Would you describe yourself as an aspiring go-getter? There is a lot of noise out there when it comes to goal-setting – and chances are, you are getting a lot of not so helpful advice. Discover how to challenge the culture of achievement and striving for a practice-based life with powerful insight from Tara McMullin, author of What Works and host of the podcast of the same name. During this episode of The Widest Net Podcast, Tara shared how to avoid the costly cycle of over-commitment, burnout and the feeling of never being enough.
Introducing Tara McMullin
Welcome to another episode of The Widest Net Podcast. I’m your host Pamela Slim and I am joined today by my guest Tara McMillan.
Tara, hi. So happy to see you. Let me tell folks about you. For those who don’t know you already, Tara is a writer, podcaster and producer for over 14 years she studied small business owners, how they live, how they work, what influences them, and what they hope for the future. She’s the author of What Works, a comprehensive framework to change the way we approach goal setting. The book challenges the lessons we’ve learned about goals and productivity through culture and proposes a radical shift, structuring our lives around practice rather than achievement. She’s the host of What Works, a podcast about navigating the 21st century economy with your humanity intact. She’s also the co-founder of Yellow House Media, a boutique podcast production company. And her work has been featured in Fast Company, the Muse and quartz. She lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with her husband and daughter and two lovable cats that showed up in the backyard one day, her heart is always in the mountains of Montana.
Welcome to the show.
Well, thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
We have our dog Tsili, which means little Billy Goat in Navajo who did the same thing he showed up in the park near our house on Christmas day a few years ago and actually ended up living in the neighborhood. But they were like, why don’t you just keep him? So I love that when pets choose you.
Oh, yeah, yeah, because these two cats definitely chose us. It was quite wonderful.
Well, one of the reasons I’m so excited to talk to you today is we share a lot of circles and clients. In the past, I’ve been working as a coach with clients. And they mentioned that they did programs with you or had worked with you. And then also a lot of who I call my peanut butter and jellies, my amazing partners that have complementary services, people like Jenny Blake and Charlie Gilkey. Also, I know you’re really close there. So we have a lot of overlapping Venn diagrams, which is really cool.
What Works for Recovering Over Achievers
I’m excited to talk about your recent book. And tell us first who’s the audience? Who did you write it for?
Yeah, I mean, I, I wrote it primarily for people after my own heart, the recovering overachievers, the anxious overachievers, the the people who felt like if they didn’t get straight A’s that their life was over, you know, those people who have been striving their whole lives to make it one more step up the ladder to make it one more.
One more trophy, one more merit badge, one more pat on the back that says, hey, you’re all right. You’re doing good, right. And for me, like I have derived so much pleasure from those things are getting those Pat’s on the back from earning those trophies. And it has caused so many problems. For me, it’s caused a lot of heartache. It’s caused broken relationships, it’s caused, you know, it’s really negatively impacted my mental health over the years. And it’s caused me to move away from values that I really hold dear. And it took a number of years to sort of unpack that and really think about, you know, is this how I want to keep living my life. And so the book is really for all of those people who either 100% I identify with that, or for the people who are like, I don’t want to be like, those people, it seems, it seems hard. It seems weird. I don’t want to do that. It’s programmed to
This Happens When We Over Commit
I love sort of aspiring to not aspire to be a perfectionist, overachiever. So it’s really cool. And I believe so strongly. Often, we often write the books that we need ourselves, but also knowing how it was really rooted for you in work that you did with a lot of people attracting that similar kind of audience.
Describe a little bit some of the specific manifestations of what happens in a working person’s life when they’re so driven by this idea that it you know, I must be at the top Everything must be perfect. How does it show up day in and day out? Yeah, one of the things that I noticed for myself and the notice repeated, like you said for lots of people that I’ve worked with over the years is something that I call the validation spiral. And the validation spiral is essentially what happens when we are out there trying to be useful, trying to be worth something in this world trying to follow the instructions to be responsible to be a good friend to be a good co worker to be a good colleague. And we say yes to all these different things in order to get that sense that yes, we are validated, yes, we have, we have value. And when we do that, we end up really over committed I mean, that’s something that I think just about anyone over achiever or not can identify with in the 21st century is we’re all over committed, we’ve all said yes, to far too many things. And so what happens then as we overcommit is that our resources become under committed to the things that we’ve said yes to, we become more and more stretched, thin. So that everything that we think we’re doing in order to feel good about ourselves to feel like we’re useful, we’re not nearly as good at it as we couldn’t be, it’s not nearly as satisfying as it could be the work isn’t there, the care isn’t there. Because we simply don’t have the capacity to do all those things at the level that we really want to do them. And so what ends up happening then is we, you know, we quit a couple of those things, or we ghost on a couple of those things, or we just, we tell ourselves, it’s okay to compromise in order to get some of that off our plates, but then we feel yucky like, Oh, I’m not as useful as I think I am. Or maybe I’m not worth what I think I am. So what do I so what do we do, then? Well, we turn around, then we go and we say yes, to more and more things, we try and do more for other people we try and you know, get higher marks, get more of those trophies. And again, our resources get spread thin. And we spiral this way until we either hit burnout, real like clinical burnout. Or we simply get to this place where everything feels gross, we want to burn everything to the ground. Oftentimes, you know, I’ve seen so many business owners and myself included, have, you know, gone through that period where it just nothing feels good anymore. And so you do you burn it all to the ground, you say no, I’m not, I’m not doing this anymore, or I’m gonna pivot, I’m going to I’m going to do something else. But without addressing the validation spiral, and all of the cultural conditioning and social conditioning that comes with it. We can’t really break out of that cycle. And it all just happens again. Yeah, I know, you have done a lot of work in your business from an intersectional lens and looking at systemic inequity. I always think about that, in this particular case and knowing I correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve worked with a lot of folks that come from different backgrounds, there can be systemic inequities, where folks have to show up better than everybody else, right, because of bias that you might have racism, etc. I’m curious in kind of the nature versus nurture analysis, as you’ve talked to different people, do you notice any threads or trends, and part of what I’m getting at is noticing if there are some conditions that might really nurture this sense of never being enough? And then also, if there is anything that you’ve seen, it’s just somebody might come out of the womb being a little bit more oriented this way to care about external validation? Yeah, I mean, I guess I’m very much on the nurture side of this, that I think the systems that we exist in the stories that we exist in the relationships that we exist in all contribute to that not enough feelings. I am a firm believer, that imposter complex is not a me problem. It’s a them problem race. I am told that I’m not good enough. Not I don’t have some, like innate sense that I’m not good enough. And we see it everywhere. Like, you know, I sit watching TV in the evenings with my husband and the commercials that come on, like there’s one that’s playing right now about this, like, it’s a reality show, pitting different parenting styles against each other. And everything about that, to me screams Hey, recognize that you’re not good enough as a parent. Why was this entertainment to us? This is a huge cultural issue. But it’s also a structural issue, too. And I think that’s what you’re you’re really getting at is that, you know, women, people of color, immigrants, people raised in poverty, they we all are structurally kept in a place that requires us to do more and
What that means that is while I might have the same sort of personal internal resources that my husband has, I have to use more of those resources to accommodate the things that are structurally impeding me as a woman, as an autistic person, whereas he doesn’t have to deal with that stuff. So he gets to use the whole of his resources, on his, on his work on his fun projects, his hobbies, his socializing. And I simply don’t have that luxury as so many people do. And I don’t want to make it sound like Oh, white men habit easy, although they do have it easy. You’re but but there are, like you said, there’s so many different ways that identities and systems and structures overlap. And especially in our economy that tell us, we need to spend energy, or we have, we actually do have to spend energy and resources on these other tasks that make it harder for us to do the work that we feel really good about that makes us feel good, that makes us feel satisfied.
Yes, and that it’s so worth it. Because as you were describing leading up in the prior question, just imagining where you’re saying yes to many, many things wanting to get that hit from the validation spiral, which means that you’re not going to spend as much time on things, which means you’re not going to do them as well, which means you’re going to feel shittier about the fact that you’re not doing them as well. And I can relate to I don’t I don’t necessarily I categorize myself in somebody who has been driven by perfectionism. But it is more by when I clean space in my calendar of filling it with something else, as opposed to just having more space to get things done. So it is really interesting and thinking about what is a naturally reinforcing cycle. So if we look at the validation as being someone, something that’s really just vapid, and just leads to exhaustion and burnout, what is the alternative?
The alternative, for me is practice. And I like to sort of compare and contrast a practice orientation with an achievement orientation. So overachievers like me, perfectionist, were largely driven by an achievement orientation, right? We’re, we’re goal oriented, we like to get the merit badge, we like to get the trophy. That’s how we’ve learned to organize our whole lives, because we’ve been rewarded for it our whole lives, or at the least, it’s allowed us to maybe cross some barriers that we wouldn’t have been able to cross otherwise.
But all of that sort of achievement orientation puts us into a future oriented, anxious, urgent state of mind, that breaks down our decision making capacity, it makes us more likely to spread ourselves too thin, it puts all of our energy toward a single, a single outcome that we probably don’t even have control over. And so when we don’t hit it, for those, those times, that inevitably, we don’t get that achievement, we don’t hit that goal. We sort of feel this loss of like, Oh, God, what did I do with my last year? What did I just do with my last three months, it very much feels like a sort of all or nothing kind of situation. On the other hand, a practice orientation is about finding the meaning and the satisfaction and the usefulness of enjoying the process of the process itself. And, you know, I’m not the first person to kind of talk about this, this is all over the place, when we look at philosophy when we look at religion, which is what my background, educational background is in. But it’s not something that is nearly as common in the world of productivity in the world of management, where it is very, very structured around achievement. And so for me, what practice really looks like is making sure that every day I am coming to my work with presence with more groundedness with an awareness of why I’m doing what I’m doing with attaching meaning to mundane tasks that I don’t enjoy, like checking my email, right? But checking my email has a purpose within the larger context of the practice of my work. And and by kind of grounding myself in that meaning I can feel better about that task and that task becomes more satisfying, and more sort of life giving to me. And so those that’s kind of the alternative that practice orientation that I see to the validation and the overachieving.
I love that it brings a couple of worlds together, my husband, who’s a Navajo traditional healer, is always talking about in his work at home with the kids with me and also work he does with people about how he notices patterns of anxiousness. When people are looking too far ahead, or too far behind just reliving what has happened. And he’s his phrase for this year is just connect to the present moment, which is pretty much what he’s always said, the last 20 something years I’ve known him, it is really powerful, I think thinking about it somatically. And I really do think through the lens as a coach of, I have to, I have to be extremely grounded when I am working with somebody, which is actually many of my clients who live with anxiety, who are very hard driven. Again, I think we share a lot of clients who just I call them architects of laboratory change, they’re doing interesting things, they’re building powerful stuff, we want them to be doing that. Not yet not at the expense of themselves. But it’s the feeling often that I can feel even through coaching on Zoom. That is the sense of anxiety or noticing, as you said that they could have a goal of selling whatever, 10,000 copies of a book, and they might sell 998 and feel really unsatisfied. And so I just, I conceptually, I can understand it. Part of what is coming to me right now is just thinking about the somatic aspect of that of recognizing it and really doing work in order to ground yourself in the present. What what is your take on that or your practice? Pun intended? I guess I read that.
I have so many thoughts on this. So yes, I’m so glad that you brought up the somatic element of this, because it’s really important to me personally. And it figures largely in the book, and I just finished editing an essay to go out tomorrow in tomorrow’s newsletter about exactly this. So two things in my life have really helped me connect to a feeling of presence. One of them is exercise, running, specifically weightlifting those activities because it is such a practice, right, I can’t just build my life around the races that I want to run, or the one RPM maxes, or you know, that I want to hit in the gym,
I need to be able to see every day’s workout as valuable, and having a purpose and a meaning. And so in that I learned patience, and I learned presence. And I learned groundedness.
And the other thing that has been really helpful for me for the somatic piece of this, but also just reinforcing sort of the grooves around practice is baking. Because baking is a really embodied experience as well. We see especially with baking bread, you know, you see how time and patience and attention change, you know flour and water into something that’s like this, this kind of stringy dough stuff that then you know an hour later has puffed up double in size. And I think the thing to me about baking that’s so interesting too, is that baking isn’t on my time baking a loaf of bread is on bread time. And bread time is going to change depending on the humidity, depending on the temperature depending on my ingredients. And so if I’m not physically, you know, connected to that loaf, if I’m not paying attention with all of my senses to what that dough is doing, I’m not going to get as good of product as I could. And so I have to be present, I have to be patient, I have to look to see is this. Is this actually ready? Or have I just rundown the time on the recipe, because that’s not going to work. I’ve got to get in there and feel and look and smell and see. Alright, can I put this in the oven? Is it done baking? Does it make the right sound? Does it feel the right way? Because if it doesn’t, it’s not going to be good. So those two things for me have been hugely important to bring in practice into my life on a daily basis and they absolutely show up in my work on a regular basis as well. I love that so much. And it reminds me I’ve been I haven’t practice martial arts in a long time, it’s been Gosh, I don’t know, maybe even 10 years now, I think I stopped around 45. But my son has just started to practice. Brazilian jujitsu. So I was just in class the other day. And it reminded me and for me physically, it’s always in the activity in usually, around a group, I am pretty much an extrovert. So I think I get some energy from other people. But I just remember over the years of doing it for so many years, of how my thoughts would just start to fly when my body was involved in other kinds of activities. And it’s different for folks stage of life, right priorities, abilities are so many what what your body is feeling like it wants to do or doesn’t want to do. But I really love this as part of an approach to philosophy about what it is that you’re looking at and measuring, but then also a way to really check yourself. And, again, as a coach, I like to really practice those things. So I can show up in the best way and not as that hovering sometimes Mama Bear energy of just wanting to quell the anxiety, which is not going to be helpful for people.
I have been that person and it was not good. Well, it’s interesting, it just it would I think it patterns, I love looking at patterns and rhythms. I think that’s often the way that that practice happens, especially working together. But it isn’t something that is going to energize first of all, just sovereignty for the person of connecting with themselves, and figuring out how they can shift it, but I love being able to observe it and notice it. So this is really it’s really helpful. Thank you as a coach.
A couple other things. One is just describing you have a work in practice workshop, I think related to some of the core concepts in the book. And I got really excited when I just was reading the bullets of what you had in there because it has part of this recipe of the kinds of things that make up this alternative approach, identifying top priorities. So you have focus, aligning priorities to capacity. Whenever I think capacity, Charlie Gilkey comes up where he’s always like, nudging me about doing too many things. Gathering the resources, you need to do remarkable work without spinning your wheels, building routines, habits and plans to nurture creative thinking, acknowledging the work within your limits, so you can call them your inner critic, and then creating systems of care for yourself and others. It’s just so beautiful to be bringing these things together. Is that really the core of the of the method? Do you see it as a method or an approach? Yeah, absolutely. I hesitate to use this word because well, I’ll explain why I hesitate. But it is a system to me. And when I say system, I don’t mean a formula. I don’t mean a set of instructions, I mean that there are lots of different inputs and outputs. And they’re all connected in different ways. They’re all sort of networked together. And I think that, you know, to your point about, we all have different makeups we all have different abilities, we all have different personalities and values and character traits.
You know, not every way I work is going to work for other people, what I think is practice is not going to be practice for someone else, what I think is an more embodied or present way of managing one’s tasks is not going to be the thing that works for everybody else. But what I’ve found over the years is that there’s a, there’s a way to sort of lay these things out and describe where we’re going with it, how it’s different than what they’ve done before. And give people options within a sort of wider, systematic kind of philosophy of work that then allows them to take ownership of how they want to work in practice. And so yes, it is very much a system, it’s very much an overall approach to work. And it’s, the idea is that, you know, work over the last 120 years has changed dramatically. And so much of management and productivity advice is still based on ways of working that went out with the 1950s. And so we need to create and live with ways of working and ways of being that are rooted in the kinds of things that are most valuable today, creative thinking, critical thinking, intersectional thinking, thinking about the collective and our communities. These are the things that are going to make the 21st century work, but it’s not how we’re managing ourselves. It’s not how this software that we use is designed. And so what I’m really trying to do especially with this, this workshop is push back on that and say, All right, this, this works in the past, this was good management sites in the past, I don’t think it’s working for you anymore. Let’s see where it might be where it’s not. And let’s rearrange. So you can approach your work in a way that’s actually meeting needs meeting your needs meeting other people’s needs, instead of just trying to get more done. For sure, one of my main critiques not shocking, seeing as I wrote, the widest net is how we do look at it from an individual perspective, which is just very privileged way of looking at it. I think we we need each other we need systems of support, community support, friends, support for people being in all kinds of different situations.
In that light, I know that you for many years, I told you before we started recording, I always look to you as somebody, which was a great model, I sent many people to your site of somebody who had a great model of an online community, a place where business owners could be getting feedback, support for their business ideas, I always appreciate the rigor that you have your approach, it just was always excited to see it. It’s just one of the one of these things I love that I love to see other people who are doing things really well. And I know that you you fairly recently decided to not do that anymore. So can you just talk a little bit about that journey, because I think it’s powerful in a number of ways, you’re choosing to give something up that you did really well, that was successful.
And I imagine for the benefit of what you need now, at this next stage of your body of work for what you want to contribute.
Yeah, so I have a really long history of getting people together, or to work together to talk about their businesses together. So for from 2017, to the end of 2021, I ran the What Works network, which was just a big community full of small business owners, talking about what works and what doesn’t. But before that, even there were smaller communities that I ran. And my coaching program was always a group coaching program, specifically, because I could identify that the people I was working with, were just super siloed, they were in their own little home office doing their own little home office thing. And they weren’t talking to other people who shared their experiences, their questions, their ideas, right. And so I’ve always had this deep desire to bring people together to help each other. And that’s really, than what the What Works network became, and I so appreciate you saying, you know that you appreciated the rigor that I brought to it. I think that, you know, I learned a lot. In the five years of being 100% focused on that community, I learned a lot about what was really needed as, as a leader, as a facilitator, as a community manager. And all of that was all of everything that I learned, I feel so good about. And I think that we did do really well. But by the end of those five years, I was a complete shell of myself, I was completely burnt out. And I a friend of mine actually asked me how did you end up in a business model that is so diametrically opposed from your personal needs?
A question Dr. Phil. What’s funny, though, is that I had an answer right away. And the answer is simply that my value for community care for collective care is super duper high. And it seemed like this was going to be the best way for me to instantiate that value through a business offering. But I didn’t have the capacity. I didn’t have the the mental makeup, the sort of, I didn’t have what I needed to actually be able to do that job well. So while I can recognize it, you know, and I’ve been told lots of times, you know, you managed to 2020. So well, this community is not like anything else, and it’s because of you, blah, blah, blah, that’s wonderful. I can accept that I can acknowledge that I did a good job and
it ran me into the ground. It wasn’t the community’s fault. It wasn’t even an operational thing. Like our operations were really strong. It was an internal you know, my capacity, my resources thing. It was who I am who I am can’t run that community.
And that’s, that is not a thing I think you hear very often from people, right? We’re supposed to think, Oh, no limits, you can do anything you put your mind to, I can’t, I can’t do anything I put my mind to, there are limits. And this ended up being a hard limit for me. So I spent all of 2022 working on my book, making my podcast, even better than it was before writing really long pieces, doing some freelance writing, doing a lot of just thinking and, you know, bad resting.
And so I don’t know, you know, what the next 1015 years is going to look like. But I have a much better idea of how I can think through sort of the question of what does it look like to have this value of collective care? Wow, meeting my own needs, and recognizing my own limits. And so that’s really, that’s about that’s the nutshell of the journey of the last two years or so. Oh, it’s so powerful I can I can really relate. And I think it is so wonderful that you chose to listen and not just say, Hey, I have a good thing that’s going it’s not that hard. Let me just keep it going or bring somebody else in when inside, you really knew it was not the right thing for you. I think it’s so important to be demonstrating that it also goes to a unresearched premise I have about communities again, ironically, being a community person, I’m the first to say, don’t start an online community, unless you are really, really, really clear as to what the purpose is, and what your role is, and why it is there. I find people just jump to it like, hey, we need to build a community. And I really like to slow that down. I think that it’s such a powerful question that you had of centering a need for the collective and really supporting community values, but not necessarily having to be the one who’s hosting it all the time. We have a brick and mortar community spaces, as you know, here in Mesa. And one of the things I think that surprises people is they might assume that I’m here is the busybody in the middle of everything. The reason why it’s worked so well for six and a half years is people who come here, we call them the key guardians, when they’re running their events, they have a key and they manage it 100% I don’t have anything to do with it at all, which makes me feel so good to see pictures of people in the space. Or if I happen to be here, I’ll say hi. But that has been one way for me to not get totally burned out, is to provide a structure in this case of physical structure for people to gather that doesn’t need to have me there. Yeah, I think structure is so key. And I think over the course of the five years that I was running the community, we were constantly kind of figuring out alright, what kind of structure can we put here to make this work better? For me? And it wasn’t until we kind of got to the point where like, maybe it’s not an operational structure question. Maybe it’s like, a you thing that you need to like, figure out because, you know, I had a full time community manager, I have part time community helpers, we had an incredible sort of, you know, kind of internal leadership among our members, it was a beautiful place to be. And there was no shift in structure that was going to allow me to continue to operate in it that said, you know, the mighty networks took over the community for us, they hired my full time employee. So those people and that container could continue without me, which I guess is a structural shift. It just needed to not include me, either. Love that. What a smart decision. Well, if people want to be connecting with you, where is the best place for them to do that? Yeah, so you can find my writing work and my book at explore what works.com and you can listen to the What Works podcast wherever you listen to the widest net. I love that. Well, thank you so much for sharing time with us today. For those of you who are listening, make sure to check out our show notes at Pamela slim.com. For the tips and resources that were mentioned in today’s show. I want to thank my 31 marketplace production team La’Vista Jones to Nick law three, Jose Arboleda, Matty Russo, and the award winning voice of God narrator for our intro and outro Andia Winslow. Until next time, be sure to subscribe to the show and enjoy building partnerships, organizations and communities that grow our ecosystem.