Years ago I stumbled on this quote by Delia Ephron that was meant to help anyone find their own voice. “I have this rule I live by, only do what you can do. That means you’re never looking outside for what’s popular; you’re always looking inside for what’s true. You’re always looking for your own stories—the things that interest you, really.”
Of course, this is practical—some might even say obvious—advice from a woman who’s a best-selling author, screenwriter, and playwright. I had that pasted up on the side of a mug that held my writing implements in a place where I could see it multiple times a day. For a writer, voice is important. Even for a journalist, it’s the thing that makes your work particularly yours: the tone, the use of certain turns of phrase, the arc of a narrative, all add up to your personal style of communicating.
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve honed my voice. However, as with any craft, it will always be a work in progress. So it was with great interest that I came across Michelle Obama’s Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice.
I’d read her memoir and appreciated how the former First Lady shared her private struggles as she came of age, married, had children, and continued to build her career. Although her stage was much larger than my own, much of what she said as a woman was relatable. It led me to believe that she might have some insight that could illuminate a part of my career journey I’d yet to uncover.
I was right. These are the ways I found the journal helpful:
Knowing (and telling) your own story
Obama starts with an important observation: “If you don’t see that your story matters, chances are no one else will either. So even though it isn’t always easy, it’s important for you to find the strength to share your truth. Because the world needs to hear it.”
These questions are meant to spark contemplation about your personal story, but with a twist:
- What’s your story, and how have you learned to embrace it?
- Where did your story take a sudden turn?
A personal story is a tough thing to ponder, and these are a challenging couple of questions for most people, especially for those (like me) who are focused on others in their personal and professional lives. Although as humans, our brains are wired to talk about ourselves (sometimes ad nauseam), when put on the spot, we are hard-pressed to tell our own story in a meaningful way, even in broad strokes. If you don’t believe me, try it. Obama nudges her readers again later on in the journal with this challenge: Describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you.
This becomes an exercise in reminiscing and editing, but more importantly, it’s meant to work as a catalyst to push past what may or may not be seen as valuable to yourself—or the potential listener.
That’s because what to say is usually steeped in standard basics such as where you’re from, where you went to school, who your family is, or what you do for a living. However, the real story lies somewhere in between all those facts.
For example, I was the first woman in my adoptive family to graduate from college. There’s a lot of context loaded in that sentence that informs who I am and where I see myself in relation to others. Growing up outside my family of origin in a working-class family in the Bronx influenced me in many ways. But it took me a long time to own up to those formative years, and being able to admit them freely took many years.
Obama’s point that every story has value is in play in the small decisions we make when we reveal our stories to others. Embracing who you are fully and sharing it with those who may not know you well is important. It’s about self-acceptance and valuing your self-worth, and it’s something I am still learning to do.
So now, I am pushing myself to: 1. admit that my story has worth; and 2. actually write it down in a meaningful way that would be valuable to others.
One of the ways the journal helps is with the prompt to describe your proudest moment in the fullest detail possible. Sometimes it helps to rest on your laurels. But take it one step further and analyze what about that moment made you proud, and what skill or ability contributed to the achievement that you can use in your professional life.
Managing goals more effectively
Again this seems pretty basic on the surface, but several prompts, such as listing 10 things you want for yourself, can be pretty challenging when your work and life revolve around doing things for others.
As a working mother, I often put my personal objectives aside in the service of helping to support my family. Even listing one thing that I wanted just for me was a tough ask. It seemed too selfish, too insular, to want anything that doesn’t directly make a positive impact on my family. While Obama’s questions to readers are steeped in the familial—from listing favorite childhood activities to asking what you might say to a loved one who passed away—they are meant to explore what makes you unique and what might inform your decisions.
To help make the list of wants into actionable goals, Obama instructs readers to write “one simple step toward making that wish come true.” This is key to success for any goal, but it’s particularly important for larger ones such as getting a new job or a promotion. My colleague Anisa Purbasari Horton realized after she ran a marathon, got a promotion, and saved 20% of her income (all in one year!) that she never actually set out to specifically do any of those things. She’d committed to career development, for example. “They were things that I had control over—they were habit goals, which focused on the process, rather than achievement goals, which rests on the outcome.”
Obama’s prompt to encourage thinking of what one step toward a goal might look like for you is helpful because doing that one small thing can, over time, lead to a major achievement. Likewise for her other directive to figure out how you want to contribute to the world and decide how you’ll take one small step this year to further the contribution.
I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions; however, this gentle directive will have a big impact on working toward making my (modest) list of wants achievable over the course of 2020.
Thinking about fear and failure
A broad theme throughout the journal is perception. In order to find your voice you must first learn to quiet the noise inside your own head that perpetuates self-defeating behaviors. “Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately by fear,” she writes.
At Fast Company, we write a lot about the importance of failure and the lessons you can learn when things don’t go as planned. But failure is hard to swallow when you prepare and produce what you think is your best work. I experienced this myself when I didn’t make the cut for a particular project I was working so diligently to land. At the time, I had to put a brave face on and keep moving forward, not complain, and continue to complete the tasks at hand to the best of my ability. But what I really wanted to do (for at least a day or two) was to whine about the injustice to my closest companions.
Obama has several prompts that may seem unrelated at first, such as reflecting on the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done, penning a letter to your teenage self, listing people who’ve invested in you, and pondering whether you’ve ever been stereotyped. For the latter, Obama writes about how as a strong black woman, she was often seen as angry and had to work to temper her reaction when encountering that form of bias. When we fail, it’s easy to see how we could fall prey to wearing a mantle of self-doubt.
Composing a letter to your teenage self can work to solve that. It is an opportunity to reflect on how far you’ve come from whatever angst you may have suffered at 13 or 19 years of age. Remembering when you were spontaneous could also spark courage against self-doubt. Thinking about a time when you embraced the moment and stepped out of your comfort zone is powerful.
The people who provide a circle of support, who invested in you, completes the exercise. No matter how far you fall, there will always be someone to pick you up and help you find your way again.
The journal isn’t a silver bullet for instant personal and professional success. As Obama underscores, “Becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. It’s forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self.” I’m looking forward to reflecting back and moving along to becoming my own best self.