Tara Sophia Mohr | Playing Big

Tara Sophia Mohr, Playing Big. Find Your VOICE, Your MISSION, and Your MESSAGE.

I’d love for you to meet…

MarianneSeatedSM-300x300Today I’m bringing you a chock-full-of-insights Q&A with my friend and colleague Marianne Elliott.  Marianne is a writer, human rights advocate, and yoga teacher. Brené Brown called her “One of the best teachers I’ve ever experienced … a beautiful writer and a courageous truth teller.” Marianne writes and teaches on creating, developing and sustaining real change in personal life, work and the world. Marianne is one of the most thoughtful, compassionate, wise women I know.

Trained as a lawyer, Marianne helped develop human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and East Timor, was a Policy Advisor for Oxfam, and spent two years in the Gaza Strip before going to Afghanistan, where she served in the United Nations. In Afghanistan, she decided stories were her weapon of choice, and yoga was her medicine. Her next round of 30 Days of Courage, an online guide to bravery in action, starts on August 4th.

Here are her answers to my questions about courage and about playing big.

Tara: Marianne, what’s your definition of courage?

Marianne: Being willing and able to do things that scare us. Simple as that. Simple, but by no means easy. Courage takes practice, and I try to practice courage in some small way every day.

What does “playing big” mean to you? What does it look like in your life?

Playing big is allowing yourself, your work, your ideas and your words to be seen and heard, and to take up the space you need to do the good work you are destined to do in the world.

What are some of the things your inner critic says to you and what do you do/think/not do, etc. so that self-doubt doesn’t get in your way?

My inner critic isn’t very original. It says ‘You are not good/smart/experienced enough. You could fail. You could mess this important thing up. You should probably just stay quiet.’

When I hear that voice, I call on the voice of my inner sweetheart or cheerleader – who says : ‘You’re doing fine, Marianne, it’s natural to be scared, just keep going.’

My inner sweetheart speaks with the voice of my Buddhist teacher, who is the embodiment of kindness.

I also remember something you told me, Tara – that my inner critic is the guardian of my comfort zone. So whenever that critical voice gets loud, it’s a sign that I’m getting close to the outer gate of the territory I already know and near to something new. And that excites me and reminds me to call on that inner cheerleader to help me keep going.

For many women, fears come up when they start playing bigger, or even when they contemplate playing bigger. What fears have come up for you along the way and how do you move past them?

Like many women, I’ve internalized the idea that femininity equals humility, gentleness and grace. So when I began to play big and to amplify my voice, my work and my ideas, I was afraid people would think was too proud, loud or arrogant.

I moved past those fears largely by watching the women I admired - Helen Clark, Horia Mosadiq, Suraya Pakzad, Michelle Obama, Jane Goodall, Eve Ensler, Seane Corn, Natalie Goldberg and many others – all be criticized, at some point, for being too loud, proud, or arrogant.

I realized that being criticized comes with the territory of playing big as a woman, and that rather than playing small to avoid criticism, I could choose to play big anyway and make sure I had good support and self-care in place for when that criticism arrived.

How do you think about risk-taking and failure?

I think there’s nothing really worth having in life that comes without risk. Loving someone is a risk. Every creative endeavor is a risk. All forms of social activism and change work involve risk, and they rarely work out the way we expect them to.

I’ve learned to think of my life as one great experiment. So what I might otherwise have deemed to be a ‘failure’ now becomes a ‘result’ of my latest experiment, and produces new data for me to take on board. This way, there are no ‘failed’ experiments, just unexpected results and the chance to learn.

Soak up more Marianne goodness at http://marianne-elliott.com. And check out the next round of 30 Days of Courage, an online guide to bravery in action, starting on 4 August. Find out more about the course here.


giving yourself permission to learn

My son is learning to use his hands. Yesterday, we were sitting on the big green rocker, with Goodnight Gorilla before us, and he was working to get his hands to touch the page. He missed and tried again dozens of times, occasionally plopping his palm clumsily — but intentionally — onto the page. There were shouts of effort and whines of exhaustion. There was lots of trial and error. Over the past few months, he’s learned to do dozens of things this way.

I’d forgotten — or maybe never fully realized — how much effort and failure is involved in learning anything. It’s hard to remember that after years of school, when we are typically “taught” something by a teacher — but not necessarily by practicing it–and then, from our first attempt, assessed for how good we are at it. We come to think about whether we are “good at” writing or “good at” math or “good at” sports – rather than seeing ourselves in a process of learning. Wouldn’t it be interesting to get to write 5 practice term papers – with feedback but no grade that “counted” – before we got to write the one that did?

Many of you know that I’ve been very impacted by Dr. Carol Dweck’s work, and her book Mindset. A Stanford University psychology researcher, the big idea of her work is this:

“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits…In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

I personally spent too many of my years living in a fixed mindset and now try to remember that growth, learning, skill development, mastery from practice are possible. And at the same time, I’d qualify that with the caveat that we all have natural aptitudes and abilities that make learning more easy or speedy for us in certain areas.

What’s new for me now is getting to watch a baby learn and see how undeniable it is that:

1. Learning is a process. It takes time.
2. The beginning steps are awkward and clumsy.
3. Learning takes effort, and tires us out.

I want to give myself permission to learn like that – with a novice stage, with awkward, clumsy moves, with lots of failure and with lots of time — whether I’m learning how to download podcasts onto my phone (still working on that one), learning a new dance in dance class, learning how to manage a team well, or learning how to craft a beautiful chapter in a book.

I offer this to you today. Where in your life or work would you benefit from remembering how learning really happens-and that it happens? Can you give yourself greater permission to be a learner?


Want to share this post on twitter? I’ve made it easy for ya. “Give yourself permission to learn.” Click to tweet.

Take the break before you need it

The other day, my husband and I were out walking with the baby. I had been carrying our little guy in the carrier (one of his favorite places on earth) for quite some time. And we live in a very hilly neighborhood.

“Do you need a break? I can take him,” my husband said.

I thought about it for a sec. I didn’t need a break. I was doing okay.

“No, I’m okay.” I said.

So we kept walking. And then, maybe twenty minutes later, suddenly I really, really needed a break. And I was also exhausted and cranky.

Now I’m telling you, it has honestly taken me decades to finally have the thought I had next, which was this: “You can take the break before you need it.” You can take the break, replenish, stop whatever you are doing – when you still have fuel in the tank.


A few days later, we were out with the baby again, this time on the train. We were exploring, hanging out, and everyone was having a fine old time. I decided that was so fabulous that instead of getting off at our intended destination a few stops away from our home, we should ride the train out to the end of the line.

It was really great for the first 15 minutes or so. And then we all started to get tired, bored, and fussy. It was too much.

It’s hard for me to end anything – a work session, a conversation, an outing – while still energized and up for more. It’s hard for me to take a break before a break is non-negotiable.

It has something to do with my passion and exuberance for life, yes, and I appreciate that in myself. But it also has something to do with how exhaustion numbs me from the present. If I stop doing whatever while I’m still alert, energized, then, by definition, I continue being alertly-present to my moment-to-moment experience. And sometimes I want to run from that.

Last week some friends were visiting us, with their toddler son. The little guy loved to watch our dog eat and would yell “more! more!” when our dog was done with his food. My friend, his wise mama, would explain, “He’s all done. He had enough. It was enough.” I got to watch his two year old mind contemplate this abstract concept and try to take it in: enough. And I wanted to teach myself, just like that, with a patient, loving, maternal voice, “Tara, that is enough honey. It’s enough.”

I think I am still learning what enough is, and that it is. That you can declare yourself having worked hard enough for the day before your brain has slowed to a total halt due to exhaustion. That you can declare it enough hours doing childcare and take a break even while you are still enjoying yourself and have the stamina to do more. That you can declare it enough of a lovely evening with friends before all your energy for conversation expires. That you can quit while well-resourced, still alert, still enjoying, eager for it all to happen again.

So I’m going to try this for a while, and I invite you to try it with me: to take the break before you need it. To quit while you are ahead, in a sense. To experience the mysterious side of life I know little about – doing things lightly, in moderation, with buffer.

Right now, I have twenty minutes before I have to pack up the computer and head home from this cafe. The old way? Spend the next twenty minutes polishing this post or doing a couple more tasks. After all – I have a teeny bit of stamina left. I can.

The new way? Pack up now. Stroll for a bit, and give myself some extra buffer time for getting home before my next appointment.

I like it.

Do you take the break before you need it? Do you want to? Tell us in the comments.



a thousand times before

I have always been afraid of giving birth. I was afraid of it before I became pregnant. I was afraid during my pregnancy. And I was very afraid.

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who was competent in the realms of the mind and the heart but not so competent in the realm of the body. I saw labor as part of that physical realm — the ultimate challenge of corporeal endurance, courage, and acumen, something that other women (athletes, mountain climbers) could cope well with, but not me.

Over the course of the pregnancy, the fear diminished a little. It got better because I talked about it and listened to friends’ labor stories. I trained in labor breathing and relaxation techniques, and that helped me feel a little more secure. And it got better as I found a balance point — learning information that helped me feel more empowered, more safe, but not overwhelming myself with too much of it.

By the end of my forty week term, I was less afraid, but still afraid, still feeling that labor was something that other women could pull off but that I, for sure, could not.

Needless to say, it’s more than a little stressful to get to the end of a pregnancy feeling that way.

I was sitting on my purple yoga mat at the pregnant-lady-yoga-class I’d been attending for months. First let me say, I had come to have tremendous admiration and respect for the teacher. She was a midwife and had delivered hundreds of babies. She’d raised two of her own. She’d taught yoga to tens of thousands of pregnant women and new moms. She was extremely knowledgable, and she was hilarious. Her pre- and post- natal yoga classes were institutions in San Francisco. I always got a little flustered and quiet around her because I thought she was just so cool.

While we were all in our poses, she stopped by my mat. Quietly she said to me, “Is this your first baby, Tara?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I can’t believe that,” she said. “It just seems like you’ve done this a thousand times before,” she said.

I was immediately blushing, and on could nine.

And then I had the thought, “You can act as if that’s true.” And suddenly, then and there, I decided I had done labor a thousand times before. And the minute I thought that, I found a part of myself who had done it a thousand times before. It was like she raised her hand and said, “Here I am.”

I can’t tell you what part of me that was. Perhaps it was the part that is connected to every other woman on earth. Perhaps it’s a part of me that is older than my thirty-some years, a part that has, in other times, given birth. I don’t know what part of me it was but I can tell you that part was right there to say, “Yes, you have done this before.”

For the next few days, I kept feeling what became a soft, energizing, accessible sense of “you’ve done labor a thousand times before. This isn’t new to you at all. You aren’t a beginner, you’re old hat at this.” It was the precise opposite of how I’d ever thought of myself in relationship to labor.

That was my last pre-natal yoga class. Two days later, contractions began. And it turned out, yes, I could do labor, and did. All through the experience, I called on the part of me that had done it many times before.

There were, for me, three lessons in this:

1. It’s worth it to tell other people the goodness that you see in them. On the right day, at the right moment, your words might change how they see themselves. Click to tweet.

2. Act as if. Most of the time in life, we are in the process of becoming. We want to become more brave, or more forgiving, or more grateful or more confident or whatever it is. Instead of waiting to be that, we can simply try on the thought that we are that, and then act as if it were true. “I’ve done labor a thousand times” or “I’m totally qualified for this role” or “My artwork has an adoring fan base.” It’s not about being delusional, it’s about changing your behavior, upping your game, by giving yourself a new frame within which to operate.

3. And third, perhaps most mysteriously, if there is something in your life you feel lost about – maybe you feel like a novice, or like you have no idea what you are doing – maybe it’s labor or marriage or shepherding a loved one through the end of life – or maybe it’s something in your work or creative life – find the part of yourself that’s done it a thousand times before, the part of you that is bigger than your body and older than your life. I don’t know what to tell you as to how to find her but I know it has something to do with calling on her, and feeling around inside for her.

When you let her lead, I learned, she’ll take you just where you need to go.



what’s your threshold?

First things first, I’m excited to tell you: The Playing Big book is written! It’s in to the publisher. Advance copies are making their ways to magazines and media outlets now. Publication date, October 14th, 2014. It’s so damn exciting. I’m proud of it, I love it, and I can’t wait to share it with you. More soon.


So here’s my question for you today: how often do you say, “I don’t know”? And when do you say it? And why?

The research finding is this: women hold themselves to a higher threshold of certainty before offering an opinion on a topic, as compared to men. In other words, in order to share an idea, information, a guess, women tend to think they need to be fairly sure they are right, in order to speak up. Men hold themselves to a lower certainty threshold.

Maybe this is one of those things we didn’t really need a study to tell us?

But it’s good to remember. And it’s especially important to remain aware of the second research finding: Because of that high certainty threshold, women will often say “I don’t know” if they aren’t sure of the answer, or sure what they think. They will often pick the “I don’t know” option on a multiple choice test.

But…here’s where things get really interesting: When there is no “I don’t know” option that women can choose and they are pressed to give an answer, they are right just as much as the time as the dudes. If the “I don’t know” option is available, many more women than men will choose it, and so both they and their audience will never find out that the women really did know the answer.

When I first wrote about this, a couple years ago, the finding had shown up in a study about women and men’s financial literacy. The initial study gave men and women a multiple choice quiz about finance, and the results showed men had higher levels of knowledge about the topic. But in the second version of the study, when the “I don’t know” option was removed from the multiple choice quiz, the gender gap in performance significantly narrowed.

Now the same finding is showing up in regards to political knowledge, and is even skewing political poll results, according to this recent New York Times article.

Sometimes, of course, being conservative when we aren’t sure about something is a good idea. We are mitigating risk, being conscientious of how flippantly offered opinions or faulty assumptions might negatively impact others. But, the findings tell us, overall women underestimate how often their uncertain leaning, is right.

So, next time you feel tempted to retreat into “I don’t know,” go with your hunch instead. Click to tweet.

Love to you,