Book Review: Playing Big – Tara Mohr

Reviewed by Carrie Ballard

Carrie is a professional copywriter and copyeditor.  See her website Atelier English for more information.

Playing Big (UK edition) - Tara Mohr
Playing Big (UK edition) – Tara Mohr

How many books can come out in 12 months about women and their careers, what holds women back, and what can be done about it and by whom?  I read one that I can highly recommend. It speaks to women who feel as though they are not living their work lives in the way they wanted to and who are looking for ways to understand and do it differently.

Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Vision and Make Things Happen by Tara Mohr is an insightful, inspiring, and practical exploration of how to understand, explore, and make changes in your work life that will stick. It is also a good read.

Mohr’s unusual family background, her prestigious education, her corporate success and her vision for a world that she wants to live in led her to “long for an environment more equally shaped by women and men.”   But, “All the support, education, and success I’d had somehow had not added up to confidence. It had not left me eager to pursue my dreams.”   She identified through her work and from her blog readers that the biggest challenge in their lives was, “I’m playing small.”

The format of the book is easy to follow. Each chapter includes a discussion, then practical tips for changing skills followed by a list of journaling questions, and a short summary called The Big Ideas. So a presentation, a discussion, examples and practical guidance, then tools to explore on your own and encourage self-awareness via journaling. The book can be used over and over, as you develop and meet new challenges.  It is a career companion.  A digest of the book is included below.

Playing Big (US edition) – Tara Mohr

As an American living in Europe, I must say I would be very surprised if the work experiences of Dutch or English women are the same as those of American women as outlined in Playing Big. The struggles outlined in this book may not reflect their experiences in the same way or at all.

At the end of the book, however, I realized I was smiling to myself and was filled with a desire for solutions to global problems that are vexing and hurting millions of people. I hope Mohr’s understanding of the issues at stake and her vision of ‘what can be’  resonate for many people – and I encourage you to read Playing Big and share it with your important people  – “In the minds of women around the globe lie the seeds of the solutions to climate change, poverty, violence, corporate corruption.  For me, in the end, the bottom line is this: In millions of communities, organizations, companies, and families, women know what needs to be done. Playing big is doing it.”

A digest of Playing Big

A small paperback edition is expected in March.

Chapter 1 is about The Inner Critic.
Favorite quote: “Being accurate isn’t the aim of the inner critic; getting you to avoid emotional risk is.”
The Inner Critic is the voice of self-doubt that gets in the way – “vicious, irrational, harsh” – that all women grapple with. Mohr posits that The Inner Critic is trying to keep us safe within our comfort zones, but its influence is deadly for playing bigger. She gives powerful examples of what the inner critic will say vs what realistic thinking might be, and how to lessen its influence.  I recognize that voice myself.

Chapter 2 takes us on a journey to meet The Inner Mentor, our future self, who is waiting to be called on for guidance and help.
Favorite quote: Our inner mentor “knows exactly who we would be if were brave enough to show up as our true selves.”
Mohr believes that to find your own answers and your own path to playing big, your Inner Mentor is even more important than  ‘the right mentor.’
What is the inner mentor? Unburdened by fear, untouched by insecurity, utterly calm, loving, and who “knows exactly who we would be if  we were brave enough to show up as our true selves.”  Her childhood dance teacher, Judith Komoroske, when hearing about playing small, said, “If people… don’t know how to imagine, then they can’t create a dramatically different reality than what they know today.” Mohr goes on to say, “The inner mentor gives us a specific, vibrant, compelling vision so that we don’t have to depend on what we can see to prescribe what we can be.”  What is required in order to effect personal and collective transformation will come from within as much as from without.

Chapter 3 could be called Fear.
Favorite quote: “The fear that you will horribly embarrass yourself, that the plane is about to crash, that you’ll say something stupid, that this time the truth that you have no talent at your job will be revealed, and so on.”
It includes enlightening descriptions of two different kinds of fear from the Hebrew bible. One of the fear types – pachad –  is one we try to conquer within ourselves. But there is a second word used for fear in the Hebrew bible – yirah. And yirah is that “miraculous sense of truth and sacredness” around larger space and startlingly more energy.

The Lean Startup - Eric Ries
The Lean Startup – Eric Ries

Chapter 4 is about praise and criticism.
Favorite quote: “One of the most important mental shifts a woman can make to support her playing big is to stop thinking of criticism as a signal of a problem and to start thinking of criticism as part and parcel of doing important work.”
Mohr describes the things that make women tend to care so much about what other people think, how that holds us up, and five principles for unhooking from praise and criticism.  She provides practical guidance such as to only incorporate feedback that achieves aims, and seek out feedback from intended audiences and decision-makers.
That reference to intended audiences reminded me of the Lean Startup principles used by entrepreneurs and startups. Find a problem, design a minimum viable product to solve the problem, and get out of the building to talk to real people who might use your solution. Find out what really matters to your intended audience, and avoid building something that no one will use.  Stay with your intended audience, in Mohr’s words.

Chapter 5 tells us how to leave good student habits behind.
Favorite quote: “Drop the idea of ‘self-promotion’ and think about the concept of ‘visibility’ instead.”
Mohr addresses women’s reluctance to self-promote and how to think about it differently. Think of it as making your work and ideas available to people who can use them. Think about being of service to others by sharing what you know.  “Think about telling the whole truth” and recognize the little lies of omission about our accomplishments, lies that diminish what  we have accomplished. Speaking openly about our accomplishments allows us to integrate them into our sense of self and know our own “competence, strength, and resilience.”

Chapter 6 is about hiding – how brilliant women hide from playing bigger.
Favorite quote: “All these hiding strategies allow us to avoid playing bigger while convincing ourselves we’re moving forward in the most diligent way we can.”
A list of the items Mohr covers in this chapter is sufficient. If a woman always has something holding her back from launching her own idea, she will recognize one or all of these:

  • This Before That
  • Designing at the White Board – we feel we are doing diligent work but it ends up not aligned with what our intended audience wants
  • Overcomplicating and Endless Polishing
  • Collecting and Curating Everyone Else’s Ideas
  • Omitting Your Own Story
  • I Need the Degree…

Thankfully this brutal unveiling of our tactics of evasion is followed by practical steps for change, a list of journaling questions, and The Big Ideas.

Chapter 7 begins the guidance of how to start small and manageable and learn from the experience, come what may.
Favorite quote: “….when women tell me they don’t know what they want or they are overwhelmed with options, it’s because what they deep-down want scares the heck out of them. They’ve told themselves ‘That can’t be it. It must be something else.’ ”
This is the good part. Doing a trial, doing a little event, engaging with people who are your audience – not just to test the potential, but to experience if you feel that energy that means you love it. Succeed or fail, leaps are for learning. If it doesn’t work, be thankful and change some things. If it does work, avoid just celebrating and moving on. Use them to inform your next leap.

Chapter 8 teaches you about communicating with power.
Favorite quote: “Entrepreneurs and independents can afford to do it differently.”
That is the good news. The bad news is that women have a much harder job as leaders than men do. And we undermine ourselves when we use these habits of speech.  We do it to be seen as likeable and warm, “mandatory” for women in leadership. The well-documented phenomenon of the double-bind shows that  women are perceived as competent or likable, but not both.
Women soften their voices and use ‘just’,  ‘I am no expert…’, and substitute a question for a statement in order to be seen as warm and likable – because their success and tenure is based to some extent on being liked.   Mohr says bluntly, “I don’t like that this is true,” but she accepts that it is necessary at this time for women leaders to amp up the warmth we project and our competence at the same time.  Thankfully she deals with the issue directly and puts powerful tools in the hands of readers so that they can change these habits. Particularly powerful is her advice about writing emails and how to write in a manner consistent with our competence and personal power.

Chapter 9 and Conclusion shows the you how to recognize and pursue your calling.
Favorite quote: “We are the transition team.”
Mohr reminds us that our bliss can be something we do a few hours a week – our calling does not have to the pay the bills.  You can do small tasks while keeping your vision huge. She describes the difference between a Gift-Goal  which feels as wonderful to pursue as to reach, and a Should-Goal and we all know what those are.  “But how do I recognize my calling?”  She provides eight things to watch for and sense that will guide you.
A valuable piece of advice offered is to be sure to plan wisely, make new habits,  and  organize support for sustainable action so that your small steps become easy.
Added to the rewards of personal achievement and satisfaction is the goal of using women’s new power for good. “At this moment in history, we are the transition team.”