Reinventing myself & not letting fear control me
2nd June 2023
Jigs Patel knew that optometry wasn't the right career for him. But would his fear of stammering stand in the way of chasing his dreams?
Growing up, I always knew that I was different from other kids. Talking was particularly difficult, as I would freeze up and even hold my breath to the point where I nearly passed out. My teachers couldn't understand what was happening and my parents were lost and scared.
As East African immigrants, my parents had worked tirelessly to give me and my sister the best education and they were determined to help me 'overcome' this challenge. They arranged for me to have speech therapy and even had me undergo a brain scan at Harley Street. Although we didn't come from money, my parents thought that 'fixing' my speech was critical for my future. Is it as black and white as that? Can you fix it?
When my parents went out, I would take the house phone out of its socket to avoid having to pick it up and answering it. Remember the days when the phone was connected to the wall? Whenever someone rang for my parents and I answered, I couldn't say hello which led to them telling my parents, "We rang you the other day and someone picked up but didn't say anything”. This prompted me to practise picking up the phone daily and saying hello, but when it came to real life, I froze.
Choosing a career
Fast forward to my A-levels, and I was considering what career path to take. I was a creative person and wanted to be a graphic designer. However, my careers counsellor told me that I wouldn't be able to present, which they said was an essential skill for graphic design. As a result, I decided to pursue optometry because it would allow me to work in a dark room with limited chance of making conversation. And also because my mum would be proud.
From then on, they didn't see me as the son that had a 'speech problem' but as someone who was chasing his dreams.
I had a comical inability to connect and converse with anyone of the opposite sex, which frightened me no end. While most people my age aspired towards their desired career, all I yearned for was the ability to communicate effectively.
I managed to complete one year of studying optometry, but it was clear that I wasn't passionate about it. One night, I had a Jerry Maguire moment and decided that I wanted to pursue my other passion, food and drink. I went home and told my parents that I wanted to open a restaurant. This was the first time that I didn't let what I saw as 'my impediment' control my destiny. Opening a business wasn't easy, especially at the young age of 20 and I almost failed before I even began. I was on a trajectory of 'go big or go home'.
Ironically, around about that time I managed to talk myself into taking part in a BBC documentary I heard about called 'The Colour of Love', which focused on interracial dating. Can you imagine the terror of going on national TV with a stammer? It still gives me goosebumps to this day to think that I actually went on it.
The show was a success in that it helped me conquer my fear of talking to people, but I was too self-conscious to ever watch it back. If anyone can get hold of a copy, let STAMMA know, I'm ready to watch it! However, that gave me the momentum to move to New York in my 30s to reinvent myself. I wanted a fresh start where no one knew me, and I hoped that Americans would be so enamoured by my accent that they would overlook my stammer. It worked, but not for the reason I thought it would.
I opened London Candy Co in NYC, a British sweet shop around the time of Prince William and Kate's royal wedding. I was the real-life Willy Wonka in New York and several TV news outlets interviewed me. One of the proudest moments for my parents was watching the inflight entertainment while flying to New York and seeing me — there I was, on TV being interviewed by BBC America. From then on, they didn't see me as the son that had a 'speech problem' but as someone who was chasing his dreams. That acceptance or change in their mindset meant so much. My stammer wasn't a factor; my mindset shifted and I was determined not to let fear control me any longer. I was nervous and self-conscious, but this was my new start and I grabbed it with both hands.
Recently, I attended a four-day public speaking course to help me present and launch a hospitality academy for restaurateurs who need support and guidance. I'm still conscious of my stammer, but I'm no longer going to give it the respect to mute me.
I would love to help others who stammer going through this journey and say it's going to be OK. Why spend your life fitting in when you were born to stand out?