What I got out of Playing Big

Cover image playing big

An intuitive, completely different way of addressing self-doubt and the barriers that stop us from ‘playing big’ and moving towards our goals, dreams and visions.

I loved Tara Mohr’s Playing Big. It got to the heart of things, yet it was different to anything I’d read before. The book is focused on women and the biases and behaviours that are thought to hold us back from achieving the same sorts of things as men, but it isn’t full of platitudes like ‘be more confident’ or ‘take risks’. It felt like a wise woman telling me how she found fulfillment in her life and career.

The discussion of challenges rang true to me- I recognised things I had been doing – and then Mohr told me what to do about it in a way that felt tailored to me. The techniques have become part of my regular habits. It has changed the way I act on my goals, examine my fears, and even write my emails. It has sped up and even shortcut the path towards my dreams. What’s more, every chapter felt like an idea that other books would have as their whole focus – it was packed with life-changing stuff.

It’s a practical book, with a focus on the how rather than theory or inspiration. Exercises like journaling and visualisation helped me uncover my specific barriers including things I didn’t realise were affecting me. It’s also one of those books where you get something new each time you read it.

While Playing Big is focused on women, I can see value for men. Men might face these challenges themselves – self-doubt is not exclusive to women! It could also make men more aware of the challenges that many women face and how patriarchal structures and systems hold them back.

What did I learn and how has it changed my life?

I tapped into a source of my own wisdom I didn’t know I had – my inner mentor

  • Mohr argues that you can mentor yourself. One of the best parts of this book is the inner mentor chapter. Mohr led me through a visualisation (the audio is on her website) where I went on a journey twenty years into the future to meet my future self. Then I asked future-me about my problems and issues, how she got where she is now, advice on decisions I needed to make, and so on. This person is my ‘inner mentor’ and I can visit her anytime I want.
  • My inner mentor was awesome! That shouldn’t be surprising, because it’s the me I want to be. But still, I was surprised by how great she/I was. She was so sensible and calm but exciting and cool! I forgot that I was imagining all this in my head and was just giving myself advice. And that advice was really good! Who cares why it works (emotional distance?), it just does. Now I ‘visit’ her from time to time to ask her for advice, and it is always excellent.
  • Real world mentors are still great especially for subject matter stuff. An actual mentor is great to guide you, especially in a particular field where they can share networks and ideas about subject matter. But I’ve had wonderful people in my career who have been well meaning and well informed but who have given me completely wrong ideas or suggestions for my future. Which is no reflection on them (although perhaps it shows how little I’ve been being my authentic self), but I know me best.

You can have callings in your life, and these can help shape yourself and the world

  • I’d come to think that I wasn’t the type of person to get a ‘calling’. There are those lucky people who know what they want to do from about the age of eleven. Not me though. I also thought that callings were singular things – to religion, to medicine, to dancing – and I should search for ‘the one’ calling or passion and dedicate myself to it. However, I’ve found that I don’t have a singular passion or calling that I want to dedicate my life to.
  • But I do have callings in my life, I just didn’t see them that way. Mohr says that when you can clearly see something needs to change and you can see how it should change, maybe you should take it on. This is what a calling really is, and I do have these things. I’m not talking about how I think they should change the traffic lights back to how they used to be so that if you got one green, you got the next few too, because I don’t have any ability to effect that change other than writing a letter. But I do see things in my life that I have the power and capability to do something about.
  • You can have multiple callings! Mohr says that rather than asking ‘what is my calling?’ you can ask ‘what calling or callings are showing up in my life right now?’ I don’t have to dedicate my life to one thing, I can just do the thing that’s in front of me right now. Callings can be big or small, they can be serious or whimsical. Most recently the calling turning up in my life was a desire to create a specific improv workshop to learn how to tell more diverse stories. I can’t imagine dedicating my entire life to this but I can see a period of months on it. The callings change and that’s great. As these callings build up one after another, they will help you forge a path that is fulfilling and that helps you manifest your authentic self.

Feedback tells me more about the other person than it does about me

  • All feedback tells me is information about the other person and what they care about. Feedback sucks. Well, the feedback process does. Don’t get me wrong, I value it hugely, I seek it out, and it improves my work. But there’s always an emotional firestorm inside me whenever there’s feedback going on. Mohr says that when you get feedback, it just tells you what that person cares about. If someone thinks my website needs more pictures, if doesn’t necessarily mean it needs more pictures. It just means this person thinks it needs more pictures. Maybe they’re really into pictures. Maybe I do need more pictures. But the point is that I don’t have to interpret their feedback as anything other than information about them.
  • This seems to take the emotional kick out of it. Once I started interpreting feedback as information about that person, I could assess it more objectively. Even in improv, if someone gives me a ‘note’ (a comment on my performance), it tells me about what they value. If they think I missed an opportunity for an amazing gag, that tells me that that person values gags, not that I should do more gags (I hate gags). When someone doesn’t eat the cake I made, it doesn’t mean it was a bad cake, or that they hate me – it just means they didn’t choose to eat the cake. It’s not about me.
  • I need to make sure I’m asking the right person for feedback. If the person who wants more pictures is someone who is going to buy lots of products from me, their feedback might be useful information about what intended audience values. This is very useful. Mohr says that the feedback process should always be focused on your intended audience, and interpreted as data about them. Which means feedback from family and friends is probably going to be useless. They’re great people, but they’re not my intended audience right now.

 There are a bunch of ways I procrastinate that I didn’t even realise

  • I thought I had left my procrastinating ways behind. A few years ago I realised I was a massive procrastinator. It was after reading this excellent article by Wait But Why, and once I’d read that, I got much better at doing the thing I needed to do, and not get distracted. I thought I had it all figured out.
  • But there are ways to procrastinate on life dreams that I wasn’t aware of. This is a whole new level of procrastination. While the Wait But Why article helped me with the small-time daily procrastination, Mohr showed me that there are ways I am procrastinating about major life things. She also calls it ‘hiding’. One way to procrastinate at big stuff is thinking we need to do something else before we could even start on the thing we want to do, like needing to do a specific training program before applying for a job. Another way is designing at the whiteboard, where you put heaps of work into solving a problem and writing a plan to address it without actually getting out there and talking to people about your ideas. I do this all the time, because planning makes me feel good and it looks like I’m getting something done.
  • Now I can see when I’m overplanning or putting unnecessary requirements between me and my goals. Then I realise I have to do the thing. The big thing. Which is freakin’ scary. Which is probably why I was procrastinating.

I can get moving on my goals right now, in practical ways that will give me momentum

  • I can take a leap in the direction of my goal. Mohr recommends that if you have a goal or an idea, you can do something right now (well, in the next fortnight or so) to really give you momentum. It’s called a leap. A leap is anything that gets me connecting with my audience to collect feedback on the early stages of an idea. If I want to write a book, a leap might be to set up a blog and publish some articles. If I want to create a training centre, a leap might be to run a one-off workshop. The point is to get moving but not in a way that is just procrastinating.
  • Leaps give me feedback to help me move towards my goal. A key outcome of a leap is some feedback from my intended audience. Who is reading my blog? What do they think of it? If I’m getting feedback from people I’m not trying to reach, I can ignore it and focus on the feedback from the people I am trying to reach. That will help me as I progress towards a larger goal of writing a book. Same with the workshop. What did people like and dislike? Did I invite the right people? What might I change?
  • Leaps also give energy and excitement. When I’m taking my leap, I’m hopefully doing something that feels like my most authentic version of me. So I should be feeling pretty amazing! I’ve starting to fulfil a calling, to forge a path, and instead of planning for months, I’ve actually gone and done something real. That makes the goal more visible. If I don’t walk away from my initial leap feeling pretty awesome about my next steps (even if feedback wasn’t all positive, I now know what to do next time and I’m excited about that) then maybe it’s not really what I want to do.

 There are two kinds of fear – and one of them is good!

  • Mohr talks about two Hebrew words used to describe fear. Pachad is the fear of bad things happening: of car crashes and rejection and loss and scary people following you home off the tram. Yirah is also a word for fear, but it is fear of the unknown, of the mysterious. It’s the feeling you get just before you try something risky that you care about: a job interview, getting on stage, asking someone out, publishing your blog, moving to a new country.
  • We avoid both, but we shouldn’t avoid yirah. Yirah is actually a really good sign! It means you’re about to do something awesome. But it feels very similar to pachad: sweating and anxiety and a desire to just read books in a room alone for the rest of my life (surely that would be fulfilling?). Unfortunately this cuts off opportunities and dreams coming true. I see this in improv a lot, and I experience it whenever I’m trying something I want but haven’t done before or that I’m not sure I’m going to pull off. Now that I know that the icy feeling in my veins could actually be anticipation of joy, I can accept it and live with the feeling.

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