Jo Saxton is an author, speaker, leadership coach, church planter and visionary, who empowers women, challenges societal stereotypes and helps people discover who they truly are, by seeing themselves the way God sees them. Born to Nigerian parents and raised in London, Jo brings a multi-cultural and international perspective to leadership. Recently, Story Collective editor Holland Prior spoke with Jo about her new book, The Dream of You: Let Go of Broken Identities and Live the Life You Were Made For, and their conversation traversed from calling to Wonder Woman to many places in between. Jo had so much incredible wisdom to share that we have decided to publish the interview in two parts, so check back next week for the second half. What follows here is an edited and abridged version of Jo and Holland’s conversation, and we encourage you to listen to the unedited audio recording as well (we love hearing Jo talk!).
[Holland Prior] Your new book is called The Dream of You: Let Go of Broken Identities and Live the Life You Were Made For. What does “the dream of you” mean?
[Jo Saxton] “The dream of you” is not just the things you’d like to do with your life—that would just be my dream of me. The definition I use of “the dream of you” in the book is God’s vision for your identity for and purpose—His dream of you. I was inspired by Ephesians 1:11-12, particularly the Message version, where it says it’s in Christ we find out who we are and what we’re living for. That’s why I called it the dream of you instead of His dream of you, because I think His dream of our lives is definitive, so I wanted God’s vision of our identity and purpose to be the standard.
Building off that, when we think about broken identities, how does a broken identity limit your life? Thinking specifically about women leaders, how do broken identities limit and shape what’s possible for us?
A broken identity can affect your mindset and then your approach. I think it’s common knowledge now that we don’t really live beyond what we believe about ourselves. We don’t dream beyond what we believe about ourselves and we don’t plan beyond it, so if we think we’re inadequate, we will live that way. If we think we are worthless, that will dictate how we live, how we love, and certainly how we lead (or whether we even bother). Basically, as we think in our hearts, so we are. That’s our core—we live, we love, we lead from the inside out.
What I’ve seen that is most common with women leaders is that they will lead to the degree they think they can get away with, rather than the degree to which they feel called. When I have a group of women leaders in the room, I ask them, “How many of you are living out your calling the best you can, except that you know there’s something else, something more—probably something more stretching that God has called you to—and you have deliberately put it on hold?” I’ve done this all around the country and with different ethnic groups, and every time over 80% put their hands up. When I ask, “Why? What are the things stopping you?” it often comes down to who do I think I am to think that I can do that too?
The last time I did this was in October at a leadership gathering with women, and I said, “You know, the questions we also have to ask ourselves are: What nonprofits aren’t being started? What businesses aren’t being launched? What churches aren’t being planted? What conversations in our families aren’t happening because we have been so frightened that we’re not going for it?” I think that’s another way to look at it. It’s no less challenging, but it’s an important thing to add: When we mute ourselves, when we mute our call, we mute kingdom opportunities as well.
In The Dream of You, you talk about how you had to “slay your giants” in order embrace your calling to speak and to lead. How did you first realize your calling?
I was 16 years old and I was at a youth camp, and I remember saying to the Lord, “I’ll do anything,” and the word that came to my mind was, “Preach.” And I thought, I’ll do anything else! I remember my youth pastor asked what I’d felt God was saying to me, and he took me seriously straight away, and I thought, This is a disaster! This is an absolute disaster! And he said, “Okay, when I speak in places you can come and do the Bible reading.” I became a Christian in a Methodist church, and they had a local preachers training system, and he said, “There’s no reason why you can’t do that.” I thought, there’s about a gazillion reasons why I can’t do that, actually, but he was so helpful. He helped me process, and I don’t think I would have slain the giants at all if someone hadn’t almost forced me.
In most chapters of my life I’ve needed someone to say, “You don’t see it, but this is what is happening. You’re not paying attention, but this is what is happening. Have you thought about this?” and I’m like, “Ummm…maybe?” That’s been true of writing, of leadership roles. Some of it is that I can be a little bit clueless on the obvious—I literally can. Some of it is I am naturally very ambitious, and that’s more to do with some of the systemic realities of being a black woman. In the environments I grew up in, you had to do double to be visible. So, I’m naturally very ambitious and I haven’t always trusted my ambition to be healthy. I’m definitely more proactive now, but I think with the initial spark of things, I often need someone to say, “Hey—pay attention to what’s actually happening around you.”
In your book, you talk a lot about how you wanted to be Wonder Woman as a child, but you describe how over time your desire to be Wonder Woman became toxic and you had to learn to let your overachieving and perfectionist, Wonder Woman identity go. How do you know when you’re overwhelmed by that weight of perfectionism?
I will love Wonder Woman as entertainment until the day I die. I was there, like all of us, shouting as she ran through no man’s land…because it was awesome! But, I think for me the Wonder Woman piece did align itself with the realities of some of the systemic racial inequities in the environments I’ve been in. Knowing that the reality was I would need to be more than. My aunt sat me down as a child and said, “Jo, two things: you’re a woman and you’re a black woman.” We see the painted barricades. I had to take a long, hard look at what being that driven was doing to my health.
The hard thing with being an overachiever is that it works for a while. Perfectionism does work for a while. When my aunt sat me down, it was one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given in my childhood because it was true. It taught me really quickly to position myself in a particular way. The problem was I applied it to everything.
When you’ve overachieving, you’re doing more than is necessary for basic recognition. You’re doing more than is required for the recognition and approval of others. I had to recognize that what helped me when I was 18 would not get me where I needed to be later in life. What helped me in certain things would be fundamentally damaging in other parts of my life, and I had to honest about it. Wonder Woman is great entertainment, but she’s not theology.
The other thing is that perfectionism does have a lot to do with fear. Fear is a brutal master. Fear of rejection is a very brutal master, and you’ll say yes to all kinds of things if you’re not careful. I’ve had to regularly face the fear of being disapproved of or disliked for various things, and I think for us as women leaders we have to reckon with that from time to time. As leaders in general, we all deal with that, but there are added nuances for us women and added nuances for women of color as well.
Although you’re doing a lot, perfectionism often directs it all at one table. It’s like, “if I do all this, I’ll get to sit at that one table.” And I thought, you know what, I might as well build my own table. I love going to other tables, but when my mentor (who was a guy) equipped me, he equipped me not just to sit at tables but to build my own. Maybe there are things with our giftings that may not be recognized in certain places but will be recognized in others. What I want to be sure of is that I’m living into my calling. I feel called to equip leaders, and if a place doesn’t create the environment to do that, what can I create that does?
You’re already speaking along these lines, but any further advice to women leaders as they try to navigate the balance between the tension to work hard and get everything done and to not fall into the perfectionist, overachieving identity?
We have to call it what it is, which is very, very hard. I have seasons where I retreat and ask the Lord what the priorities are. If I know it’s going to be a demanding season, my husband and I will process it. Whether you’re married or single, have someone who you process your stuff with—and I don’t just process with my husband, I process with my good friends as well. Sometimes you need someone else to look at your life and say, “What are you thinking? If this job demands this much of you, you’ve probably got a year you can do that for, and then you might burn out and die or get another job, so what are we going to do about that?”
Sometimes we work really, really hard in the hope that someone will notice so that we get that promotion or that opportunity. Sometimes we can just ask for the opportunity—cut out the middle man! Advocate for yourself. In our cultural nuances it can feel disrespectful or pushy, but if you’re able to use your God-given voice to say, “This is where I’d like to serve,” and you find out maybe that’s never going to happen, well you’ve just saved yourself from burnout in three years.
The thing I’m always struck by with the guys I’ve worked with is that they didn’t realize the women around were interested. They didn’t realize they needed to ask a woman more than once whether she was interested in a particular role. If we can begin to use our voices to articulate what we want, that may deal with some of the perfectionism because sometimes we channel our lack of voice into doing more.