn’t view my work as art or a craft or anything of the sort. Work was the time when I earned money to pay my bills and then in my spare time I would pursue my passions. But as the years went by with this philosophy, I found that my work suffered and so did my creative projects. I had stopped getting positive feedback from personal or professional endeavors. It turns out I wasn’t much of a professional or an artist. It was a vicious cycle, one that I only escaped by quitting my job and starting my own law practice.

The longer I work, the more I realize that the most successful professionals view their work as a craft, wherein they express their innermost being through their work, in the same way that Waitzkin talks about top-level artists, performers, and competitors. It may sound hokey, but professionals must use their unique experience and talents at work every day. Those who don’t are just a facsimile or pretending to be someone else. And those who pretend to be someone else, as smart and as talented as they might be, will always be a step behind the original.

By engaging in a constant process of introspection, we learn more about what makes us unique. That process of discovery, valuable in its own right, also becomes a competitive advantage. That competitive advantage then emerges as the vision of what we should be doing more and what we should be doing less.

In my experience, by trying to silo personality into time slots, it tarnishes the power of personality. By that, I mean that work and art cannot be separated if either is to be any good. As Waitzkin said about elite performers, everything must be a reflection of true personality or the creation will be false. And any such false creation, in my experience, will fail as a product of inferior quality.

Evolution Over Time

Of course, this voice may evolve over time. Early in Bob Dylan’s career, he sounded exactly like Woody Guthrie, his music idol. As he progressed in his early acoustic days, he developed an acoustic style more his own. Then he plugged in and made a sea change with his sound for Highway 61 Revisited. And his music in the 21st century sounds nothing like those late ‘60s albums. At a Dylan show, he might play your favorite song and you might not recognize it, because he’ll change the time signature or the drum part or play in a different key.

But it is all so quintessentially Dylan.

Athletes slow as they age. Professionals might lag in technology. Our memories might not be what they once were. Our talents aren’t just a function of personality, they’re also a function of time. Bob Dylan doesn’t sing like he did when he was 25 because his voice doesn’t sound the same. If we want to improve as we age, we cannot deny reality. We must adapt to it. And seek out new challenges where our evolving gifts will allow us to reach our fully evolving potential.

Do Your Special Work

I’ve spent plenty of time ruminating over the struggle of how to find meaning and purpose in work. Of course, to an extent, this a problem of privilege. For my grandparents and great-grandparents in Ireland in the early parts of the 20th century, life was about survival and, I imagine, enjoying as many moments as possible along the way. I doubt they spent much time thinking about meaning and purpose in their work.

But to the extent that we have the choice, and to the extent that we can create the option, we perform at the highest level when our unique disposition and our skillsets are aligned, and we spend our days on projects that make use of that special combination. Some may call this “finding our voice.” Some describe it as “a calling.” I like it to call it my “Special Work.” But it doesn’t matter what you call it. What does matter is that we seek it out and never stop seeking it out as long as we live. Whether in middle school or in retirement, doing our Special Work, whatever it might be, makes us feel fully human and fully engaged. And that’s the only way to live.

If you’re Shaquille O’Neal or built like a sumo wrestler and living in Tokyo, it might be obvious what your Special Work is. If you’re like me, you may spend the journey of a lifetime trying to figure it out. The less distinctive and obvious the skills, the greater the importance of knowing what’s unique about them, and the greater the importance of prolonged introspection to discover your skills.

This process of churning, iterative self discovery is the foundation for growth.As long as you acknowledge the importance of continuous discovery and maintain a growth mindset, you’ll be fine as long as you persevere. Don’t feel bad if you feel as though you’re missing something because you don’t have it all figured out yet. Few do. And those that do will always lose the path if they stop learning and growing. ‘

That’s it. Discover your voice, and then express it in everything you do, particularly in the things you do best. That may be the closest thing to a “secret to success” that there is.

[1] Apart from finding one’s voice, the other key component of his philosophy is the notion of resilient presence, which is fascinating and undeniably important, but not relevant to the discussion here. Read the book.