Interview | Tara Sophia Mohr on “Playing Big”

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Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Tara Sophia Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership and well-being, the founder of the global Playing Big leadership program for women and author of the free 10 Rules for Brilliant Women Workbook.  You can follow Tara on Twitter at @tarasophia.

Q:  You have a terrific video clip 7 Ways to Identify Your Calling.  It seems that you were called to dedicate yourself to women’s leadership and well-being.  How did you know?  Which of these seven ways were identifiers for you?

A.  I feel a strong calling to restore women’s voices to the world. This started as early as high school, when my English teacher announced the list of books we’d be reading for the year. Every one was written by a male author and had a male protagonist.

I immediately felt that mysterious and exhilarating feeling we get when we receive a calling, that sense of “This work is mine to do. This piece is mine to fix.” Over the next couple years, I got that curriculum changed, so that books written by women such as In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason and Kindred by Octavia Butler were included. In that instance I went pretty directly for the calling, with ease, but later in my adult life, I had years of resisting, avoiding, and denying this calling.

There’s a misconception that we only feel called toward our callings, but the truth is we also resist, avoid, and rationalize away our callings.

We resist our callings because they require that we leave our comfort zones and walk a unique path–one that the people around us might not understand or support.

Our callings reflect the grandeur of our souls, but we are often quick to label them as grandiose. We have to get past the “Who do you think you are?” thing, which can come from external critics or the critic within.

Q:  In one of your signature writings 10 Rules for Brilliant Women, I found myself especially resonating with “Make a pact.  Gasp.  Filter advice.  Don’t wait for an Oscar.”  Tell us more about these rules, and perhaps share a personal example how living by these rules has guided you in your life and business?

A:  Rule #1 is to “make a pact to be in it with yourself for the long haul, as your own supportive friend at every step along the way.”

I had a previous career in the nonprofit sector and philanthropy. I didn’t hate my work but as time went on, I had to admit to myself that I was there because I was being more loyal to my fears than to my dreams. My deep-down, tender desire was to do something creative and entrepreneurial, to express more of my individual voice through my work.

One night, sitting up in the middle of the night feeling the pain that we feel when we aren’t living the life we feel called to, I realized something. I realized that without knowing if my dreams were possible, I could still make one very important move: I could step back onto my own side. I put my hand on my heart and say to it, “I don’t know how we’ll get those things you desire, honey, but from now on I will be on your side. You’ve got me back on your team.”

We –especially those of us trained in critical thinking skills for our work – often act as the critics, the skeptics, the analysts, in relationship to our heart’s desires.  There are moments for that – moments for strategizing and planning with a critical eye – but they are rare and they come later in the self-actualization process. First, and primarily, we need to be the nurturers and unwavering friends of our heart’s desires.

By the way, if we don’t do that for ourselves, who will?

You also mentioned “Filter advice.”

Here’s some of what I wrote about that in the 10 Rules: “Most brilliant women are humble and open to guidance. We want to gather feedback and advice. Fine, but recognize that some people won’t understand what you are up to (often because you are saying something new and ahead of your time). Some people will find you to be not their cup of tea. Interpret feedback carefully.

There is so much buzz around “mentorship” in the women in business scene. Mentorship is valuable, it is also tricky. I just heard a renowned, young innovator in her field share about calling her long-time mentors to discuss her project, a groundbreaking, interdisciplinary innovation in her field. She was shocked by their response, which she summarized as “You can’t do that. Go back and sit at the kids' table.” I know many women have had experiences like this.

We need to learn how to filter advice, and companion it with our own inner guidance. In my programs, each woman develops a concept of her Inner Mentor – an older, wiser form of herself that she can tap into for guidance. Women are shocked at how useful and practical this particular tool can be. And personally, I get such a kick out of being on panels about women’s careers and talking about how our inner mentors are more important than any external mentor could ever be!

Rule #3 is to Go for the Gasps. I am not surprised this one resonated with you, Whitney, as it’s all about daring! A gasp is something that takes you so far out of your comfort zone it makes you gasp a little. It gets the adrenalin flowing. For women to play big in our careers, we need to keep asking ourselves, “What’s the gasp-level action here?”

The last rule you mention here is Don’t Wait for Your Oscar. I learned this so clearly in my previous career in philanthropy. There came a time when I could see my voice could easily get buried inside the organization. I’d be one more of a sea of talented, diligent women doing their jobs very well, in a heads-down way, but never getting the attention of the male leadership. I started very proactively sharing my ideas about how the organization needed to adapt and change over the next 10 years. It felt scary and it even felt “inappropriate” for my role. But over the next several months, slowly, I started being invited to senior meetings that I wasn’t included in before. I started getting assigned to special, high-level projects.

Don’t wait for your big award, don’t wait for someone to notice you, promising yourself that then you’ll share your voice more fully. Share it now.

Q:  In your Huffington Post piece Public Speaking Tips for Women, you provide suggestions on how to increase impact.  What are your favorite tips?  How do you advise women to use them in their everyday interactions?

1.         Drop the “justs” & the “actuallys.” No more “I actually disagree.” No more “I just think…” “Just” shrinks what we have to say and “actually” makes us sound surprised that we disagree, that we have a question, etc. Delete those words!

2.         Pause and punctuate. Slowing down and pausing conveys confidence and authority. Women often pile on long lists of clauses and rush, which reads as nervousness and as being apologetic for taking up space.  Slow down. Use short statements as well as long ones. Pause along the way to give people time to take in what you are saying.

Q:  Anything coming up for you in the next six months that makes you gasp?

TEDx talk! And, more specificially, being brave about what I say in that TEDx talk.


Thank you Tara for inspiring us to play big!

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