I read a lot of self-help books. Most are…eh. So I was pleasantly surprised when I read Tara Sophia Mohr’s Playing Big, which came out last fall. I think there are some interesting insights in there for readers generally, and as I’ve been pondering my own career.
Mohr’s thesis is that many people (she writes for women, which is smart if you’re doing self-help!) have the potential to do great things, but various fears hold us back from these callings. We listen to the inner critic who tells us not to raise our hands for promotions because we’re not ready. Or not to seek out speaking gigs because we need time to hone our craft. Never mind that all sorts of idiots get up on stage daily.
So she tells us how to deal with the inner critic — not to ignore her completely, but to take her for what she is (you can name her! Gertrude is fretting, but she’ll get over it). She explains that there’s nothing wrong with fear. It’s entirely possible to be afraid and do things anyway. She explains how to unhook one’s ego from both criticism and praise. One can be crippling, the other addicting, but neither are all that useful when it comes down to it. What is useful is feedback about how potential stakeholders will react to a decision you make. That’s useful because it helps you iterate what you’re doing.
Mohr challenges women to move beyond being good students. Good students study what is known to get the right answers on tests. People who take risks have to improvise. There are no right answers so you can’t know them, no matter how much you study. You don’t need another degree (unless it’s a specific one required for a job you want). You need to get moving and try things. Don’t design at the white board. Get out there, show what you’ve got to people, accept that it won’t be perfect, but the feedback will help you get better and play bigger. In particular, I enjoyed her advice about seeking out your “inner mentor.” External mentors are great, and can do things like introduce you to influential people. But you can mentor yourself as well, envisioning what the wiser version of yourself (perhaps yourself living 20 years hence) would do in a tough situation.
I had a few thoughts while reading this book. On one hand, some parts don’t feel immediately relevant. My inner critic and I have a fairly distant relationship. OK, let’s put it this way: Gertrude got locked in the closet a long time ago. This is kind of the nature of wanting to put your words and yourself out there. I did a post-college internship at USA Today and I got the bright idea a few weeks after starting that the paper should want to publish my columns. As it turns out, the paper did. Same with getting up in front of audiences for speeches. You have to firmly believe that you have something worthwhile to say. Criticism comes with the game of writing, speaking, blogging. Grab the smelling salts — someone on the internet disagrees with me!
On the other hand, it’s been useful to think through these ideas as I ponder my next pivot. I Know How She Does It comes out next month. I do hope to shape the conversation on women, work, and life. But then what? What will I do with that? As my 56-year-old self looks back on my life, what would she tell my 36-year-old self to do? How would she tell me to keep challenging myself, so I could write the books that I desperately want to read?
I don’t know the answer to that but I do want to push myself to think bigger. This book was an encouraging nudge in that direction.
In other news: Mohr graciously blurbed I Know How She Does It. Her take: “For many years I’ve wanted to see reflected in our collective conversation what I know to be true in women’s lives: that many of us are happily combining work and motherhood, and loving both. Laura Vanderkam has written the book that’s been sorely missing, and she’s done so with an impassioned, eloquent voice, important new research, and the warmth of a dear friend.”
There’s still time to pre-order and join my book club to be part of the conversation around launch!