What are you waiting for?
or, recognizing the hiding strategies that keep us "playing small"
What’s your big, bold dream? Starting a business? Doing work you love? Switching careers? Stepping back? Speaking up?
Now, consider what’s holding you back:
Feeling overwhelmed? Probably.
I would venture to guess that your biggest obstacle is probably fear. I get it. (I so get it). Taking the leap and pursing our biggest, boldest dreams is scary. But it can also be exhilarating.
According to leadership expert Tara Mohr, self-doubt and fear keep us “playing small”. When we play small, we avoid taking risks and stay firmly planted in our comfort zone. This, in turn, hinders our ability to meet our potential and achieve those big, bold dreams we aspire to.
In her book Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead, Mohr delineates several hiding strategies that women use to stall themselves from taking bold action. We often don’t realize that we’re self-sabotaging by using these strategies. Consider this a gentle “calling out”, and ask yourself which of these tactics you use to justify playing it safe.
Hiding Strategy #1: This Before That
“This before that” refers to the false beliefs we hold about the order in which things need to occur. For example, thinking that you need a website before taking on a consulting client or thinking you need a clear career vision before reaching out to a potential mentor. The stories we tell ourselves about sequencing are often false, and serve to stall us from taking a scary leap.
Hiding Strategy #2: Designing at the Whiteboard
When we “design at the whiteboard”, we develop ideas in a vacuum without outside feedback from relevant stakeholders. When we do this, we feel like we’re working hard and making progress, but it’s often unproductive because what we create isn’t what our desired population wants or needs.
When I started working with Kristin, she knew she wanted to start a nonprofit organization focused on postpartum women, but was reluctant to share her idea with others. In fact, she created an entire business plan without ever running it by another mom. It wasn’t that Kristin was a control freak. Rather, she was terrified of negative feedback—especially since she felt such a personal connection to the mission. Yes, it’s scary to share our ideas with others and open our ideas to critique. But keeping the bigger picture in mind—creating a successful and impactful organization that truly supports postpartum women—helped Kristin reframe “criticism” as “valuable data”.
Hiding Strategy #3: Overcomplicating
When we overcomplicate, we take a good idea and keep adding to it, thereby making it more complex and difficult to execute. Jamie wanted to open a yoga studio. But then she got distracted thinking of all of the other services the studio could offer, as well—reiki, pilates, massage, etc. Suddenly, accomplishing such a monumental project seemed impossible. The lesson? Keep it simple and take small wins along the way.
Hiding Strategy #4: Endless Polishing
This one will be familiar to all of you perfectionists out there. As high achievers who are committed to quality work, it can be easy to get caught up in making everything just right. But it’s also useful to remember that “perfect” is unattainable, and no amount of finessing, copyediting, tweaking, or revision will calm every fear you have about putting your work out there. Sometimes we just need to take the leap and trust that our best is good enough.
Hiding Strategy #5: Collecting Everyone Else’s Ideas & Omitting Your Own Story
Without a doubt, there are circumstances where there is strength in numbers and it’s appropriate—or even advised—to enlist other perspectives, but amplifying the voices of others can also be a way of concealing your own. There’s no doubt that it’s safer to hide behind others and avoid letting our story of perspective speak for itself. Especially since many girls and women receive messages about hiding their passion or story for fear of seeming “overly emotional”. But Mohr challenges: “Can we resist the fear-based tendency to make our work abstract or overly complex and instead trust that our lived experiences, insights, and natural ideas are enough to bring to the table?”
Hiding Strategy #6: I Need the Degree…
This hiding strategy is a tricky one, because additional education is generally regarded as an asset. And, certainly, there can be good reasons for pursuing advanced training; for example, preparing for a major career change, training in a specific skill, boosting one’s salary, etc. However, additional education can also be a stalling technique that keeps us within our comfort zone.
As Mohr says:
“Talented women with a dream believe that they need another degree, training, or certification because they are not ‘enough’ as they are. They look to an external qualification to give them a sense of internal permission to lead and create. They assume that more education will transform their fears into easy confidence—even though, in truth, education has never done that for them before [. . .] School makes it easy to convince ourselves we are moving forward, doing something very productive (after all, what’s more legitimized in our culture than getting more education?), when in fact we’re delaying playing bigger.” [emphasis added]
To illustrate: Cara is a physician who came for coaching because she was feeling burnt out in her clinical role. Through the course of our conversations, she realized that she had a passion for medical student education. When I asked her to commit to a next step, I was surprised when she answered that she was going to apply to Masters in Education programs. She told me that she felt she needed a better understanding of pedagogy before approaching her University’s medical education office about getting involved.
But no one in that office had an M.Ed. In fact, very few people working in medical student education do. So why did Cara need one? Over the course of our conversation, she came to realize that being a “learner” is a very safe role for her—she couldn’t have made it through a top med school, residency, and fellowship without being a very good student. Taking a leadership role was much more intimidating to her, and she was using additional education as a way of avoiding her discomfort.
I encourage you to take some time to reflect on which hiding strategies you’ve used in the past and which you may be using currently. With this increased awareness, how might you change your behavior going forward? How will you hold yourself accountable for that change?
A Cup of Ambition is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.