In this recording of our July teleclass, “Swing for the Fences,” author Tara Sophia Mohr illuminates the psychology of “playing small” and provides some great ideas for learning how to play big instead.
Listen to the fascinating 30-minute session below, and then visit taramohr.com to download her free “Ten Rules for Brilliant Women” workbook.
– Women often don’t see their own brilliance and potential, yet many have a vague sense that they’re “playing small in life”
– “Playing big” means something different for everyone. It doesn’t necessarily involve more wealth & prestige–it can mean making a bold career move or unleashing your creative side
– To play big, it’s essential to recognize and embrace your calling in life. Tara shares tips on how to do that.
– “We never have everything that we need to do the calling at the outset. We aren’t who we would need to be to complete the calling.”
– Obstacles are largely internal – an unchecked inner critic trampling your dreams, bad speech habits like using ten common words & phrases that diminish the importance of what you’re saying
– You can master the inner critic by developing your inner mentor
Listen to the full recording for much more detail on these points, plus hear Tara explain what her work empowering women has to do with her 5-month-old son.
Tara Sophia Mohris the founder of the global Playing Big leadership program for women and author of the forthcoming book, “Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message,” slated for release October, 2014. An expert on women’s leadership and well-being with a deep commitment to amplifying women’s voices, Mohr empowers women to play bigger in their work and in their lives. Mohr’s unique approach, which blends inner work with practical skills training, and weaves together both intellectual rigor and intuitive wisdom, has attained a large following. Her “10 Rules for Brilliant Women” have struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of women around the world. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and has been featured on national media ranging from “TODAY,” to Harvard Business Review. Visit taramohr.com to learn more.
Conferences for Women
Swing for the Fences
Guest: Tara Sophia Mohr
July 22, 2014
Whitney: Hello everyone. This is Whitney with The Conference for Women. Thanks so much for joining us. You’re calling in because you’re ready to play big. I’m excited to introduce you to Tara Sophia Mohr, who’s on the line with us. Welcome.
Tara: Thanks for having me.
Whitney: So, if you’re on Twitter, I would invite you to follow along: @MassWomen; @PennWomen; or @TexasWomen. And Tara, you are also on Twitter.
Tara: I am.
Whitney: What’s your handle?
Tara: I’m @TaraSophia. And it’s T-a-r-a. S-o-p-h-i-a.
Whitney: Perfect. So, before we start with today’s teleclass, a little bit about Tara: she’s an expert on women’s leadership and wellbeing, she’s the author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message. And that is forthcoming from Penguin in October 2014. Congratulations on the book.
Tara: Thank you.
Whitney: She is the creator of the acclaimed Playing Big Leadership Program for Women. which now has more than a thousand graduates from around the world. Tara writes a popular blog on women’s careers and wellbeing and you can find that at TaraMohr.com. She’s been featured on The Today Show and in publications ranging from Huffington Post to Harvard Business Review to MariaShriver.com. She received her MBA from Stanford and her undergraduate degree in English Lit from Yale. In 2010, Tara was named a Girl Champion by the Girl Effect Organization, honoring her work on girls’ education in the developing world.
She is also a poet and the author of Your Other Names: Poems for Wise Living. Welcome, Tara.
Tara: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
Whitney: So, talk to us a little bit about Playing Big and your upcoming book.
Tara: Well, I want to begin with the story of how I began to use this phrase, “playing big,” and why I made this the focus of my work. I had become a coach; I had made my own career pivot after working in the social sector, got trained as a coach, and was working coaching women on a variety of different career issues. We probably have some entrepreneurs on the phone who, maybe like me, you had some early days in your business where you didn’t quite know your focus yet, and you were working in a broad way, and seeing what showed up. That’s how my coaching practice was in the beginning.
But I started to notice that, no matter what issue a woman came to coaching with initially, we kept hitting on the same problem. So maybe she came because she wanted to do a career change. Maybe she came because she needed help advancing within her own organization. Maybe she came to coaching because she just wasn’t feeling fulfilled in her job, but didn’t know why, and didn’t know what would be more exciting. And they all look like different issues on the surface. But as I got to know my clients, I always was so impressed by them, so moved by their strengths and gifts, and always came to see them as brilliant women. They always had a unique kind of brilliance, unique ideas, visions, critiques of the status quo to share.
And yet, again and again, I saw that they didn’t see their own brilliance and that they weren’t able to really courageously go for the dreams that were actually very possible to achieve. And, at the same time I started writing a blog about women’s careers and wellbeing, and the blog was growing in readership, and I had decided to do a survey and ask my readers “what’s the biggest challenge in your life?” Because I wanted to know more about how I could better serve them. And in the survey, there was a long list of multiple choice options for answers to that question. And in that list, of course, were all the things that we typically talk about as big challenges in contemporary women’s lives.
So, of course, I had work-life balance challenges, I had financial issues, health issues, “I don’t know what I want in my life,” “I don’t have supportive people in my life…,” a number of those kinds of frequently spoken about topics.
But, because of what I had seen in my practice, I, kind of on a whim, added one more choice to the list, and that was “I’m playing small.” And that was the best way I knew how to describe what I was seeing in my clients. And when the responses to those surveys came back, that was what the most women had named their biggest challenge. And I was stunned that that many women felt they were “playing small” and also that they knew they were playing small and viewed it as a challenge, something they wanted to change but couldn’t. And that, for me, was really the inspiration to begin to make that the focus of my work. Because I had such a personal passion for seeing these women’s voices get out into the world.
And I also had had my own struggle. You mentioned in my bio I got to experience some really great education. I was very successful in school, I was successful early in my career, and yet, I found that all of those ingredients that we would think would lead up to confidence and we would think would lead up to a sense of momentum and ease around going for what I really wanted in my career, it didn’t lead up to that for me. It led up to a lot of self-doubt and fear and a sense of paralysis about what I really wanted.
So, I evolved my work in my coaching practice to focus on making this journey from “playing small” to “playing big,” and then developed a program, which is now a book, out of the tools that I saw again and again were the most potent and most effective in helping women play bigger. And you can probably sense from what I’m saying already that, when I say “playing big,” I’m not talking about the old school definition of playing big, or what we could even think of as a patriarchal definition of playing big that necessarily means more wealth or bigger title or those kinds of conventional measures.
What I’m really talking about is each woman playing big according to what “playing big” means to her. It’s about her going for her authentic dreams for her life and career. And that might look like “playing big” to the outside world in a way that’s easily recognizable, or it might not. It might look like reclaiming a long-lost creative passion or sharing the art or painting that you’ve done for years, finally sharing it out in the world. Or starting a business and doing something that’s less prestigious in the world’s eyes than your current career, but that you know is truly playing big for you.
And we’ll dive in today into what that “playing big” looks like but to just throw a few ideas out there to get us started. Much of my work is based on the idea that our playing big has a lot to do with which of the voices inside ourselves we’re listening to, that most of us are listening to a voice of self-doubt and our inner critic much more than we even realize. It’s become the water in which we swim. And we don’t know about another voice that I call the “inner mentor” that can guide us in the path of playing big that’s just right for each of us.
I also do a lot of work with women around their callings, discovering what is that thing that calls you, what is the need in the world that you feel called or even assigned in some sense to address? And how can we embrace instead of resist our callings? So, I’m looking forward to talking more about all those topics with you and with everyone today.
Whitney: So Tara, you touched on “playing big.” On the flip side of that, you also talk about an epidemic of women “playing small.” What exactly do you mean by that?
Tara: Right. Well, certainly, that survey that I did speaks to the huge number of women that are walking around with a sinking sense: “I kinda know I’m playing small. I do have a sense that I’ve copped out on my dreams or aspirations.” And that’s so pervasive. And I believe it’s pervasive because we’re living in a very unique and exciting historical moment where, for most of the history that comes before all of us women, women were marginalized if not totally excluded from professional life, from political life, from public life. And there’s been so much work done to change the external manifestations of that exclusion of women, right? Changes in laws, changes in policy, so that now we can attend higher education and work and vote and own financial property.
But I believe there’s also an inner legacy of that history. There’s kind of an inner imprint that has happened in each of us that makes it hard for us to fully see and believe in our potential. And that causes us to behave with a number of kind of “playing small” habits or behaviors like using diminishing language about ourselves, like being very tied up in praise and criticism from others. And so, the work of playing bigger is about unlearning and relearning and changing that inner imprint.
Whitney: So, you also talk about how contemporary women are part of a collective quote unquote “transition team.” What is a “transition team”?
Tara: Yes. Well, some of you, if you work in the corporate world, you know that sometimes, when there’s a big organizational change happening, right, or a merger or something like that, there might be a “transition team” appointed. Or when there’s a major change in leadership in your organization, a “transition team” is appointed to help that change go smoothly. And I started thinking about how all of us women today are part of a global, massive transition team, and the transition is simply this: that, in a time before us, we lived in a world largely defined and led by men. And we’re moving towards a time of a world defined and designed and led by both women and men. And the present really still is the transition. And I love to ask every woman to actually think of herself as part of that transition team. Because I think, when we get that and maybe some of the frustrations we have about the status quo get a little less frustrating, we can see them in the big picture. And whatever kind of organization you’re in, or industry, or culture of your professional field, you can begin to look at it through the lens of “how is this transition playing out here? And what of the challenges I’m facing have to do with that transition, and what’s the part I can play in helping to bring women’s voices, women’s leadership, women’s ways of working, forward, to continue to forge that transition?
Whitney: So Tara, I want to go back to unique callings which you mentioned a little bit ago. And you have eight ways that women can discover what their unique calling is. Could you touch on that a little more so that everybody who’s listening in can take something away to apply right after they hang up the phone?
Tara: Yes. ‘Cuz we’re talking about a lot of the big ideas right now, so that’s great to get practical about what playing big looks like…
So, for many women, they feel like their most important “playing big” comes from playing big with their calling. And the way I define “calling” is the sense of passion or inspiration we feel to meet a particular need in the world. So, you might feel a calling to teach kids in your elementary school classroom, or a calling to start a jewelry business that brings a lot of beauty into the world and helps women feel great, or a calling to work on an issue like climate change or poverty, or a calling to start a new initiative at work.
I believe we all get many callings; we’re not looking for the one big, right answer, but our callings are fluid, and they come and go, and we get many, sometimes many at a time. So, the ways that you can recognize your calling usually shows up in one of two ways – either you feel a very vivid sense of pain or frustration about some aspect of the status quo, right? Like it drives you crazy what’s happening with child poverty, or it drives you crazy the lack of communication skills that parents have and how they talk to their kids, some kind of pain or frustration with the status quo.
Or, it can show up on the other side of the coin as a vision of how things could be different, could be possible. Some other ways you can recognize your calling, along with those two, you feel a sense of being assigned the task, or a sense of “this work is just mine to do.” It feels a little bit like the calling came to you, not like you got to totally choose it. You’ll often feel a sense of rightness and flow when you’re doing the work. You’ll find that the satisfaction doesn’t only come at the end of the process but as soon as you step into living the calling.
So, if you’re doing something that you think is gonna feel great later but you hate every step along the way… not a calling. And then, the last three qualities of a calling are, I think, where a lot of people feel surprised or have kind of an “oh, that’s what’s been going on” kind of moment. One is that we resist our callings very much, so we tend to think, “oh, if this is my calling, it’s gonna feel great all of the time, and I’m gonna run towards it.” Not at all. Although we do have that sense of rightness when we’re working on the calling, we really resist trusting and embracing and starting our callings, often for years or decades.
And then the last two qualities of how we can recognize a calling: 1) we never have everything that we need to do the calling at the outset. So you’ll be looking at this thing that you know has been nagging at you, that you feel called to do, going, “but I don’t quite have the right resources and the right connections and, maybe, the right knowledge…” We never have everything we need at the outset. And lastly, we aren’t who we would need to be to complete the calling. So you might be looking at that but going, “But that would take someone more brave or more patient, more skilled in some respect.” And those last two are really important because the calling is there, not just to enable you to serve the world, which is one of its purposes, but it is also there to grow you and so, you become that person, and you acquire those resources as you do the calling.
But when we don’t remember that, we, of course, get stuck and think, “Well, that’s not who I need to be and I don’t have any of that, so that couldn’t be for me.” And, I think, in large part, an important piece of the process to playing bigger, is going from resisting your callings and playing the skeptic about them to finding a way to trust them and embrace them and start living them in some way, right away.
Whitney: So, it sounds like the inner critic and the inner mentor that you talk about, are some of the biggest blocks that women have and get in the way of them pursuing their callings and playing big.
Tara: Yes. Well certainly, the inner critic and the inner mentor is really the antidote to the inner critic. So, the inner critic – of course, most people are familiar with that term – but I’m talking about that voice that says harsh things to you, that tells you you’re not ready yet, that tells you you’d be…that you’re not qualified enough, good enough, whatever…to the voice that’s talking to you about your size of your upper arms when you walk by in the mirror, it’s the voice that’s doing the bad mother thing, all those kind of things.
And we all have an inner critic. We don’t have to have had particularly hard life circumstances to end up with one. In fact, we’ll experience more of the inner critic when we start playing bigger. Because the inner critic is really just the safety instinct in us, it’s the part of us that wants to remain safe from any potential harm or failure or potential criticism, manifesting through that critical voice to try and prevent you from being more visible, being more vulnerable, moving out of your comfort zone.
So, when we start to play bigger, we’re gonna hear from the inner critic. And the way I encourage women to work with the inner critic is to recognize that it’s not going away. You know, in the Playing Big book, I talk about some of the women at the top of their field, like choreographer Twyla Tharpe, who is one of the most famous and renowned women choreographers in the U.S., or best-selling author Dani Shapiro, or Sherry Murray, the Dean of Engineering from Harvard, who each write about how their inner critics still come up every time they embark on a new project. But the difference is, those women have some inner ability to not take direction from that voice.
And so, that’s what we’re really going for. It’s not finding confidence. I don’t believe we need confidence to play big, or that we will ever feel great confidence around our areas of playing big. It’s really about learning how to hear the inner critic, and not take direction from it. And there are actually really simple tools that we can use to do that, beginning with, when you hear the inner critic voice, simply recognizing it in the moment and saying, “Oh, I’m hearing my inner critic right now. I know that’s not the voice of reason. I know that’s the expression of the safety instinct. Let me return to what I really want and the core of me in this situation” — separating yourself from that voice.
So, that’s a little bit on the inner critic. And then, the inner mentor is a very different voice, very different voice. In my coaching practice, I’ve started working with women to get in touch with a vision of an older, wiser version of themselves, so themselves 20 years or 30 years, out into the future. And, in my practice, and in the book, we go through a guided visualization, so that we can really slow down and access a compelling and surprising – often surprising because it doesn’t come from our conscious mind – vision of this older, wiser self. And I found that, unfailingly, women could access that picture, and the voice of that woman. And then they could, in a sense, consult with her, or check in with her about their big career and life dilemmas. And that, if they could truly listen for her voice, they would always find a very different perspective than the one they were carrying around. Their distress about a situation would always get resolved, or they’d move from confusion to clarity. And that’s the voice of the inner mentor. And once we learn to access her, she’s there as a guide. We can also think about “how do I grow more and more into her? What choices can I make in my life to become more like her?”
And, I’ll say one more thing about the inner mentor that I think is so important: you know, I’m sure everyone on this call has heard the traditional women’s career advice to find great mentors, right? That’s such a popular idea in my view, kind of an overdone idea in our women’s career conversation. But a lot of women can’t find the mentors they need. Or they can find mentors that give them some things – specifics and valuable pieces – but don’t really know, of course, what’s right for that woman’s unique path.
And so, the inner mentor is such an important complement to any outer mentors we have.
Whitney: Tara, you talk about ten little things women tend to undermine themselves with their speech. Tell us what those are.
Tara: Yes, so these are the little speech habits – things we say or we write – that undermine what we have to say. And I’ll go through some of them now. So, one of them is “just.” “I just am curious. I just have a question. I just want to take a second of your time.” Inserting that little “just” diminishes whatever’s coming after and makes us sound a little apologetic about what we’re saying. It makes it sound like we need to justify what’s coming next. So that’s one.
A cousin to that is “actually.” “I actually disagree. I actually have a question.” The subtle message of that is that you’re surprised that you have a question or that you’re surprised that you disagree. So that’s another undermining one.
All kinds of disclaimers we often hear women use at the beginning of their speech. “I’m not the expert on this, but…” “I know you all have been working on this for a long time and I haven’t, but I’m just” – and we might add another “just” there – “just wondering if…da da da da da.” All those phrases that we tend to start our sentences with that diminish our credibility and the perceived value of what’s coming next.
[two women talking at once]
Whitney: I was actually just going to…
Tara: Actually, did you hear yourself?
Whitney: A learning moment!
Tara: We all do it. And you’ll probably hear me do it on this call too. These are ingrained habits for all of us.
Whitney: You’re a new mom…
Whitney: And I’m interested to know how that’s impacting your perspective on playing big. We have a lot of moms on the line.
Tara: Hmmm…yeah, well I have a five month old son, and it’s pretty amazing and pretty exhausting. And it’s affected my perspective in a few different ways: 1) I wrote the Playing Big book while I was pregnant, and I actually signed with my literary agent at 9:00 a.m. one morning and started, kicked off the whole book process and then, at 5:00 p.m. that same day, realized that I was expecting. So I’ve had this really remarkable journey of writing the book and being in that creative process, while being in the creative process of being pregnant. But also writing a book about women’s empowerment while being pregnant with a son, and so of course, many times I thought about, what does this work with women’s empowerment have to do with him and how might it affect him?
And reflected a lot on the struggles that I’ve seen so many men in my life go through with the amount of pressure on them to define their identify by how much they earn. Or being in work situations that just felt like a huge, harsh competition among alpha males. Being in cultures that are the kind of culture that evolve when you don’t have the balance of female and male leadership in the room. And how much I didn’t want that to be his reality and his adult life, and how much I feel that women’s leadership benefits all of us, and is about creating a more sane and balanced world for all of us women and men.
Whitney: So Tara, in the book, you talk about getting a thick skin, or better yet, unhooking from praise and criticism…
Whitney: How do we do that?
Tara: Yes. Well, when I was designing the Playing Big course, I thought, okay, definitely we need a module on this topic of praise and criticism and how we relate to it. Because I see so many women getting hung up there, I’ve been so hung up there in my life. Getting hooked by praise and criticism, meaning letting a fear of criticism or seeking of praise and dependence on praise get in the way of us doing really what we want to do.
And there’s a few simple tools that everyone could start to use today to get more unhooked. The first is to find your “unhooked from criticism” role model. So, look out into the world and think about who’s a woman who you admire because of how she responds to or perseveres in the face of criticism. Who might that be? Often people mention Hillary Clinton, or Ellen DeGeneres – I know one of the conferences coming up has Hillary Clinton speaking at it – or it might be a woman from your own personal life or your own community.
But start to think about her, and when you’re feeling paralyzed by, or afraid of criticism or receiving tough criticism, think about “Ok, what would SHE do?” Put yourself in her shoes for a minute, and that will show you some new possibilities of how you can respond.
Another fun thing to do is: you should go to a website that has book reviews. And look up one of your favorite authors. And look at the 5-star reviews, the most praised, the most praising reviews for your author, and look up the zero-star reviews. And read them back to back, over and over again. And you’ll see that one review says, “The characters are so vivid in this woman’s novel. It’s amazing!” and the next review will say “I could never get into any of the characters. They seemed so unrealistic to me,” right? And reading those is such a good way to train ourselves and the idea that there’s gonna be a range of opinions and reactions to whatever we do? And that’s okay. And that anyone doing substantive work is going to get that range of reaction.
And then, third, I always invite women to really try and integrate into their mindset that criticism simply comes with playing big. You know, I think because I was a good girl, good student-type growing up, I got the mistaken impression that, if I was doing everything right, I would get a praising or a positive response from the world. Instead of, I could do everything in a great way, and praise and criticism was still gonna come as a reaction because of the diversity of opinions out there, or because some people wouldn’t get what I was doing, or whatever…it wouldn’t be their “flavor.” So, really starting to get “nothing’s gone wrong.” When criticism comes, it happens in part and parcel with our playing big.
Whitney: Thank you so much for joining us today. And I know that your book is being published in October. But tell everybody if they can pre-order it, and if so, where?
Tara: Yes! So, it’s up for pre-orders. So, you can go to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, IndieBound if you want to support an independent book store. And it might be the easiest thing to do is if you go to taramohr.com, there’s a page about the book and all the easy links there. And then also over at taramohr.com, you can get my Ten Rules for Brilliant Women workbook, which is a free download, and that can be…it’s a great way to get started if you want to begin to work with the concepts that we talked about today here a little bit more.
Whitney: Perfect. And for everybody listening, you spell that T-a-r-a-M-o-h-r.com.
Tara: That’s right!
Whitney: Tara, thanks so much for joining us today. We appreciate it and everybody listening, keep your eye out for a recap posted on our website. It will be available shortly.
Tara: Thanks for having me. Thanks, everybody.
Where Inspiration Meets Practical Advice
Get a monthly taste of the Conference featuring true stories and real-world advice from the world's most brilliant and successful women.