“I believe the task of our time is not just to bring more women into positions of power, but to empower women to transform the institutions they are part of by bringing their wisdom, critiques, perspectives and solutions to the fore.”
– Tara Sophia Mohr, founder of Wise Living
Writer | Speaker | Coach
Tara Sophia Mohr is on a mission to help women Play Big in their lives. With an MBA from Stanford Business School and an undergraduate degree in English Literature from Yale University, Tara takes a unique approach to her work.
Through a fusion of inner and outer work, mind and heart, learned knowledge and intuitive wisdom, Tara teaches women how to quiet self-doubt, clarify their purpose, and become comfortable with taking bold action in the workplace and in the world.
This San Francisco-based Goddess is committed to helping women have a greater impact in the world.
Tabby Biddle: There is a debate going on right now about why there aren’t more women in leadership positions. The arguments range from “It’s about performance” to “It’s about biology” to “The systems we’ve created often don’t place the right value on the strengths that women bring to the table” and so on. What is your opinion on this?
Tara Mohr: My opinion is that all of that is at work. I think there are real external barriers that persist in terms of the way women are perceived in the workplace. For example, when they are performing really highly, they are still getting passed over for promotions more than men. Because of the way bias works, they are just not often seen as potential leaders even when they have that capability. So I think there are certainly a lot of external barriers still.
I think then there is also an internal piece. Because of the oppression and disempowerment that women have dealt with, I think a lot of women are still figuring out how to bring their voice more forward fully. They are still figuring out how to be confident, and how to take more risks. That is the internal work for women to do.
My work happens to be more about helping women do the work on the inner frontier, but I absolutely think that the work on the outer frontier is really important too.
TB: From what I gather, you are very much a believer in callings. What do you feel is your calling?
TM: To help restore women’s voices where they are missing. To bring feminine wisdom where it is missing. To advance the idea that compassion is a form of wisdom. All of these callings have been present in me since my early adolescence, but they’ve expressed themselves in various ways through the years.
TB: Have you struggled with “answering” your call?
TM: Yes! I believe we all do – it’s a part of the process of answering the call. Resisting it is a stage of the process. I went pretty off-track for a while with mine – and into less creative, heart-centered ways of being and working. It took the growing pain of being out of sync with my calling to bring me back to it.
TB: Can you say more about that?
TM: Yes, when I say growing pain, I actually mean the increasing pain. For me, when I’m off track with what I would see as my calling, my destiny – the path that my soul wants to walk on – wow is it painful. It’s a very deadened existence.
During those years when I wasn’t writing, wasn’t dancing, wasn’t creating, I was evaluating grant proposals. I was in a left-brain cerebral world. I can remember feeling like the world was black and white – meaning that I sort of felt like I was in a black and white movie. It was like the color of the world wasn’t there. Or sometimes I would feel like I was standing behind a window and life was kind of happening on the other side. I had these real feelings of being disconnected from the vitality of life.
For me, all of those feelings really grew until they were pretty intolerable. I was getting up and going to work and all of that, but that feeling of – Wow, I’m really not living the life I feel I’m meant to live and that I want to live – that feeling grew and the pain of that grew.
“I think there is a magical point where even though change is scary and risk is scary, at some point I feel like the seesaw tips and the pain of inauthentic living becomes so great we are willing to get out of our comfort zone to make some changes.”
TM: Yes, that’s what happened for me. It didn’t happen all in a flash. The beginning was like: I don’t know what it is, but it has something to do with this personal growth world. I think maybe I’ll take a coaching training because that will get me in touch with that world. I know those great coaches … I like those women.
Then through the coaching training and that experiential work, I started to get a lot of internal whispers about writing. I thought: Really, writing? I had very little sight into what that other path looked like. But I knew it had something to do with creativity, my own individual voice, and being in the media. I unfolded what it looks like one step at a time over these last few years.
TB: One of the major gifts you offer women is to help them to “Play Big.” What inspires you to do this work?
TM: My own struggles with playing small, my hearing from so many other women that they were struggling with playing small, and a belief that women playing big is what will save the world.
TB: Why do you think you were playing small?
TM: First of all I think most human beings on the planet are playing small, so I don’t really view is as pathological. I view it as pretty normal because I think that as a society, we have a very limited view of what we are capable of and so we socialize people into playing small. I think our ways of thinking about human beings as a society are still very primitive. For example, when kids go to school, we are basically teaching kids that what’s valuable is how much information they can absorb – how well they can be a vessel for external information that’s coming in.
I went to very traditional schools. The teaching was that I’m coming in with nothing and becoming educated and having something share in the world is all about taking in what somebody else says and having that knowledge. I think when that’s what you are trained on for the first 20 years of your life, and then you are constantly being evaluated by how much knowledge you demonstrate, it becomes really hard to find your own voice and share that in the world and trust it.
“Now there is all this data about how girls are doing better than boys in school. But my experience was that the skills that it took to do well in school were actually often the opposite skills that it takes to play big and be really successful in a career.”
TB: Can you share some examples with me?
TM: In school you are taught to please the teacher, but to do anything significant in the world you have to know that you are going to please some audiences and really draw some criticism from others. In school you are taught to absorb a lot of information, but to play big you have to trust what you already know. In school you are taught to control and perfect your work, but to play big you have to put things out in the world that are really messy and premature in order to get the feedback to improve them.
“I think a lot of women get stuck bringing the “Good Girl” skills from school into their adult work life.”
TB: Speaking of women playing big, you are leading the way for many women. How would you describe yourself as a leader?
TM: I always try to lead based on sharing what’s been true for my journey, rather than hope that something is true for everybody. So whenever I’m thinking about: What do I really want to say in this article? Or What do I really want to teach on this call? I am always trying to root in what’s the real deal truth for me. It’s not because I believe that is going to be universal, or that everyone will have the same experience, but I just feel that’s the only place I can teach from. If I start looking to give general advice or make a larger statement about what is and what isn’t, then I think my work becomes less resonant for people and I just get into tricky territory.
I also really think about how do I help people connect back to themselves. I don’t like gurus. I am very wary of that whole thing. What I most want to do is help people connect back to the strong part of themselves – the wise part of themselves – and help them remember what is really true for them.
TB: Have you found that your leadership evolved over time?
TM: I think what’s evolved is coming to see that drawing from my own experiences is enough. That that may be more powerful than what I could do if I gave myself five years to research the perfect answer. There’s a perfectionist part of me that feels like, Well don’t I have to master that subject, and don’t I have to read whatever everybody else said about that before I can talk about it? I think what has evolved is really getting the lesson that what is most powerful for people is story, truth and the nitty gritty of sharing our real experiences. That has showed up for me again and again.
TB: You are a featured speaker at an upcoming American Association for University Women (AAUW) event. What has your journey been like to becoming a well-respected speaker?
TM: For me, writing on women’s issues came first. I’ve been doing that for the past few years at my own blog, at the Huffington Post, and in other publications. People started taking notice of my work. That led to a publicist reaching out to me and booking me for various TV and radio opportunities to speak on these topics. Now, speaking requests are coming in.
I’m learning certain tactical things about public speaking now but I think I’ve been studying what it means to be a powerful communicator for my whole life – through studying writing, literature, poetry and theater.
TB: There are a growing number of women who want to be speaking as part of their leadership platform. What advice would you give other women about public speaking?
TM: What I am learning is that story is important. Humor is essential. And so are authenticity and vulnerability. I’m also learning the work of really boiling it down to what do I most want to say, what’s most true for me, what is alive for me.
“You kind of can’t cheat in public speaking. There is nothing that is going to be more powerful than really getting to what is true, what is your experience.”
In my Playing Big course, we do a module called “Owning Your Own Story.” This is where people really look at what personal stories from your life – from your childhood, from your family, from your adulthood – what personal experiences and stories lead you to whatever your work is in the world – whatever your Playing Big is. Sometimes it’s pain – a wound that ties us to a particular cause. Sometimes it’s something wonderful we had in our lives that made us see the possibility of how things could be different on some particular issue in the world. It’s important to bring that story forward. We forget to do that.
TB: What doubts and insecurities have you overcome?
TM: Do you want a list of the ones I’ve overcome or haven’t overcome? [laugh]
TB: Let’s start with the ones you have overcome.
TM: The first one I overcame was: I’m a bad writer. I started with that. The way I overcame it was not by somehow finding writing self-esteem or convincing myself that I was a good writer. The way I overcame it was making a shift from: Tara it’s actually not about what other people think, it’s about the fact that this gives you joy. And that’s what we are going to put first.
I shifted to writing for myself. Even though I was publishing, the attachment wasn’t about what other people were going to think. It was about: Wow, I’m back in touch with my creative process. Wow, what are ideas are here today. Over time that allowed me to see that I am a good writer. When you are unattached, you can actually hear feedback. I was a good writer before too, but I could never hear that because when you need validation, no amount of validation is enough. So that was a big one.
The others were just the sort of the general I’m not ready yet. I actually don’t feel I really have any ability to evaluate whether I am really ready or not. I tend to be wrong a lot of times. If The Today Show booked you for an interview, I guess that means you are ready – even though you have a voice in your head saying something else. Or instead of deciding whether you are ready to have an op-ed in this paper, just send it in and see what happens. So that was a big one too.
TB: Since you brought them into the conversation, what are some of the doubts and insecurities that you are still hanging around with?
TM: I still get really insecure about corporate work. I have a whole hang up that I’ll be perceived as too woo-woo. I think my own inner critic is sort of this really corporate lady. So I find when I am going in to do programs in corporate environments, it’s kind of loaded for me with: Am I good enough? Am I going to bring enough value?
Now that I’m doing more television I feel like I have a whole crop of body image issues that I kind of laid to rest a while ago. Now they have found a new playground. I’m seeing myself on camera and usually the host that I’m sitting across from is a size 2. I have a very different body type than the person I am usually sitting across from. That’s been challenging too.
TB: What does being a Goddess mean to you?
TM: I’m looking at a photograph of my friend right now and she is about seven months pregnant with a huge belly. I think of that kind of image or the Venus of Willendorf figure. When I first saw that in college, I thought: Oh, that’s what most of my family looks like. I come from a family where that’s actually pretty much the shape of our bodies. When I saw that image, I thought: I never saw that represented anywhere before.
I think of a feminine archetype or a goddess archetype that I associate with birth, and mothering, and earth, creative power and mystery. I don’t think of myself as a goddess, but I think of it as an energy or an archetype that I can tap into and grow into and that it is very healthy for women to tap into that and grow into that.
But I think it is still very culturally taboo, repressed and threatening.
I think a lot of the pressure we put on women around their bodies comes from the deep fear and the deep sense of the threatening-ness. If women could just be free and radiant in that Goddess archetype – in their creative power, in their sexuality, in their power to create life, and in their voices – that threatens so many of the systems we have in place. It threatens the status quo and the ideology we have about civilization and the earth that run our society right now. So I think there’s a lot we do to prevent women from ever going there.
TB: How do you feel more women in leadership could change our world?
TM: I believe we’d see a world more oriented around the care and nurturing of human beings, both children and adults – and less oriented around competition and empire building. I believe we’d see a greater focus on sustainable business. I believe we’d see less violence. I believe we’d also see a world where women struggle less with issues of self-esteem and confidence – because of the models we’d provide for each other, and the permission we’d give each other – through our own example – to lead.
TB: If you had a loudspeaker that could reach every woman around the world, what message would you want to impart?
TM: I would want to impart a big hug and say, “Oh honey. It is hard.” There’s a feeling that we’re in a time when women have the legal and political freedom to express their voices in new ways. But it’s really scary to do so, and we are so often shamed and punished when we do. So I would want to impart a compassionate hug and say: Oh honey, yes, it is hard and scary right now to do this. Let’s find our way together. It’s time. Let’s play our part in this big picture evolution of the feminine voice coming into the world.
The next session of Tara’s Playing Big women’s global leadership program starts in October. To learn more and sign up for the advance list, go to TaraMohr.com/playingbig.
To purchase Tara’s inspirational Poetry Book, visit Your Other Names.
Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed., is a writer, writing coach, and consultant dedicated to amplifying the voices of women changemakers. She lives in Santa Monica, CA. For more information, visit tabbybiddle.com.