Impact & Playing Bigger

Becoming a Ship & a Harbor: A Conversation with Whitney Johnson

By January 5, 2013 29 Comments

TARA: Welcome everyone. I am so happy to invite you in to this conversation with Whitney Johnson. Whitney began her career on Wall Street after studying music. That’s fascinating in itself. She became a very successful investor and a regular contributor for Harvard Business Review and then became one of the founding partners and president of Rose Park Advisors. Then she started pursuing a whole other direction writing about women’s lives, women happiness. She is the author of a wonderful book which I highly recommend called Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream. She is also a blogger. You can get a taste of her work at her blog as well.

Listen to our chat here, or read the transcript below.

Download as Mp3 Interview with Whitney Johnson

Whitney, I wanted to start with something you’ve spoken about and written about that really struck me: your noticing that so many women in your words didn’t feel “the privilege to dream.” I thought that was such an interesting phrase.

WHITNEY: First of all again, I’m delighted to be here. That was a wonderful introduction so thank you.

In terms of the privilege, here’s how I discovered this. As you mentioned, I had gone to Wall Street and had started out as a secretary. I was there so that my husband could do his PhD at Columbia. I was able to work my way up from secretary to investment banker to research analyst. And then about 15 years in, I decided that I was going to disrupt myself and I left to pursue entrepreneurial ventures.

When I was no longer working 80-plus hours a week, I had the opportunity finally to talk to friends and friends of friends and daughters of friends. These were really bright interesting intelligent women. As I started to ask them what’s your dream, far too often, they would say to me, “I don’t have a dream” or “I don’t know how to do my dream.” When I started to look at the subtext, it seemed that they were saying to me, “Actually I’m not sure it’s my privilege to dream.”

As I started to hear this over and over again or look past what they were saying, I thought and I felt, “What is happening here?” There’s something more than just, “Oh, I don’t have a dream. I can’t figure out what it is.” It was as if they really did not believe that dreaming was their privilege. It wasn’t their birthright.

I started thinking to myself, how can I build this case in order to persuade them to dream? I started doing research and came across Anna Fels’ work on “Do Women Lack Ambition?” and started digging into that and discovering that, in fact, girls, young girls have just as much ambition on average as little boys do but we’re socialized from a very young age that we’re not feminine unless we’re giving up something for someone else or within the context of a relationship.

What that meant is that we were taught okay, if you’re quiet or you do something for someone, that’s a good girl. We were not rewarded for, “Wow! That is really interesting that question you just asked.” or “Wow! That is so fascinating that work that you just did.” And slowly, slowly, slowly, we started to see that ambition or that desire or that belief that we could dream begin to be eroded so that by the time we’re adults, we stopped believing that actually it is our privilege to dream because by definition, when we dream, we are requiring some type of resource in order to get that dream done.

TARA: Got it. So rather than being in the mode of my identity is defined by what I’m sacrificing for others; if we’re dreaming, we’re saying I’m owning that resources of time, of energy, of help may all be going towards my dream.

WHITNEY: Exactly. What I think sometimes we tend to do is then we say, “Okay, it’s really important that you dream and that you have your own dreams” and then people say, “That’s really selfish.”

Then I started digging into Jungian psychology and this whole notion that an every psyche, every person actually comes with a psyche that is composed of two parts, a masculine and a feminine piece. In order for a woman to grow up, she needs to develop her feminine traits — nurturing or relatedness and love. She also needs to develop her masculine traits — to wield power and control situations. A girl needs to learn that and a boy needs to learn that.

TARA: I was so struck by this concept of being the harbor and the ship that you’ve been talking about. Can you just slow us down with that? What does it mean to be a harbor and what does it mean to be a ship?

WHITNEY: The idea is our psyche, according to Jungian psychology, we’ve got the masculine and the feminine. The feminine piece of ourselves is relatedness, nurturing, love. It’s that instinct that most of us have in order to care for other people whether it’s our children, whether it’s our spouse, whether it’s our friends — to be a harbor for them, to put our arms around them and say, I’m going to help you do what you need to do in order to be nourished and be able to make your way through life. To be that safe harbor, that safe place where you can come and refresh and replenish your perhaps depleted resources. That’s the harbor piece.

The ship piece is our masculine piece which we see from a very early age in little boys: “I’m going to go out and slay the dragon. I’m going to go out and sail the ship on the high seas.” That’s the ship. The ability to control situations, wield power etc. Little girls tend to be reinforced for harbor pieces and little boys tend to be reinforced for the ship pieces.

The main idea is in order to be a complete person, little girls need to grow up to not only be a harbor but a ship, and boys need to grow up to not only be a ship but also to be a harbor. They need to learn to care for other people. What I discovered is that our society actually doesn’t necessarily expect men to learn how to be a harbor. We’re perfectly fine with them delegating the harbor aspect to someone else whether it’s a wife or a secretary.

Women may instinctively grow up being a harbor and we’re reinforced for being a harbor, but to learn to become our whole self, we have to learn how to go out and be a ship and vice-versa. What that led me to really want to encourage women to do is to not only be a harbor and continue to be a harbor but learn to be a ship.

Typically, women are required to choose between the two, whether we’re a harbor or a ship. We end up feeling this tremendous tug while there is this ship full of dreams pulling at us, we’re trying to keep one foot on the dock of family life and we feel like we’re making Solomonic choices. I actually think what gives rise to the mommy wars, is that we have to make choices but it doesn’t mean that we have to choose between trying to be a harbor and a ship. The challenge is just trying to figure out how to do both and in what quantities and at what time.

TARA: I really was struck by this notion that not just it’s sort of, it’s a nice balance if you can be a harbor and a ship but your strong statement that because for many women it comes more naturally to be a harbor. It’s therefore the task of adulthood and development to learn how to be a ship and for men being a ship may come more naturally either from nature or nurture, socialization. And that therefore it is the real task of their adulthood to learn how to be a harbour.

It really made me see the work that I am doing with women in Playing Big. It’s just a new angle on it because I think the conversations I am so interested in with women are really, “How do we take that part of us that has the aspiration to do something quite significant as a ship, something that is informed by everything we know about being a harbor?” It’s informed by our love for humanity and everything we know about love and emotional intelligence but then we want to go and translate that into something out in the world. That’s a place where a lot of women are still getting stuck either because they don’t feel they have the practical skills or because of fear and limiting beliefs and blocks around really going there.

WHITNEY: I think too Tara there is a lot of shame. We both are familiar with Brené Brown’s work. Girls are shamed. Again, this goes back to Anna Fels’ work as well. We’re shamed for a very young age around our gifts, ambitions and dreams.

TARA: I also wanted to chat about which is this idea you write about that living our own dreams as women is critical to enabling our children to live their dreams. Can you speak more to that?

WHITNEY: Yes, and I firmly believe it. It’s been said in the feminist movement — if they can’t see it, they can’t be it. I think this is true for our children as well. If they can’t see it they can’t be it. If they can’t see us dreaming then they can’t learn how to dream. I think within the context of family life that especially applies to our daughters.

I think there is another element of that which is, we as parents, no matter how hard we try, we are going to force our ambitions on our children. The more we are out dreaming our own dreams, the less we are likely to do that. Again, going back to Carl Jung, he said, “the most important influence on a child is the unlived life of a parent.”

When we go out and actually live our lives and dream our own dreams then we’re giving our children permission really to have their own dreams and to live their own lives and to be the heroes of their stories. Then we as parents can actually simply bear witness to the lives that they live rather than trying to live our lives through them.

For me, we dream so our children can dream.


That’s Part I of my conversation with Whitney Johnson.

Part 2 of my conversation with Whitney Johnson coming soon! To learn more about Whitney’s current work, click here.

Join the discussion 29 Comments

  • Lindsey says:

    This is so thought-provoking. I am most assuredly on the dock, with one foot on a moving ship, trying to figure out how not to fall in. How to step out and move while trusting the harbor won’t fall apart? So much to digest here. Thank you both.

  • Felicity says:

    The part about females believing that dreaming is selfish because it pulls them away from their responsibilities really hit home. I have just started dreaming big and can’t wait to play big too. Perfect timing for this. Thanks ladies!

  • Thank you Tara and Whitney.

    The felt sense of shame when daring greatly is so profound, and I find oftentimes it goes unrecognized.

    Instead, we have this sense of “I’m in trouble” or “This feels like a bad decision” when actually, it’s just shame rising from old experiences. Ancestral shame, or keep yourself demure shame, or whatever…

    What could happen if we learned to recognize shame as the sign that we are approaching great freedom? Wow, amazing shifts could happen.

    Thanks again for all you both do!

  • Dorrie says:

    The concept of disrupting ones self ion a positive sense is terrific.
    At times our shadow self will disrupt us but until recently I made myself
    A bit wrong even though I knew something was
    To be more conscious of this disruptive part if
    Ourselves which is part of business nature etc is
    Wonderful and certainly shaves off time in remorse.
    Thanks for languaging this concept .

  • Gwendolyn says:

    This concept of being only a harbor is what led to illness for me. I “was” the resource for others and depleted to the bone. It strikes me that a good harbor has lots of dock workers and construction teams to keep it going, which we must feel worthy of to have. My recovery only came when I found my “ship space” and gained a sense of choice. Well, it was more like a canoe on a pond. Being a ship feels riskier- needs a map and a clear destination and lots of cargo. Ships get a lot of attention, stand out, wear a name and that is a challenge. They can run aground and sink in water to deep to swim ashore. I love this metaphor! I see a need to learn skills to get from my canoe to a speedboat then a ship, Goddess willing. Thanks for the thoughtfulness!

  • Donna Davis says:

    Thanks Tara for an introduction to another fine writer and coach.
    My personal take on the dilemma of shame is a long-standing mistrust of my own experiences, perceptions, opinions, appetites, desires,and sensations. In this context, when even one’s grasp of reality and self-image are turned into cloud-cuckoo land (“she doesn’t SEE what’s HAPPENING to her!” people whisper), you struggle in desperation with nickel-and-diming and pray you get even that right!
    So you operate under this tiny microscope of so-so competency, and your dreams, absorbed by the shadow, morph into these children locked in a foul closet, or pathetic Cinderellas and princesses, or monstrous she-devils and octopi and latent psychoses dragging the chains of all your infantile and adolescent and midlife and menarche baggage around with them.

    “She’s doesn’t see she’s a pig? So what does she think she is…a princess?”[laughter]

    You have to open your heart to the Pig and the Princess (and the Dragon, or Cat,or Raven, or Chimp, the predator and trickster, I guess that’s the third head of the dog in Hades), to start to even know your dreams. I guess that’s why so many women, and so many emerging persons, regardless of “talent,” turn to the arts as a way to engage these images. But we can get stuck there, in solipsistic isolation, especially when even wonderful artists get turned into also-rans.
    The picture up on the schoolroom wall is often some one’s idea of the booby prize.
    What’s the path to authentic dreams? Is there time in one lifetime for some of us?

    Thank you for letting me blog away…

  • Donna Davis says:

    a personal note to Tara:
    In the last year or two, you have been a most wonderful healer and lamplighter for me through one of the loneliest times of my life.

  • Angie CunninghaM says:

    Part one of the ship and harbor conversation hit really hard home. I have let most of my dreams go by the wayside on my “SHIP”. I have been so intent on raising my daughters and urge them to fulfill their dreams and not allow anyone to say they cannot fulfill them. I come close to jumpstarting a dream again and then something else edges it to the background of importance again and I do the harboring of motherly love and friend support. I try to balance them, but I feel guilty when I think on my own dream and desire. Balance is the key. I hope to learn it. Thank you Tara for a fresh view in this new year on something age old.
    Sincerely, Angie

  • Silvia says:

    Tara. Thank you for this thoughtful interview. It touches the question that we ask and answer throughput our life, sometimes on a daily basis. . I can’t avoid the question so I try to answer it from a place that it true to myself. As selfish as this may sound, I have only one life to live. No one else can live my life and no one else can be a harbor or a ship like me. I am unique as is everyone else and our gifts to our loved ones and to this world are unique too. So I try to make my choices of when to be a ship or a harbor carefully. I love each state of being and believe that each one makes me a better, more authentic and self-realized person.

  • Valerie says:

    This is excellent, thank you. I look forward to part two.

  • Melissa says:

    Wow – another excellent interview and resource from you Tara, just at the right time for me! Thank you both for your example, compassion, and courage.

  • Lindsey — As you note, it is important to have it all, and yet it is tremendously difficult. If you refer back to the myth of Psyche, the 2nd task is to gain power without the power corrupting her. Likewise, it’s important to dream w/o letting the dream become the thing. In other words, if my dreams don’t bind me to those I love, then they are dreams I want to dream.
    Best wishes to you!

  • Thank you Felicity — and best wishes to you in supersizing your dream!

  • Absolutely Robin.
    I am finally begin to learn that when I feel ‘naughty’ to stop and wonder is this because I am doing something ‘wrong’ or simply that I’m not being a nice girl. When I first read the piece by Anna Fels’ Do Girls Lack Ambition, it was indeed liberating.

  • Dorrie —
    I have been thinking a lot about the ‘shadow self’ — and wrote something very brief here (link below). One of the fun aspects of this interview was discovering that Tara has also spent a lot of time studying Jungian pscyhology.

  • There is so much to like in what you’ve written Gwendolyn. Yes, when we are only a harbor, or only a ship, we suffer as do our loved ones.

    I especially liked your drawing out the metaphor to say a harbor has lots of dock workers and construction teams to keep it going. And that sometimes learning to be a ship really does start as a canoe on a pond.

    Thank you!

  • Thank YOU for blogging away Donna. What you wrote here is so beautifully said — we grow up with a long-standing mistrust of our own perception, opinions, desires. And it starts young. A good girl isn’t allowed to have feelings because that takes up space. Or opinions. If you are interested, I wrote this yesterday, after an interchange with my 12 yr-old daughter.

  • Donna — what a wonderful compliment to Tara — a healer and lamplighter!

  • Angie —
    Perhaps this image will give you some inspiration as you dream for yourself… I know it certainly helps me to be a ship!

  • Tara is a great interviewer — isn’t she?

  • Thanks for letting us know Melissa! And yes — I agree — Tara is quite lovely.

  • Melanie says:

    This is so timely, I have been struggling with this so much lately. It was actually one of my resolutions this year- I resolve to stop apologizing for being capable. Maybe I just need thicker skin- but either way this was such a great interview. Thank you for posting this.

  • […] Here’s Part 2 of my chat with Whitney Johnson. (Read Part 1 here). […]

  • […] Tara Sophia Mohr | wise living » Becoming a Ship & a Harbor: A Conversation with Whitney Johnso… […]

  • […] we raise boys to honour both the masculine and the feminine (or as Whitney Johnson describes it, to become both a ship and a harbour), to express empathy in a world that often tells them that manhood means stoicism and aggression, […]

  • Bridget O'Shea says:

    Brilliant – absolutely awesome. Thank you both.

  • […] I read Tara Sophia Mohr‘s interview with Whitney Johnson, author of the book Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things […]

  • […] Becoming a Ship & a Harbor: A Conversation with Whitney  Johnson […]

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