Tara Mohr is an expert on women’s leadership and well-being. She is the author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead, named a best book of the year by Apple’s iBooks. Tara is the creator and teacher of the global Playing Big leadership program for women, and of the Playing Big Facilitators Training for coaches, therapists, managers, and mentors. She is a Coaches Training Institute-certified coach with an MBA from Stanford University and an undergraduate degree in English literature from Yale. Her work has been featured on national media from the New York Times to Today Show to Harvard Business Review.
CIGDEM KOBU: Could you start by telling us about your story; what led you to the work that you’re doing today?
TARA MOHR: I have a lifelong passion for helping women’s voices be heard and restoring women’s voices where they’re missing. I’ve worked on that in a variety of different ways in my life. I’ve worked on it in the non-profit sector. I’ve worked on it by working on women’s issues within business. I have worked on it within the realm of religion, adding women’s voices back into patriarchal religious tradition through creating anthologies of women’s writings about the sacred.
Because I have such a deep interest in psychology and inner work, what has evolved as my work is helping women play bigger in sharing their voices in the world. I lead a program called Playing Big that teaches women how to play bigger in bringing their voices, their gifts, their visions for change into thew world.
CIGDEM: How do you serve the world through teaching? When did you realize teaching was part of your calling?
TARA: One of the reasons that I love teaching women to play bigger is because I truly believe it is one of the most powerful things all of us can do to help make this world a more humane, sane, sustainable place.
In the developed world now that women have on-paper access to institutions of power, the next piece of work is for women to undo the inner legacy of marginalization and actually feel empowered, share their voices, trust their own ideas. As my dance teacher put it, “women are liberated, but they aren’t yet empowered.” By teaching women the core skills and concepts that help us play bigger, I’m trying to change that.
“Most of what we human beings have to contribute on any topic comes from our innate abilities, our natural questions, our creative ideas, our lived experience.”
CIGDEM: What has your biggest challenge been in your journey as a teacher and how did you deal with it?
TARA: Getting through the time when what I was offering wasn’t really selling or getting traction with an audience. That was just so demoralizing!
I have come to believe quite firmly that no entrepreneur or teacher gets it right on the first try or even the first few tries. By get it right, I mean craft an offering that really clicks for the customer and sells really well. We all need to experiment our way to the right thing. There is no skipping the process of experimentation.
CIGDEM: Who has influenced you the most as a teacher? Do you have any role models?
TARA: My dance teacher, Judith Komoroske, who I quoted earlier. I started taking modern dance with her when I was five years old and took it all the way until I was 18. I can’t—in words —do any kind of justice to what an amazing teacher she was. She believed children could achieve remarkable things artistically and intellectually and took us more seriously than the other adults in our lives. She blended mediums of dance, live music, visual art and poetry in her classes. She really wanted to hear what each child had to say, and she truly respected our ideas. She truly, truly respected children. A teacher’s true reverence for their student’s contributions literally builds who they are—it builds a strong core of self—and that matters more than any specific information they could ever learn.
Another major influence for me was my coaching training program, the Coaches Training Institute. There, I learned what experiential learning—not book learning—truly looked like. It was about doing, not reading. I learned how to teach a class that attended to student’s minds, hearts and bodies—not just their left-brains, like traditional classes do.
CIGDEM: In your opinion, what are the essential elements of teaching as a tool for change?
TARA: The student has to do something with the material—they can’t just passively learn information and regurgitate it. Depending on the subject that could be applying the knowledge in a project, or writing a paper synthesizing the learning and coming up with their own novel ideas, etc.
I think students also need to be taught that what is already inside of them is as valuable for creating change than anything they could learn from the outside. That means that part of their educational experience should involve practice sharing their ideas – ideas that they show up with, not the ones they just learned in the class based on information from a book or a teacher or a lecture. This is so critical because if you just follow the traditional educational model, you are in effect teaching students that what they have to contribute on any topic will come from what they’ve just absorbed from learning outside information.
When you condition students in that for 25 years, they never feel they have enough inside of them to start contributing—they are always looking for the next piece of external information to ensure that they have something to contribute. The truth is that most of what we human beings have to contribute on any topic comes from our innate abilities, our natural questions, our creative ideas, our lived experience. If we trusted the basic goodness and genius inherent in all human beings, we’d see that more.
CIGDEM: It is often said that we teach best what we need to learn the most. What is your take on that? And can anyone become a teacher? What are the qualities of a teacher?
TARA: Oh yes. A teacher has got to have a natural passion for learning about the thing they are teaching. They have to be on a personal quest to deepen their understanding of the topic. If they feel “done” learning about the subject, they won’t bring vitality to their teaching or truly respect their students as adding to their knowledge on the topic. If the students don’t feel they can shape, impact, surprise, inform, expand the teacher—the educational experience becomes distorted into a kind of old school power hierarchy that doesn’t serve learning or connection or meaning. I teach women about Playing Big because I love that subject. I know a lot about it and I continue to have deep questions about it that the women in the program help answer—through their own insights and experiences with the material.
CIGDEM: How did you find out whom you were meant to serve specifically?
TARA: The conventional advice says that entrepreneurs should deliberately pick their market—sit down with pen and paper or coach or whatever and figure out who their “right people” are. If that works for you, excellent!
That didn’t work for me because, frankly, my real interest was figuring out what I had to say—in unfolding the ideas in me—not in figuring out what a particular group wanted. With my work, I am more in the space of artist than in the space of business person. I think that’s true for many creative entrepreneurs.
If your business is your art, you can’t just get strategic, pick a market and give it what it wants—your inner artist will freak out at that, and you won’t end up with any kind of authentic self expression happening in your work.
I blogged a couple times a week for a couple years. Most of that time, I had another full time job that was paying the bills. Slowly, my audience grew. And then one day I sent out a survey so I could learn about the people who resonated with my work. That’s who I’m meant to serve—the people who resonate with my authentic voice. I learned who my market was by authentically expressing myself and seeing who showed up and asking them why they were showing up.
CIGDEM: You’ve said that “we’ve got so much to unlearn and so much to reinvent.” Could you elaborate on that?
TARA: The status quo—the way things are”—is just a middle chapter of a much longer story. I believe we are still in a pretty immature, pretty barbaric, pretty unenlightened stage of human evolution. After all, we are just a century and a half away from enslaving other human beings here in the developed world, and slavery persists in the developing world.
We know about the conditions—extreme abuse, poverty, drug addition, that lead people to become violent offenders, but instead of focusing on providing help to children suffering dramatic abuse and living in dire poverty, we mainly wait till they commit a violent offense, and then we throw them in prison, even though we know clearly from the research that it doesn’t prevent those people from committing future crimes.
We focus incredible financial and social capital on teaching children how to read, do math, and play sports, but we don’t teach them how to forgive, cope with an argument, react wisely when they are afraid, or manage their own anger—even though we all would probably say our lives would be much better if the world was made of people who could do that.
And then there is the whole thing about how we are destroying our habitat. We just aren’t that smart yet, as a civilization. So, we’ve got a lot of “that’s just how it is” notions to unlearn, and we’ve got a lot to reinvent as a society. That is why I’m so passionate about ethical, passionate people playing big and sharing their ideas, their visions for change, their objections to the status quo. I believe their voices will move us forward.
“I believe we come here to serve. I believe we each get ‘assignments’ or callings to bring particular types of light into the world. When we turn away from our assignments to serve, we deny the very life instinct within us—the instinct for self-expression and creativity.”
CIGDEM: What is your perspective on the role of vulnerability and transparency in the art of teaching?
TARA: It’s very important. It happens so often that people say, “what means the most to me is that you are still talking about your insecurities, your ups and downs, your fears, even as you are getting national media attention and doing all these great things.” That’s interesting to me. It’s also interesting to me how in the end, often people just really want to hear the real deal personal story—the vulnerable truth—how did you do it? You don’t have to be the world’s expert or have perfect knowledge on your topic. You need to be you.
CIGDEM: How does serving other people and the world lead to happiness and inner peace?
TARA: I believe we come here to serve. I believe we each get “assignments” or callings to bring particular types of light into the world. Your light might be helping breast cancer survivors and someone else’s light might be rescuing animals and someone else’s might be being a humane, inspiring team leader in an accounting firm.
When we turn away from our assignments to serve, we deny the very life instinct within us—the instinct for self-expression and creativity. Then we’ve got to deaden ourselves down and cope with our betrayal of our callings via distractions, compulsions, addictions. Service leads to peace because it feels good to live in accordance with our true nature.
CIGDEM: How do you deliver just the right amount of your wisdom and tools to your students? How do you know where to draw the line between underdelivering and overdelivering?
TARA: I grew up in a traditional educational system where we were always loaded up with a ton of reading. The more prestigious the educational environment was that I got to, the more reading. I always had the sense that that didn’t seem like the most effective way to really teach students.
Then I got my coaching training. I was so shocked. First of all, there was no preparatory reading for the first day which is unheard of in my educational background. Then, for every module, we’d get maybe 5 to 10 pages of reading. But the concepts were so potent and the experiential work we were doing was so potent. It was a much more effective educational experience.
What I’ve come to learn as a teacher is that people can really only handle clearly much smaller amount of material than we think. I generally believe less is more if that less itself is quality.
CIGDEM: What do you think about the future of teaching, and especially, online teaching?
TARA: I think online teaching and distance learning is going to grow, no question. And it’s very exciting, because of the democratization of teaching and learning, and because of the possibilities it affords for global learning communities based on shared interests.
Teaching will be more focused on developing EQ (emotional intelligence) capacities and less focused on technical skills, because, as Daniel Pink talks about in A Whole New Mind, most technical skills will become automated.
My hope is that learning will be:
- more experiential
- more about collaboration among students vs. competition among students
- more driven by students’ individual passions, questions, callings. and talents
- delivered with more respect for the students and their innate genius.
My hope is that the teacher role will also shift—no more “authority” figure—more like a supportive guide, champion, coach, and facilitator.
CIGDEM: As a teacher, how do you take care of yourself physically, emotionally and mentally?
TARA: I believe strongly that self-care is not a list of activities. It doesn’t go like this: self care = green juice, massages, and bubble baths. Nope. Self-care is a stance. It’s a way of being moment to moment as choices come up.
Self-care is pausing to take a breath when you need it. It’s saying no to the things that don’t resonate with you. It’s letting yourself accept and bask in a compliment. It’s trusting your dreams and having your own back in going for them.
I have an article called “How Do I Develop More Self-Love” that is about this – it’s about how we can lay the foundation to be more self-loving moment to moment – because again, self-love isn’t a list of activities – it’s a way of being that arrives to us because we’ve worked on it.
“Your customers don’t know what they want. You can’t just ask them what they want from you and trust the answers.”
CIGDEM: How can a woman identify her calling as a teacher and get clear about what she will offer the world?
TARA: Here are my seven ways to identify your calling, which can help people identify their callings, whether to teach or do something else.
As for getting clear, I think that comes from a combination of inner work and experimentation in the world. You can’t get clear on your offering by writing in your journal, talking to a friend, hiring a coach, or taking a business planning class. Sorry! You can’t do that because the answers about your offering lie with your customers.
However, here is the tricky part: your customers don’t know what they want. You can’t just ask them what they want from you and trust the answers.
Instead, you need to run lots of different experiments—experiments informed by what you already know about who your customers are and what seems to resonate with them.
You can experiment with different offers, different titles for the same offer, etc. to see what clicks with your customer—what do they actually buy? Run experiments and then look at the data from them. Keep iterating till you find out what sticks.
For more on this I recommend my husband’s bestselling book The Lean StartUp.
CIGDEM: Many women who have the skills, knowledge and experience to teach often hesitate because of the fear of not being ready and the fear of not being good enough. What is your best advice to women who want to teach but are afraid to take the first step?
TARA: I think that it’s time to start teaching. I believe that women have no ability to estimate what we’re ready for and what we’re not. I have given up even asking that question, “am I ready?” Instead my question is, “What are my aspirations and my dreams and is this aligned with that?
I believe you need to start teaching right now and see your experience as sufficient which I know is really hard for most women to do.
Jump in now.