biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies: 3 Habits You Learned in School That Could be Hurting Your Biz

by Stephanie


It’s hard to teach an “old-schooled” dog new tricks…or so Tara Sophia Mohr was noticing when she began coaching new entrepreneurs. Many of the women coming to her were relying on methods they learned in school to succeed and were not finding them helpful in their new business ventures. Today, Tara is sharing how some of those school-taught concepts may be doing more harm than good for your business and how you can reassess your skills to put them to better use. And you can read even more about Tara’s tactics and tips for creating the life and career you want in her new book Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, which launches October 14. –Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump…

You’d think that those of us that did well in school would be well prepared to succeed as biz ladies. It turns out, that’s not the case.

When I began coaching creative, entrepreneurial women, I noticed an interesting pattern: many of the women who had succeeded in school were hitting major walls in their careers. As I learned why they were getting stuck, I started to see a theme. The ways of working that had been most effective in school weren’t so helpful in their careers. These women needed a new set of skills.

Over time I saw that not just “good student” types but all women—since we were all conditioned by almost two decades in school—could benefit from looking at how they might be using old, school-based ways of working that weren’t benefiting them any longer.

Here are three of the changes many women need to make as they shift from the skill set that brought success in school to the skill set needed so they can thrive in their careers;

Preparation vs. Improvisation. In school, the critical ingredient for success is preparation. We study in preparation for the test, do the reading in preparation for the next day’s class discussion, and so on. But in our careers, we need to improvise just as much as we need to prepare. There will be countless unpredictable situations or situations where preparation really isn’t a great use of our time – because we already know more than enough to do well acting on our feet. Every creative entrepreneur can benefit from asking herself: Do I tend to over-prepare? What fears lead me to do that? If I embraced improvisation, what new opportunities would I pursue?

Do Good Work vs. Do Good Work and Make it Visible. When I began blogging in 2008, I believed that if I just wrote quality posts, my traffic would grow. For a year and half, I did that, but my readership numbers didn’t budge. Then I finally followed the conventional advice and started guest blogging at other sites. Nothing about the quality of my product had changed, but my work had become visible. My readership began to grow, rapidly.

I had gotten stuck in the model I’d learned in school, where for the most part I’d never needed to promote or advocate for my work. In school, doing good work is enough. In our careers, we have to do good work and make it visible. This can be particularly tricky for women, since we tend to be more worried about coming across as arrogant or self-promoting (and because, sadly, we are more likely than our male counterparts to be perceived that way). And yet we still need to find graceful ways to make our good work visible.

Some questions to ask yourself about this: Is my work visible to the influencers relevant to my business – potential customers, desired partners, relevant media outlets and influencers? What could I do to make it more visible? What fears or concerns come up for me when I think about being more active in making sure my good work is known about and seen by others?

Adapting to Authority vs. Challenging Authority. At school, in every class, there’s an authority figure – the teacher. Over our decade or two as students, we learn how to perceive and understand the teacher’s expectations and adapt our work accordingly. We’re never asked to challenge or influence the teachers’ ideas and are graded on how well we do that! But in our careers, we need that skill – not just adapting to authority figures, but challenging and influencing them so that our individual voices and ideas have greater impact.

In our careers, we also need to develop a second new skill vis-àvis authority, one that we very likely weren’t taught in school: how to stand in our own authority.

Some good questions to ask yourself here are: What insecurities or limiting beliefs come up when I imagine thinking of myself as an authority or expert in my area of expertise? How would I or my business benefit if I more frequently challenged the rules, the established way, or the authority figures in my midst?

Good Student Skill

  • Diligent preparation
  • Doing good work
  • Adapting to authority

Biz Skill

  • Comfort with improvisation
  • Doing good work AND making it visible
  • Challenging authority and standing in your own authority

How are old “good student” habits holding you back in your business? What would it give you – and your business – to have more comfort with improvisation, with challenging authority, with standing in your own authority, and with making your work highly visible?

To get started, pick one of those new skills you’d like to cultivate first, and think of one action you can take this week to start practicing it. Maybe you’ll pick one kind of meeting that you usually nervously over-prepare for, and try improvising in the moment more instead. Or maybe you’ll write an email highlighting your good work in a way that feels a little uncomfortable or unfamiliar. Now that your attention is on these new skills, you’ll begin noticing many opportunities to practice them.

 Tara Mohr is the author of the new book Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message. Learn more here. 

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  • I work in a high school. We are trying to change the way learning happens so that students do get to develop creativity, get to do meaningful work and present to audiences beyond The Teacher, learn independence and collaboration. But shifting this industrial-era paradigm is a lot of work! Great points about needed skills, thanks for this.

  • Cheryl, that’s so lovely to hear, although I’m afraid these lovely advice are not always useful in ‘the real world’. I work for a big corporation and I can see that challenging the authority or even stating a different opinion (albeit in a respectful manner) is very often frowned upon. I hope things are very different by the time your students start working.

    Thank you for this inspiring article, nevertheless! :)

    • Sandra

      I’ve worked for a large corporation before (Conde Nast and Conde Net) and yes, big companies don’t love when you run around disagreeing with everyone. But I’ve found the people who find a way to disagree constructively and only when they know they truly have something that’s an improvement to offer, are indeed appreciated. Obviously that’s not a 100% guarantee, but I don’t think it’s an across-the-board thing that all huge companies have a problem with people disagreeing.


  • Thank you so much for this great advice. This is exactly the problem that has held me back over the years, and I’m so glad that you have articulated it so well!

  • WOW. Where do I begin on how incredible these pieces of advice are? Of all the tips listed, the first one is the one I’m learning to overcome right now. Allowing one self to learn as they go along, instead of waiting and prepping for that “perfect opportunity” or the “right moment” to start pursuing their dreams. Thank you so much for sharing, I know so many women who would appreciate reading something like this.

  • Making your work visible was one the one huge lesson I had to learn when entering the professional world. My program numbers were up, more people were participating, but if the school I worked at didn’t know about it then I wouldn’t get the support I needed. This is so true in any field.

  • Definitely one for the bulletin board! There are so many great take-aways here, especially making your work visible and challenging authority. You could be describing me as I’ve been (slowly) coming to realize that hard work is almost never enough. You must, must, must toot your own horn and, yes, you can do it gracefully. Thanks so much for reinforcing this message!

  • Great observations. I feel compelled to add that for me (I’m in my fifties) an additional issue was hiding how “smart” I was. I don’t know if this is still prevalent, but in those days girls were sometimes inclined to hide their intelligence and competence at school.

  • I particularly love the point about making your work visible, and how it can be difficult for women in particular. Even with a degree in communication and marketing, I still am having trouble balancing marketing myself and not coming across as “self-promoting”. Thanks for the encouragement!


  • When you talk about making your work visible, you say “This can be particularly tricky for women, since we tend to be more worried about coming across as arrogant or self-promoting.” I find this to be quite paralyzingly knowing that actual friends are getting hit with my promotions simply because they are following along and being supportive. Any suggestions for turning that worry-spout off? :-)

  • An outstanding article — I’ve posted everywhere I can think of because everyone I know strugggles with these issues and questions and self-limitations from time to time.

    I’ve had a shop on Etsy for several years, and sooo many people don’t understand why what they *think* will work, doesn’t work. Thank you for writing this!

  • This is such a thought provoking post. These habits are so true for many of us and having a daughter in elementary school, I’m glad that Cheryl said some high schools are trying to shift the way kids are learning. These are difficult habits to shed and we keep on teaching them to the next generation. Thank you for this post — I’m off to buy Tara’s new book!

  • The visibility point is such a great one and can be such a challenge for a growing company! Trying hard to overcome this now – thanks for the great piece of writing on this important subject.

  • I’m amazed at how many other women struggle with the point about making your work visible. I have had this problem many times in my professional career. It’s not so much that I don’t want to come across as a braggart; it’s that I don’t do what I do for the admiration. I feel that I don’t need accolades to be proud of myself and the work that I do. However, this has really bitten me in the ass, since it sometimes leads others to forget about just how much I handle on a daily basis. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure, broadcasting your accomplishments without seeming needy.

  • I find Sandra’s comment about the reality of working in a big corporation particularly interesting. My feeling is that most of the Biz Ladies posts are primarily aimed at women who are starting their own business or working in a small business – areas where (presumably) having a different opinion or outlook on life can make you more successful as it makes you stand out (hopefully in a good way).

    However, if a person does end up working in a large corporation where they are discouraged from having a different opinion or respectfully challenging authority – are they really going to be happy in that job? I guess it depends on why they applied for it in the first place, and what other benefits it offers. In a perfect world the employer would see that an employee that has a thoughtful response to company policy is at least showing an interest in their job. Companies are always saying they want people who can ‘think outside the box’; I wonder if they know what they’re asking for?!

    For myself, the points in the article really resonated with me – I was a high achiever in school but have failed to find any employment above a very basic, low-paid level. Needless to say, I’m not very good at self-promotion!

  • Grace, that’s a very lovely comment. I guess my point is: if one does all these things in a different environment, life might not always be easy. But we should not stop. I know I won’t, because I love what I do, despite me not working in my own biz.

    And if I do ever decide to start my own, I know where to turn to for some kind and useful advice. Thank you for all the good energy you’re sharing! :)