“If you take…


“If you take risks, sometimes you’ll get a standing ovation, and sometimes people will throw tomatoes.” Tara Mohr, writer, teacher, and speaker


For much of my life I measured success by how well I stayed out of the line of fire. Follow the rules. Do what is asked. Don’t question. If someone was disappointed, mad, or frustrated, it wasn’t going to be because of me. I was a peacemaker, a cheerleader, a pick-up-the-slack person. I avoided tomatoes by avoiding risk.


I didn’t realize at the time how much this was costing. In my desire to keep all around me happy and conflict-free, I often sacrificed what I wanted and needed and had the capacity to do.


Although I tended to dismiss them, there were people at various points in my life who challenged me for being too nice and too safe, for being unwilling to say out loud what was percolating (and sometimes raging) in my head.


Years ago, one of my favorite supervisors pushed me to be bolder. My evaluations read: “Trust your innate abilities,” “Be more vocal,” and “Assert your ideas/perceptions.”


“It’s okay to make someone angry,” my partner once told me. He was the person I worked hardest to please.


Some time later I realized he was right, and I took the biggest risk of my life. After many years of marriage, I decided it was time for us to divorce. There was anger, there was disappointment, there was frustration. And we survived it, and each is the better for it.


This was a beginning.


Easing away from the need to please was (and is) the hardest thing–and the best thing–I’ve ever done, and it has impacted all aspects of my life, including work.


It involves speaking up more often, challenging the status quo when it is limiting us, and testing the boundaries of creativity even when it causes discomfort. It means accepting the eyerolls, sighs, and scowls.


In his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth Godin suggests that society today requires “original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care.” We need “passionate change makers [who are] willing to be shunned if it is necessary for them to make a point.” We can float or make waves.


As a department leader, this meant no longer hinting at what we needed to accomplish. It ultimately resulted in a two-page vision for the department that outlined a concrete direction and why we were moving that way. I had to sell it, defend it, and move it forward. I had to trust my knowledge, experience, and instincts. Somewhat to my surprise, the staff went all in. While they call this document–affectionately, I think–the “manifesto,” they made it their own, and five years later we have outcomes to show for it.


As a writer, thihas meant taking more chances with my words. I wrote a somewhat controversial blog post a year or so ago, and it occasionally re-emerges. Most people in my workplace weren’t aware I was contributing to a blog until that post. Someone found the link and published it in our internal campus newsletter. It created a bit of a stir. Some saw the post as “courageous,” while others saw it as an attack. I said something out loud” that I wouldn’t have in the past. I’m glad I did it; we needed to talk about it.


In her wisdom, Tara Mohr once asked, Can you think of any leader or innovator whom you admire who doesn’t have enthusiastic fans and harsh critics? Get used to wins and losses, praise and pans, getting a call back and being ignored. Work on letting go of needing to be liked and needing to be universally known as ‘a nice person.'”


Here are a few of my old niceness-based beliefs and how I think about them today:


1) It doesn’t matter who gets the credit for a great idea/project/etc.


Have you ever let someone else take credit for something you did? Did you say to yourself that it didn’t matter because people were benefitting from it, regardless of where the idea came from? It absolutely does matter–to our confidence andmotivationtour current and future employers.  Give others credit for their ideas and claim your own. Our work tells our story.


2) Arguing is bad.


Avoiding conflict is bad. Not challenging bad ideas is bad. Not challenging bad leaders is bad. Arguing disrespectfully is bad. But arguing well is not only not bad, it’s essential. If we’re avoiding disagreement or criticism, we’re not allowing the work to be the best it can be.


3) All employees can perform a job well if supervisors coachwell.


Nice supervisors tend to over-coach. Nice supervisors sometimes think, “if only I could find the right training/motivation/tasks/etc., so-and-so will become a better employee.” But sometimes an employee’s skills and the jobjust do not match, and generally it doesn’t take a long time to figure that out. Good coaches are invaluable, but coaching isn’t always the answer. It may be in everyone’s interest to sever a relationship, and supervisors must be able to bear the weight of this.


4) We should not make audacious requests.


Do it. Invite the Provost for coffee.  (We had a lovely conversation.) Ask for new professional-development experiences. day, month, or a year later, you may find yourself in places you never expected to be.


Nice, safe, and comfortable don’t always get the job done, and there is so much to be done.


A colleague recently sent me a message that both acknowledges my efforts and nudges me farther. I offer his words to all who take (or are considering taking) risks, to all who choose to plunge ahead despite possible (or probable) pushback:


Thanks for being a pusher of things awesome… a skeptic of bullshit… a leader of creating future leaders. Please continue to not accept the status quo. Please continue to push the boundaries. Please continue to be YOU. The world needs more of you. Don’t disappoint the world.”


I strive to be that person. Let the tomatoes fall where they may.



July 18, 2012 · 12:33 AM

10 responses to “ “If you take…

  1. I love this–so many pieces resonate!
    Especially this–“In her wisdom, Tara Mohr once asked, “Can you think of any leader or innovator whom you admire who doesn’t have enthusiastic fans and harsh critics? Get used to wins and losses, praise and pans, getting a call back and being ignored. Work on letting go of needing to be liked and needing to be universally known as ‘a nice person.’”

    Amen! Some days this means being celebrated, being seen as polarizing or being questioned (a lot). I am getting more and more comfortable with this. Utlimately I have regretted many more instances when I didn’t speak up then when I took the plunge to share my thoughts.

    Nice work! Thanks for sharing your voice–I appreciate it!

    • AW

      I agree with AnneMarie – GREAT piece. Part of this for me has been maturity…am just a few months shy of my 40th birthday. I only wish I was more confident in my 20’s. My questions is “how can we cultivate this in our young ladies?”

      • Thanks for your kind words and excellent question! I wish I had been more confident in my 20s too. I believe we can help cultivate confidence in and risk taking among young women by being strong role models (they need to see it), by encouraging it (like my former supervisor), and by witnessing and celebrating it (both when it goes well and especially when it doesn’t). I see students watching me, and I feel the need to do right by them, which means going out on a limb even when I’d rather not. I nudged a student to take a risk today–she was nervous and brilliant. The look on her face afterward was priceless. She’ll do it again…I just know it. Other thoughts?

  2. Oh, thank you so much! We’re all “works in progress,” right? I have similar regrets. And every time I choose risk (versus avoiding it), I feel a just that much stronger.

  3. I so appreciate this perspective. I’ve reflected on this very issue for a long time, and decided a while ago to move this direction. I fall short at times and do well at other times.

    I ran across a recent statement/picture that I posted on facebook yesterday that serves as a mantra of sorts to this very issue:

    “You have to be brave with your life so others can be brave with theirs.”

    Your “manifesto” helped give some level of permission for your staff to go all in, dive into that vision, and move the program forward to successful outcomes. Your championing of yourself to a new beginning removed the barriers from trying. You are living your life bravely.

    Thank you, Lisa, for teaching me something today!

    • Thanks, Julie! I love the mantra. Certainly there are some days I feel more courageous than others. As I follow you on Twitter, you seem very brave to me, and you have so much influence. As we continue to take risks and accept our successes and failures well, others will be more inclined to follow suit. And the benefits will ripple… Best to you.

  4. ashleynrobinson

    Great post! People so often confuse “being nice” with not speaking up for ourselves. In order to be our best selves, we need to embrace that conflict is not synonymous with malicious intent and give life to our own needs and agency. Thanks for sharing your experience so that others can learn, and keep fighting the good fight!

  5. Thank you, Ashley! I love this phrasing: “give life to our own needs and agency.” There were times years ago when I felt as though parts of me were dead or dying. I couldn’t easily identify what I needed or wanted–even as simple as choosing a restaurant–because I always deferred to others. Making choices and accepting whatever comes is life-giving.

  6. Lisa,
    I think this was a message that I needed to be reminded of today. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I feel like I’ve lately been receiving some feedback to not push, or take risks in a way that is public. And, it’s made me question my natural tendency to ask questions, advocate for change. And, sometimes I wonder how much of that response is related to gender. This really spoke to me.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! It’s important that we help to remind each other. About gender…my personal experience tells me gender is at play in many ways–how I was socialized as a child, how I’m expected to behave now. I see what appears to be a gender pattern at work–i get the most pushback from women and the most encouragement from men. I’d be interested to hear what others think. Best to you…

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