Tara Sophia Mohr: Playing Big – Putting Your Dreams Ahead of Your Fears

October 16, 2019 | Episode #19

When Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In, she shined a gigantic searchlight on the gaping holes in leadership teams around the globe. Where are the women? When Tara Sophia Mohr wrote Playing Big, she gave women a roadmap to develop the tactical skills to fill those holes. What makes Tara’s advice so powerful and widely applicable is that it’s not just for women. It’s for anyone who has ever let their fears stop their dreams.

Show Notes

A pivotal moment in my career happened not long after Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In came out. I was attending a conference featuring women who had reached some of the highest rungs of professional success. When asked why more women weren’t leaning in, a smart female consultant to Fortune 100 executives said she had observed four stages to a person’s career.

Stage one is learning to be an expert in your field. Women excel here. Stage two is learning to manage others within your area of expertise. Women also excel here. Stage three is learning how to manage people who have areas of expertise you don’t possess. Stage four is doing stage three on a massive scale.

In her work, the consultant had observed a chasm between stages two and three in which women were nose-diving. Or said differently, men were much more willing to make the leap to managing processes and outcomes they didn’t know much about. In my own career, I have found this to be a spot-on description.

This is precisely the chasm that Tara Sophia Mohr addresses in her work around “playing big.” Tara’s work is centered around ten principles that, when used in concert, form a sturdy bridge for women–and men–to make the potentially nerve-wracking walk across the chasm from stage two to stage three with much more confidence. It sure has for me, and I hope it will work for you and the people in your orbit who you care deeply about, as well!

Manisha’s Top Takeaways

  1. Learning to play big is an iterative process, not a one and done
    Tara defines “playing big” as being more loyal to your dreams than your fears. For most of us, our dreams (and our fears!) are not carved in stone. That’s why the ten-point framework of Playing Big can be so powerful. By returning to it periodically during significant life changes, you will find new areas from which to draw strength. [10:45]
  2. The concept of Yirah
    Tara explained that Yirah refers to a specific type of fear, namely “a fear that has something to do with what’s sacred to you, the fear that accompanies the expansiveness of stepping into a larger space and doing something that brings you an infusion of energy.” I’d never thought of fear as being a positive quality to embrace and get energy from until Tara described it in this way. [14:00]
  3. “Playing big” is not a solitary endeavor
    A theme that has come up time and again in past episodes of true WELLth is the importance of interconnectedness. Tara does a beautiful job of explaining why an individual’s developmental focus on “playing big” does not conflict with collaboration and community. Instead, it’s a framework to be used to contribute your best self to the stew that is living life as one of more than 7 billion people on the planet. [15:30]

Other Major Topics

  • The surprising patterns Tara saw when observing groups of brilliant women at work [3:55]
  • What men need to know about women in terms of “playing big” [6:00]
  • The one fill-in-the-blank question that can change the entire focus of your life [11:45]

“Playing big’ is being more loyal to your dreams than your fears.”

Announcer: The true WELLth Podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones. Brighton Jones is the financial well-being firm that helps you align your wealth, your passions, and your purpose. Learn more about how you can leverage your life at brightonjones.com.

Tara Sophia Mohr: I was working in philanthropy, I had a job that looked lovely to everyone else and it was well-compensated. I actually liked the work day to day. I liked my colleagues, I liked the mission, and yet, there is this other set of questions, that other set of questions being like, “Is this really what I want to be doing with my life? If my time here is so short and precious, is this the right use of it?”

Tara Sophia Mohr: I had to get honest with myself and know that the answer was that I was being very fear-driven and that while this was perfectly comfortable, it didn’t feel like my right path.

Manisha Thakor: Welcome to the true WELLth Podcast, I’m your host Manisha Thakor. My guest today is Tara Sophia Mohr, a nationally known expert on women’s leadership and well-being. Tara is the author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead. Published by Penguin Random House and named best book of the year by Apple’s iBooks.

Manisha Thakor: She’s also the creator of the pioneering Playing Big leadership program for women and Playing Big facilitator’s training for coaches, mentors and managers who support women and their personal and professional growth.

Manisha Thakor: What’s so interesting to me about Tara’s work is that it has resonated so strongly with leaders, both men and women, that her insights had been featured in publications ranging from The New York Times to the Harvard Business Review.

Manisha Thakor: While her book and surrounding body of work is intended to specifically address leadership concerns facing women, that doesn’t mean Tara’s work or this podcast is for women only. In fact, I’d argue the reverse that the more men in leadership roles be they corporate government, nonprofits, and perhaps most importantly is parents of daughters hear Tara’s insights about women in Playing Big.

Manisha Thakor: The more we will move towards a truly inclusionary world and a study after study shows the more diverse opinions at the table, the better the outcomes. Let’s get started and hear how Tara became interested in this topic to begin with.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Sure. There were really a few different experiences that came together in my life that all provided inspiration for this work. I grew up in a home where education was highly valued. I was expected to excel and I did really well in school and I went on to do my undergrad at Yale.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Then I worked in the nonprofit sector for a few years and then wanted to learn how to scale organizations with social impact and so I went to do my MBA at Stanford. I had followed all the rules, been a good student, been a good girl, had gone to this prestigious undergrad program and then a prestigious MBA and yet, I found that despite that I was coming into the working world, not feeling confident, feeling like I had lost track of my real dreams for my life and career and really playing small and playing safe in so many ways at work.

Tara Sophia Mohr: I was very perplexed by that. Why if I did all those things that the grownups in my life had been guiding me to do as a young woman, was I not feeling the kind of confidence and agency that I was expecting?

Tara Sophia Mohr: Then at the same time I was looking around at my friends who were struggling with the same things and also with my colleagues at the time I was in a different career. I was working in the philanthropy world in a large foundation and my colleagues included so many brilliant capable women and yet I was seeing that one, they weren’t included at the most senior decision-making levels and at those key tables for making the major decisions in the organization.

Tara Sophia Mohr: But two, they were also often doubting their own expertise, their own readiness for leadership, overworking and over-preparing when really their expertise was so great that they didn’t need to do that.

Tara Sophia Mohr: I became really interested in those patterns and how they were contributing to the dearth of women leaders in the world and with all of that, as I started evaluating my own career goals and thinking about my own playing small, I knew I wanted to do something in the realm of personal growth, which had long been a passion for me.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Psychology, our inner lives, that the ways we can make change in ourselves to create different outcomes in our lives. I started to coach women and get trained as a coach and in doing that work, I found all those patterns were showing up again and again in my practice.

Tara Sophia Mohr: That really led to, “Okay, this is a phenomenon we need to look at, we need tools to address and something that I really want to devote myself to because I want to see a world where these brilliant, capable women are leading to … At their full potential.”

Manisha Thakor: Tara, I read your book in 2014 and that was back when it was originally published and distinctly remember feeling when I was done like I had just gone through five years of therapy and whether it was the chapter on the inner critic and self-doubt or the one on leaving good student habits behind or the one on hiding, it felt like you were right inside my female brain. How can men benefit from your insights and your work?

Tara Sophia Mohr: A couple of things. One is that what the research shows is it’s not so much that women experience more self-doubt than men in general. Girls experience more self-doubt than boys in general, but rather that women and girls experience more self-doubt around the things that are associated with masculinity in our culture.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Where we’ve absorbed those cultural messages, that something is a masculine domain and it doesn’t mean we consciously think that, right? A lot of us in 2019 know leadership is not a masculine domain and yet, we’ve still absorbed thousands of messages from TV and film and books and conversations and the newspaper, right? That leadership is associated with maleness and masculinity, simply from the volume of stories and images we see.

Tara Sophia Mohr: In those kinds of domains such as leadership, negotiation, quantitative work, scientific work, we do find that women tend to underestimate their capabilities, more experience a kind of self-doubt that has no relationship to their competence level.

Tara Sophia Mohr: I think that’s important for men to know as fathers, as managers, to know that that is pervasive. It’s not specific to the individual, that they may not accurately understand their competence or level of ability and that we can help with tools to help them understand what that inner critic, self-doubt pattern is and also, to really just be conscious of that and how we’re managing and promoting and compensating how we’re talking to our daughters and so on.

Tara Sophia Mohr: That’s one really critical piece. A second area that is part of the Playing Big arch and model is what I call unhooking from praise and criticism and for women, this is about looking at what is my relationship to praise and criticism.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Where am I more dependent on praise? Then really is of service to me. Where am I more avoidant of criticism? This is another issue that can be particularly rough for high-achieving women who have gotten a lot of gold stars in their life or career because we become used to that and we then don’t take risks or stretch into new areas or do things where we know there’s going to be a lot of failure early on or all along the way.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Yet, those are many of the things that bring us the most fulfillment and for men, it’s important to know that women often will have a kind of higher stakes relationship to praise and criticism because we’ve been so socialized to play nice, prioritize relational harmony with others, play the good girl, always do what’s approved of by others and so that makes critical feedback have a really different kind of impact for us and there’s an important awareness for both women and men to have around that.

Manisha Thakor: Going back to your point about men and given the subtitle of your book specifically has the word women in it, it may on the surface imply that men are always playing big. Yet you say that’s not true. Tell us more.

Tara Sophia Mohr: The definition that I use of playing big is playing big is being more loyal to your dreams than to your fears and so that means that playing big looks really different for everyone.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Sometimes, it looks like doing the thing that everyone else knows is a big deal and sometimes, it looks like doing things that don’t quite make sense to the people around us and a lot of men are, “playing big.” In traditional terms.

Tara Sophia Mohr: They might have big titles, big salaries, big scope of responsibility in their work, but many of those men are not playing big by this inner definition, right? Of clarifying their dreams, their courageous acts that are needed in their life and really going for those to create a more authentic and expressed and fulfilling life.

Tara Sophia Mohr: That definition has been with me from the beginning and I find it is very resonant for people. If anyone is nodding right now, you should know that you’re not alone in that. I think all of us are in a tug of war between our fears and our dreams.

Tara Sophia Mohr: That’s part of the human experience and we can become, we can start to become more conscious than intentional about that, but that form of playing big means it’s individual, it’s designed from the inside out.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Other people might not get it in terms of what you’re playing big looks like and that can be hard especially if those close to us don’t totally get it and it also means it changes over time.

Manisha Thakor: Of all the chapters in your book, one that really struck me was the one on fear. Regular listeners of the true WELLth Podcast will recall that fear is a theme that came up in our episode with Scott Kriens who’s the chairman of Juniper Networks and also the founder of 1440 Multiversity. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. What do you have to say about fear?

Tara Sophia Mohr: Right. Right. Yeah, I think it’s really common of course for that fear to arise and one the things that I love to do in the course and it’s in the book as well is to ask people to simply journal about their answer to the question, what’s more important to me than praise?

Tara Sophia Mohr: You can fill in the blank there too. Like what’s more important to me than money? What’s more important to me than title and list all the things that are true for you, right? To bring them to the surface and usually a lot comes out in that and then you can kind of really declare it.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Another thing is to clarify what are your values and what are your inner critic’s values and look at the difference and that can be really helpful to spell it out for yourself because often they’d get confused.

Tara Sophia Mohr: As you get to know, “Oh yeah, here’s the things my inner critic is saying to me. it’s saying nothing is good enough.” Or it’s saying, “If I say that everyone will laugh at me.” It’s saying that, “I’ve never been a risk taker and I shouldn’t start now.”

Tara Sophia Mohr: Whatever your inner critic is saying to you, first you can create a character that personifies that inner critic voice so you can really picture it as a character from a film or a character you’ve made up and that can kind of help give it some limits and put some humor around what it says, and then to say, “Okay, what are that character’s values? Oh, I can see, okay, it’s perfectionism, it’s approval, it’s certainty.”

Tara Sophia Mohr: Then what about me differentiating yourself? What are my values? “Oh, I actually value adventure. I value generosity.” Or whatever it comes up for you and then what does it look like to now take your next action according to your values, not your inner critic’s values.

Manisha Thakor: Tara, how will I know? What will it feel like when I’m truly playing big?

Tara Sophia Mohr: Really, the sort of test of that, being the test that we use in the courses, is this a step that feels thrilling to you? Does it evoke what … In the book we talk about is, and in the course we talk about your Ra.

Tara Sophia Mohr: Your Ra is a really ancient word. It’s one of the old Testament terms used for fear and it has three definitions. It’s the feeling we feel when we are inhabiting a larger space than we are accustomed to.

Tara Sophia Mohr: It’s the feeling that we feel when we suddenly have more energy, we can infuse with more energy than we normally have and it’s the feeling we feel when we’re in the presence of the sacred in some way.

Tara Sophia Mohr: When Moses is standing at the burning bush, this is actually the word that’s used to describe how he feels in that moment, in the presence of the sacred. That stepping into playing big comes with that feeling of, and it is … Your Ra is a type of fear, it’s a word for fear, but it’s a special kind of fear that is has something to do with what’s sacred to you, that it is an expansiveness of stepping into a larger space and doing something that brings you that infusion of energy.

Tara Sophia Mohr: That’s how you know when you’re playing big. Fear actually does come with it. Not the kind of fear that Scott was talking about, not the fear of worst case scenarios and the fear that makes you clench and hide, but that fear of, “Oh, I’m really stepping out of my comfort zone and this is scary and exhilarating and expanding all at once.”

Manisha Thakor: Another theme that came up at a past episode of true WELLth is the one with Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life where we talked about the tug of war between modern day pressures to be independent and the age-old primal instinct of mankind to flourish thanks to the benefits of the collective and community. How do you think about this tug of war in the context of teaching people how to be playing big?

Tara Sophia Mohr: Yeah, I think that we and many people are writing and have commented on this … We don’t live in the ways that human communities have lived for thousands of years. We are not living in tribes, we are not living in extended family communities, we are not living in villages and the kind of belonging that I think, I don’t want to romanticize the past, but I think certain kinds of belonging are just no longer arising from the way we live and we’ve put way too much emphasis on the nuclear family.

Tara Sophia Mohr: We’ve put way too much emphasis on the idea of independence. I’m currently doing a lot of research and reading and writing about higher education for reasons as I’ve talked about today, I’m really interested in what happens to us through higher education and this sort of value we put on it when so often there’s real losses of confidence and voice happening through that experience, but one of the things that comes up a lot in the literature is this idea that the idea from developmental psychology that the purpose of the young adulthood period is to, “Become independent.”

Tara Sophia Mohr: I just like want to put a big question mark around that. Like really? We don’t actually live very independently as adults and it’s not working because half of college students are suffering from some kind of mental illness and if you look at the rates of Americans that are dependent on a substance, that tells me we can’t really call them independent in any way.

Tara Sophia Mohr: I think we have a lot of misunderstandings about the actual need for human interdependence and connection in our culture.

Manisha Thakor: Is there any last concept you’d like listeners to walk away with?

Tara Sophia Mohr: I think the importance of asking that question at the end of my life, how am I going to feel about the choices that I’ve made? Am I going to have a sense of regret or am I going to have a sense of having used this precious time and opportunity well and that we all need to periodically ask that question.

Tara Sophia Mohr: I think also the sense that it is okay and it is even necessary to define playing big from the inside out and that what is truly playing big to you may not be understandable to other people around you, it may be not what’s most approved of or what’s most rewarded in the world and it often isn’t, right?

Tara Sophia Mohr: Because our playing big often actually takes us to different places and in different directions on what the culture validates and that that’s okay and then that there are these tools, many tools you can use in the moment, tools for fear, tools for the inner critic, tools from unhooking from praise and criticism that can really help navigate everything that comes up on that very sacred, challenging journey to whatever your true playing big looks like.

Manisha Thakor: Reflecting back on this conversation with Tara, the three big themes that jumped out at me were as follows. Number one learning to play big is an iterative process, not a one and done.

Manisha Thakor: My interview with Tara ran for nearly an hour and we couldn’t put all of it into the podcast. One of the things Tara and I discussed was how many times people came back to her work year after year and on a personal note, I can tell you I’ve read her book probably five times as life has put me in new situations where I’ve needed to revisit her core tenants through the eyes of the new situation and similarly, Tara mentioned to me that she allows students of our online courses to take it annually if they want a refresher, no extra charge and she and her team have been really surprised at the extremely high rates of students coming back to the course for the same reasons I came back to the book.

Manisha Thakor: The second thing that really stood out for me was this concept of your Ra. As mentioned earlier, we talked about the concept of fear and our true WELLth episode with Scott Kriens on generative energy, what I loved was the way Tara explained how this ancient word, your Ra refers to a very specific type of fear, namely as she puts it, the kind of fear that has something to do with what’s sacred to you.

Manisha Thakor: The fear that accompanies the expansiveness of stepping into a larger space and doing something that brings you an infusion of energy and I never thought about fear as being a positive quality until she described it in this way.

Manisha Thakor: Third and lastly, that playing big is not a solitary endeavor. A theme that has been coming up in a variety of ways of her past episodes of true WELLth, most notably in our interviews with Vicki Robin about civilizational survival with Dave Goetsch on collaboration and with Mary LoVerde on connection is the importance of interconnectedness.

Manisha Thakor: Over and over and over, we’re getting examples of how recognizing our shared humanity brings about the greatest good for all and that learning on a micro individual basis, how to play big does not conflict with this notion.

Manisha Thakor: As Walt Whitman in his poem, O Me, O Life in reference to the grand show that is our precious time here on earth said, “Powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” That’s the real magic of playing big. It enables each of us to contribute our best ideas and our best selves into the collective stew that is living life as one of the 7 billion people on this planet.

Manisha Thakor: As always, for more about Tara, we’ll have links or her website book, online course, extensive media coverage and social media coordinates on the show notes for this episode, which you can find at truewellthpodcast.com.

Manisha Thakor: Remember, that’s WELLth spelled W-E-L-L. If you know a woman or man in your life who could benefit from hearing Tara’s insights, please take just five seconds to text them a link to this episode right now for that’s how lasting positive change happens in society. Person to person. I’m Manisha Thakor and that’s it for this episode of true WELLth.

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Announcer: Brighton Jones aligns your time and resources to those values so you can go after to the things that you truly care about. Explore your richer life at brightonjones.com. Today’s episode was edited and produced by Stan Hall alongside our true WELLth team Michael Stubel, Chris Sylvester, Marc Asmus, Lindsey Hurt, Tara McElroy and John Dougherty. To get in touch with the team, visit truewellthpodcast.com.