TARA Mohr is undoubtedly an inspiring woman, and her book aims to inspire others. Ahead of her appearance in Edinburgh, she tells Janet Christie about her motivation and her ambitions
Discombobulated. That’s how Tara Mohr responds when I ask how she is today. Not at all what I expected from the woman behind the global Playing Big leadership programme and now the book Playing Big: Find your voice, your vision and make things happen.
She has an MBA from Stanford University, a degree in English Literature from Yale and her 10 Rules for Brilliant Women was a viral sensation. She has 40,000 blog readers and writes for the Huffington Post, Harvard Business Review and Financial Times. This is a woman who plays it big.
So, discombobulated? How come?
Well, she’s in a coffee shop in San Francisco, where she lives, possibly accompanied by her dog, a retriever with health issues, and her baby – the background clatter of cups, music and street sounds muffles her response as to the make-up of her posse. I relax. Successful women who play big can be intimidating, but a chat with a woman who juggles a dog, a child, on a mobile in a coffee shop? This is much more like it.
I should have known Tara Mohr wasn’t all power suits and whiteboards. She’d never have been the success she is if she was. Her programme is designed to appeal to everywoman and whether your idea of making it big is world peace or making cupcakes with your offspring, shattering the glass ceiling or setting up a business to polish it to a blinding shine, that’s all good.
So Mohr is happy to admit to being discombobulated by her schedule. She’s promoting the book and planning a visit to the UK, first to London to the Women of the World Festival at the South Bank Centre then north for the Inspiring Women Conference in Edinburgh.
“I’m looking forward to Edinburgh,” she says. “I don’t know Scotland. I’ve been to London and Stratford and have family in England. But never Scotland.”
Does she think the women of Scotland are ripe for leadership training and being helped to find their voice?
“Definitely. I’ve found since I have been doing this work that it resonates with women around the world and in different cultures. I talk to scientists, artists, women in the military, mums, belly dancers and what they all have in common is they’re playing small and would like to play bigger and do work that is meaningful to them,” she says.
“We need women’s voices more, more women in leadership positions, more women sharing their ideas. And we need that all over the world.”
Mohr’s aim is to get women to express their voices and “bring them forth” to get them to fulfil their aspirations and get more joy into their lives.
“We have the vote, can own property, but there’s still an inner legacy of our history that prevents us from taking opportunities. I’m talking about the inner work that women need to do after many of the external battles have been won.”
Mohr started her career of speaking up for women’s voices back at school when she asked if the curriculum could be changed from boy-heavy titles like Lord of the Flies to include more books with girls in them. She organised the funds needed to buy them and Isabel Allende, Octavia Butler and Bobby Ann Mason duly became class readers.
“My school experience very much contributed to me losing my voice because there was so much emphasis on being a good girl. In school, you are never asked to challenge authority and it’s subtle conditioning that for girls reinforces cultural norms. All those years in school and being an achieving student just led to more insecurity and feeling a failure, so when I came out of grad school and wanted to share my voice I was petrified of doing that,” she says.
Slowly, Mohr worked on her confidence and began using strategies that helped her build up to realising her ambitions, and thinking big. She started with a blog, then sent a post to someone else, then a book and then articles for the Huffington Post. Her inner critics have been shouted down – the Ivy League professor who thinks nothing is good enough, and the perfect stay-at-home mum who thinks every meal should be greens.
“Now when my inner critics start, my friends will say, ‘Didn’t you write a chapter about that?’ But we don’t arrive, we’re always on a journey, and I enjoy that because that’s why I never get bored with what I do. I’m on this journey too.”
SHE also hooked up with her inner mentor, a centred, spiritual, artistic force, and tried to give up her over-reliance on praise. “I’ve come a long way, but we don’t ever completely get there. Now I think some people are going to like it and some aren’t. The more important something is, the more criticism there will be,” she says, citing Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel as women who are criticised because they dare to think big.
“All of the things I found useful and helpful are the tools I talk about in the book. The ones who struggle most around fear and failure are the high-achieving girls. If I could go back I would encourage my younger self to do more things I wasn’t very good at, the things I didn’t do because I feared failure. You have to learn to be comfortable when you’re not good at something.”
While she was gestating the book, Mohr was also pregnant with her one-year old son.
“It was an interesting experience to write a book about women’s issues while growing a boy in my belly because I liked that it made me think about why women’s empowerment is important for everyone. It will make a difference to my son. I don’t want him to grow up into a frat-house, white, alpha male. I want him to grow up in a world where there is a balance of male and female leadership,” she says.
MOHR is delighted that men have been spotted reading her book and keen to emphasise it is not just for women. “One of my friends messaged me to say she was on a commuter train and there was a man in a business suit opposite reading my book. I was delighted. A lot of it applies to men.
“It’s not so much that what I’m talking about only applies to women but rather I have such a passion for unleashing women’s voices because I see how much of it is missing from our world. I’m not talking only to women. A lot of men are playing small and the principles can be used by them too.”
As she prepares to hit the road for the UK and exhort Scotland’s women to play it big in time for International Women’s Day, Mohr reflects on her own unfinished journey towards Playing Big.
“I’m still on the journey myself, which is how I stay so interested. I really stress the journey and I’m really happy the things that were painful and hard have really contributed to the work I do now in a positive way. I accept the journey.”
• Tara Mohr will be at the Inspiring Women Conference in the Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh, next Thursday.
• Playing Big by Tara Mohr, published by Random House, is available in paperback on 12 March, priced £8.99.
10 PRINCIPLES TO FOLLOW
It’s time to step up, brilliant women. Here are ten principles for owning your brilliance and bringing it to the world:
1 Make a pact. No-one else is going to build the life you want for you. No-one else will even be able to completely understand it. The most amazing souls will show up to cheer you on along the way, but this is your game. Make a pact to be in it with yourself for the long haul, as your own supportive friend at every step along the way.
2 Imagine it. What does a knock-the-ball-out-of-the-park life look like for you? What is the career that seems so incredible you think it’s almost criminal to have it? What is the dream you don’t allow yourself to even consider because it seems too unrealistic, frivolous or insane? Start envisioning it. That’s the beginning of having it.
3 Gasp. Start doing things that make you gasp and get the adrenalin flowing. Ask yourself, “What’s the gasp-level action here?” Your fears and a tough inner critic will chatter in your head. That’s normal, and just fine. When you hear that repetitive, irrational, mean inner critic, name it for what it is, and remember, it’s just a fearful liar, trying to protect you from any real or seeming risks. Go for the gasps and learn how false your inner critic’s narrative really is, and how conquerable your fears.
4 Get a thick skin. If you take risks, sometimes you’ll get a standing ovation, and sometimes people will throw tomatoes. Can you think of any leader or innovator whom you admire who doesn’t have enthusiastic fans and harsh critics? Get used to wins and losses, praise and pans, getting a call back and being ignored. Work on letting go of needing to be liked and needing to be universally known as “a nice person.”
5 Be an arrogant idiot. Of course I know you won’t, because you never could. But, please, just be a little more of an arrogant idiot. You know those guys around the office who share their opinions without thinking, who rally everyone around their big (often unformed) ideas? Be more like them. Even if just a bit. You can afford to move a few inches in that direction.
6 Question the voice that says ‘I’m not ready yet’. I know, I know. Because you are so brilliant and have such high standards, you see every way that you could be more qualified. You notice every part of your idea that is not perfected yet. While you are waiting to be ready, gathering more experience, sitting on your ideas, our friends referenced in rule five are being anointed industry visionaries, getting raises, and seeing their ideas come to life in the world. They are no more ready than you, and perhaps less. Jump in the sandbox now, and start playing full out. Find out just how ready you are.
7 Don’t wait for your Oscar. Don’t wait to be praised, anointed or validated. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to lead. Don’t wait for someone to invite you to share your voice. No-one is going to discover you. (Well, actually, they will, but paradoxically, only after you’ve started boldly and consistently stepping into leadership, sharing your voice and doing things that scare the hell out of you.)
8 Filter advice. Most brilliant women are humble and open to guidance. We want to gather feedback and advice. Fine, but recognise 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. Some will feel threatened. Some people will want to do with your idea only what is interesting or helpful to them. So interpret feedback carefully. Test advice and evaluate the results, rather than following it wholesale.
9 Recover and restore. If you start doing the things that make you gasp, doing what you don’t quite feel ready to do, and being more of an arrogant idiot, you are going to be stretching out of our comfort zone – a lot. Regularly do things that feel safe, cosy and restorative. Vent to friends when you need to. Acknowledge the steps you’ve taken. Watch your tank to see how much risk-taking juice you have available to you. When it’s running low, stop, recover and restore.
10 Let other women know they are brilliant. Let them know what kind of brilliance you see, and why it’s so special. Call them into greater leadership and action. Let them know that they are ready. Watch out for that subtle, probably unconscious thought, “because I had to struggle and suffer on my way up … they should have to too”. Watch out for thinking this will “take” too much time – when the truth is it always has huge, often unexpected returns.
Clear a path by walking it, boldly.
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