October 15, 2002
Embracing Your
Signature Style

The World Needs
What Makes You Unique
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Among living vintage jazz musicians, few are more venerated than guitarist Jim Hall. Though his is not a household name, jazz insiders--and guitarists especially--regard Hall, now in his seventies, as an extraordinary talent and elder statesman for the genre. Not a few believe him to be the greatest living jazz guitarist in the world.

In a documentary on his life and music, Hall talks about guitarists he admires. He voices profound appreciation for blues music and those who perform it, singling out B.B. King as one of his heroes. “I’d rather listen to B.B. King play four notes than most guitarists play all evening,” he remarks.

What’s stunning about Hall’s comment and his esteem for King is that King has about one-twentieth of Hall’s raw talent and musical understanding. Hall is conservatory trained, while King learned his skill in bars and on the streets. Hall’s music is broad-based, while King’s is narrowly focused.  I’ve never heard King strum a chord or two notes together; he plays only single-note solos, and at a relaxed pace far short of the warp speed of so many modern guitarists.

Yet King has a cherished quality that in music is called “signature style.” His music is immediately identifiable, deeply enjoyable--and, just as important, believable, for it perfectly reflects his personality and musical taste, and works for him amazingly well. It’s King’s piercing expression of heart through his music that draws the affection of Jim Hall and many others who greatly outdistance him in terms of general musical skill.

Even the most talented musicians often fail to develop a signature style. Though highly skilled in the technicalities, their music lacks a distinctive personality that others quickly recognize. Witness so many modern rock guitarists, caught up in how many 32nd notes they can flail in a single measure.

King couldn’t pick successive 32nd notes if his life depended on it. Yet his style has won the hearts of listeners worldwide, and the respect of musical masters like Jim Hall.

This doesn’t mean that King--and others with strong musical personality--don’t continue to grow and improve. King was at his zenith when I saw him perform at age 75 last year. Yet he has honed his craft within certain clear boundaries, and has had the wisdom not to stray far from his roots. It’s the hallmark of those with signature style that they know their limits and don’t set unrealistic goals. Signature style is defined as much by knowing what you can’t (or shouldn’t) do as by knowing what you can.

While signature style is most obviously observed in musicians and artists, it is also a quality available to each of us as we confront life on all levels. God gives to each of us a uniqueness in our approach to life that is well described by this term. “Signature style” is the way we express our individuality to others. It’s influenced by everything that makes us distinctive--our personality, talent and potential, physical features and energy level, and the circumstances that shape our life. Appreciating our signature style, and embracing it, makes an enormous difference in both the level of success we experience and our general enjoyment of life.

One of the most meaningful ways we can express our signature style is through the roles we assume by employing our gifts and abilities. These may include a job, homemaking, hobbies, parenting, church or ministry responsibilities. What’s so thrilling about this concept is that we don’t have to be the best in any of these areas to know that we’re helping others in the most substantial way possible, and fulfilling God’s best intentions for us. We diminish our benefit to others, in fact, by straying too far outside of our signature style--by pushing ourselves too hard, taking on unreasonable goals, or trying to fit into a mold that isn’t right for us. There is great relief in realizing we can most effectively serve Christ and others by respecting our limits.

Signature style plays a significant role in our friendships and relationships as well. Our success in finding friendship depends on our ability to convey love to others and show an interest in their needs and concerns. Yet the manner in which we do this is unique, dependent on how God has made us as an individual. This means that certain friendships will be more available to us, others less so. The point is liberating, for it means we don’t have to burden ourselves with trying to make a friendship or relationship work that isn’t succeeding in spite of our best efforts. I have on several occasions sensed relief when I’ve suggested to someone I’m counseling, “You don’t need this high-maintenance relationship you’re trying so hard to develop. You’re happier without it. It just isn’t right for you.”

The Comparison Trap

This isn’t to say that most of us accept our individuality, and express it in such a way that our life can be said to have a signature style. We instinctively fall into a grass-is-greener mentality about our gifts and accomplishments, in which we regard others’ as more important than our own. This negative comparing isn’t always detrimental to us. It can encourage healthy humility and inspire us to work harder at realizing the potential we truly have. Yet all too often we carry it beyond a constructive level, to the point that we base our self-worth on how well we can match the talent and achievements of others. We set goals based on others’ potential rather than our own, and downplay the importance of what we naturally do well.

We fall into such unhealthy comparisons in our friendships, also, and especially with romantic relationships. So many lock in to ideals for a spouse based on others’ marriages that they esteem. They miss the fact that their own relationship needs are significantly different, and fail to appreciate the sort of relationship that is uniquely right for them.

In judging our productiveness, we match ourselves against others in two unfortunate ways. One is through vertical comparing. Here we compare ourselves to others in more prestigious or challenging roles, and conclude that their work is more needed than ours. Nurses, for instance, often admit to feeling inferior around the doctors and surgeons with whom they work, who seem to be making a more heroic contribution to patients’ needs. Paralegals likewise feel inferior to attorneys, teachers to principals, secretaries to their bosses, board members to CEOs, employees to company heads--and so it goes throughout the professional world.

It is no different in the field of ministry. I once gave a seminar on knowing God’s will to Christians at a southern Naval base. I stayed at the home of the chaplain who had invited me and over the weekend talked with him at length. I found myself thinking, “This man is a real Christian. He’s in the trenches with servicemen and women laboring sacrificially, while I’ve defaulted to a job I enjoy. He’s clearly giving more to the mission of Christ.”

During that seminar I built up to the point that we are most effective for Christ when we’re doing work that reflects our gifts and motivational pattern. Finally, the chaplain stood up and said he had a confession to make to everyone. For the longest time, he’d esteemed foreign missionaries as the real servants of Christ, he explained. He’d long felt guilty that he’d opted for a job he loved--military chaplaincy--instead of the sacrificial role of the missionary. Only now was he beginning to think that he might be exactly where God wanted him.

So it is that we in ministry roles so often assume that those in positions which seem more burdensome than ours are doing more for Christ’s kingdom. Yet if they are effective in these roles, it’s precisely because their mission isn’t backbreaking to them but fits their personality well. Others are drawn to them because they enjoy their work so much--and this love for what they do is at the heart of their success.

Scripture never suggests that certain higher gifts or roles in ministry are more important to Christ’s mission than certain others. Nor does it imply that those in positions of ministry leadership, nurture or teaching are more productive for Christ than the vast majority of us who are not in these roles. Paul, in fact, comes close to saying the opposite when, in comparing spiritual gifts to parts of the human body, he notes, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor 12:22). Here he implies that behind-the-scenes roles in ministry are more essential to Christ’s work than up-front positions.

Whether in relation to ministry or career opportunities, the consistent position of Scripture is that we make the greatest contribution to the mission of Christ, to the world, to the needs of others, and to any enterprise in which we’re involved, by taking on responsibilities that best fit our abilities and temperament. Ultimately, it is God’s responsibility to see that the important needs are met in all of these areas. We best recognize how he wants us to fit in by understanding the unique way he has created us, then choosing roles that respect that design. If out of envy for others’ accomplishments or low self-esteem we try to move outside of this design too greatly, we work against his purposes.

Thinking in terms of our life having a signature style deepens our appreciation of the fact that God has made us distinctively individual, and helps us focus on what we can do and can do best. It can be a valuable step in breaking the habit of vertical comparing.

Beyond Peer Envy

This outlook helps us also to resist horizontal comparing. Even if we accept that God wants in roles that match our gifts, we may still be inclined to compare ourselves unfairly with others who have talents similar to our own. As a programmer, for instance, you’re discouraged to find that others in your organization can code faster than you, or are quicker at solving certain problems. Or it’s frustrating to you as a writer that others write books voluminously in their downtime, as they’re rushing from event to event on planes, while you require lots of unhindered private time to get the same results.

The temptation to compare horizontally is especially great when our work requires us mainly to employ a single skill, or to focus on a narrow scope of responsibility. Then it’s most natural to notice others filling a role similar to our own, and our inclination to compare ourselves with them is most instinctive. Yet it’s axiomatic that, no matter how skilled we are in any one area, if we compare ourselves with others in light of that single talent, we’ll always find many who surpass us--if not within the organization where we work, then outside of it. With the advent of modern media, the Internet and search engines, it’s all too easy to find those who share our skill and outshine us, and it’s inevitable that we will.

Appreciating that we have a signature style helps us to avoid horizontal comparing. We’re reminded that while many may surpass us in the raw technicalities of a skill, no one else brings our specific personality and life experience to bear through that gift. This means we’re positioned to make certain contributions through it that no one else can make as well. Add to this the human encounters that come from using our gift. In God’s providence we’ll be there at just the right moment to minister to certain people and will be the best person able to do so, because of who Christ has made us to be.

Signature style also brings to mind that our God-given uniqueness involves not just a single talent, but a broad mix of abilities and features. While we’ll always find many who outperform us in relation to any one ability, we’ll never find any one who has our characteristics in the same combination. In this sense, God has made us wholly distinctive--as different from any other human as our fingerprints are different. This means we will be able to do certain creative work, and relate to others for Christ’s sake, in ways no one else is as well equipped to do.

Recognizing the importance of signature style, and respecting the impact of our own, helps us to move beyond both horizontal and vertical comparing. We’re better able to appreciate the critical roles God has for us to play in a world where it might seem that all the important work is already being done by others.

Signature Style in Scripture

We find among people in Scripture numerous inspiring examples of signature style. Time and again we see those who did God’s will and performed vital tasks in his mission, yet through roles that reflected the stamp of their individual personality and gifts.

Luke is a compelling example. In spite of his major contributions to the New Testament (his Gospel plus Acts), little is said explicitly in the Bible about Luke as a person. Paul notes briefly in three places that Luke was with him but offers no details (Col 4:14, 2 Tim 4:11, Philem 1:24), and Luke never speaks specifically about his own role in any of the events he describes. We wouldn’t know that he had traveled extensively with Paul, were it not that in Acts 16:10, he shifts to the third personal plural in describing Paul’s activities (“After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia”). He maintains this literary touch for the rest of Acts, indicating he was a member of Paul’s traveling party throughout the long period he chronicles there.

What becomes clear about Luke, when we read between the lines, is that he broke the norm for Paul’s associates. While the rest gave themselves relentlessly to public ministry--through teaching, evangelizing, debating--he was a fly on the wall, quietly observing and recording all their activities. He also spent considerable time researching the early Christian movement, talking with witnesses of Jesus’ ministry and events in the emerging church--all with the intent of providing written records of these affairs.

I have to imagine it was often difficult for Luke, while journeying with Paul, to be an introvert in an extrovert’s world. His companions were immersed in activist ministry, where major results were immediately evident. He, on the other hand, could only hope that his project would eventually see the light of day, and that possibility was years away at best. The temptation to compare himself unfavorably with the gifted teachers and leaders around him was probably substantial, and he may have wondered at times if he should put aside his meticulous scholarship and devote himself to public ministry like them. Then he’d at least be confident he was meeting glaring needs and accomplishing something worthwhile with his life.

He probably found it hard to avoid horizontal comparing too, for as he notes in the introduction of his Gospel, many others were writing histories of Jesus’ ministry at this time (Lk 1:1). He easily could have concluded his effort was superfluous, and that his own production would be inferior to theirs. Yet Luke showed impressive faith in believing he could make a contribution to this written history that no one else was in a position to provide. The results were a gospel that, because it bears his signature style, has ministered to countless millions for twenty centuries--plus Acts of the Apostles, the only surviving record of the history of the very early church.

We may thank God that Luke had the strength of conviction to hold firm to his goal of producing these records, and to press on till he reached his objective. Or, to say it differently--that he had the courage to be himself and to follow the path of his gifts, even though this meant putting aside many other worthwhile options for ministry. His example inspires us to take our own uniqueness seriously, and to stay faithful to the goals and dreams that God establishes for us.

A Fresh Look at Mary and Martha

Among females who showed signature style in Scripture, Mary and Martha are intriguing examples. Both ministered greatly to Jesus and both are put forward as important role models in the New Testament, yet their personalities could not have been more different. During two dinners that these women hosted for Jesus, Mary was far more sociable with Jesus than Martha (Lk 10:38-42, Jn 12:1-8). She gave Jesus personal attention--sitting at his feet while he taught on the first occasion, then anointing his feet with perfume on the second. Martha gave her full attention to serving the meals at both events.

At the first dinner, Martha grew irritated with Mary for not helping her, and Jesus criticized Martha for being hard on her sister. Many assume Jesus was implying that Mary had the ideal Christian personality, and that those who are detail-conscious like Martha should modify their temperament to become more personable like Mary. Jesus, though, criticized Martha for not letting Mary be herself. He never implied that Martha’s conscientious concern with preparing the meal was out of place.

It becomes clear as we read on in the Gospels that Martha also had much to give by being herself. Following the death of their brother Lazarus, Jesus came to Bethany to console these two women and their friends (Jn 11). In this case the highly sanguine Mary is too grief stricken to give Jesus any support. It’s Martha, rather, who rises to the occasion, greets Jesus and briefs him on what has happened. In the conversation that ensues, Martha makes the most explicit declaration about Jesus being the Christ found in the Gospels, indicating she has now come to faith in him (Jn 11:27). Jesus then proceeds to raise Lazarus from the dead.

It’s following this incident that Mary and Martha again hold a dinner celebration at their home, with Jesus as their honored guest. We might imagine that, because of her spiritual transformation, Martha would now be displaying a personal style more like Mary’s. Instead, John notes, “Martha served” (Jn 12:2). She is still as intent as ever with getting the details of the banquet right. The one difference now is that there’s no mention of Martha’s being annoyed with Mary for socializing with Jesus and not helping her. Martha, it seems, is content with letting Mary be herself. Faith has brought an important character change to Martha--but not a personality change.

Far from suggesting there is an ideal Christian personality, then, these incidents involving Martha and Mary dispel that myth. They demonstrate that God creates individuals with markedly different gifts and inclinations. These women’s examples encourage us to take our own individuality seriously. They show, too, that while one person’s personality shines in one situation, another’s does so under different circumstances. We’re reminded of one of the most important factors of signature style: We cannot be all things to all people. Yet we can make a vital difference in the lives of certain people in certain situations, and each of us has significant work to do for Christ during our days on earth.

Realizing Your Highest Potential

The corollary is that, if we don’t respect our individuality--in how we live, and in the choices we make--others will be deprived of important benefits that God wishes them to reap from our life. Being the individual God has made us takes courage, though, and is a greater challenge than we usually expect. To meet it, we need all the inspiration we can get. Biblical examples like those we’ve cited help tremendously. So does the concept of signature style, for it helps us appreciate how others enjoy the expression of our individuality and derive advantage from it.

We agonize so often as Christians over questions of God’s guidance. “What does God want me to do with my life?” “What is his will for this pressing decision?” Yet God has already given us elaborate insight into his will in the matchless way he has fashioned each of our lives. There is guidance in this individuality, and it’s often the most explicit direction God provides us in our important decisions. Our responsibility is to come to grips with this individuality as best as we can, then to make choices that allow others to benefit most fully from who we are. By taking this approach, we’ll ensure that our life is having the greatest possible impact for Christ, and we’ll open ourselves most completely to experiencing his abundant life.

And you can sign your name to that.

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