My first job after college was a year-long internship at USA Today. I was assigned to the op-ed page, and my duties included fact-checking, finding photos, and so forth. What my duties did not include: writing. Or at least that was my initial thought. I was writing casually for a few other places, and a few weeks into my internship, I came across a study about the hook-up culture on college campuses. I pitched a piece on it to a relatively small website. They said no.
That could have been the end of it, but I mentioned it to my supervisor, and she said I could write it for her. I did, and lo and behold she thought the piece worked. So did her editor. My op-ed ran as a lead column, including a teaser (with my name!) on USA Today’s front page. It was a good lesson: Think bigger. Anyone can say no, so why not risk a no from people worth getting a no from?(click to tweet) There is something to be said for blowing the lid off what you think is possible.
I was thinking of this recently when I re-read Tara Mohr’s 2014 book Playing Big. Mohr writes in the introduction that she wrote her book “out of allegiance to the art not yet made, the companies not yet founded, the books and op-ed columns not yet written, the critiques not yet voiced” because people are thinking smaller than necessary. While her book is aimed at women, there are plenty of men whose visions are more limited than they should be too. If you’re thinking that maybe you’d like to play on a larger stage, here are three ways to get in the right mindset.
1. Have some good conversations. Even if you intend to be a trailblazer, it helps to know the terrain of existing institutions and options. This information is more effectively transmitted by people than Google. I had thought it might be cool to speak at SXSW someday, but I assumed the powers-that-be looked at the universe and selected who they wanted. Then I chatted with Sam Horn at BlogHer last year and she informed me that for the most part, people submit ideas, and here’s the link to the form. Who knew? Well, she did. I submitted a proposal and spoke at the conference in March. Get in the habit of talking with the smart, strategic people in your life. Indeed, it might be good to give yourself a budget — say, two wouldn’t-it-be-interesting-if-my-career-went-this-direction?conversations per week. As a side note, this is what networking should be: good conversations with good people before anyone has a need for anything. (click to tweet)
2. Carve out thinking time. I’ve shared in past newsletters that I feel unproductive on less-than-full days, but I know that I often get good ideas while dallying around in the grocery store. Thinking bigger requires time to envision what life might look like, what versions of your future are most appealing, and who in your life has ideas for getting there. Feel free to play around. Your fantasy world does not need to be coherent. Try creating a List of 100 Dreams, understanding that none of it is binding. We often come up with reasons why something won’t work, and we are stupid for even thinking it (Mohr calls this voice the “inner critic” and suggests you name her — Maude? — because then you can thank her for her feedback and move on). But even truly half-baked ideas might contain a seed of something worth pursuing on a bigger scale.
3. Try something bigger now. Life is not like school. It is particularly not like standardized tests, where there are four options, and one is right. What is the best way to build a career as a writer, an artist, an influencer? We exist in ambiguity. So part of thinking bigger is that you have to try different things and learn whatever you can from them. While getting published in USA Today as a 22-year-old was awesome, it was equally awesome to get my writing edited by people at the top of their game. What they taught me about essay construction still helps me daily, and I could not have learned it without submitting columns (some of which failed miserably!). Mohr suggests making a habit of “leaps” — short term projects that get you outside your comfort zone, and also get you in front of the stakeholders you’ll need to influence as you make your mark on the world. If you have a vision of a new kind of school, you can keep pondering the concept eternally in isolation. Or you can team up with a few summer camps and after school programs, test out your approach, and see what the kids and their parents think. Get feedback, and then try something else. What you learn along the way will help you get new and bigger ideas for changing the world.
Cross-posted from lauravanderkam.com.