This series, curated by Brian Johnson, founder of PhilosophersNotes, features big ideas from leading thinkers on a wide range of personal-development topics. Find the full version of “How to Stop Playing Small” (free!) below. For more optimal-living -wisdom, visit www.BrianJohnson.me.
The term “playing small” (popularized by spiritual philosopher Marianne Williamson) refers to that part in each of us that’s focused on short-term, temporary comfort, security, relief, and validation.
Playing small usually means we dismiss what we truly want in life in order to maintain a present-moment illusion of security, acceptance, or control.
By contrast, playing big means we’re willing to experience short-term discomfort, risk, and uncertainty in the service of what we truly want — to feel alive, to experience greater love and connection with others, to feel a deep sense of peace, and to live with greater freedom.
Playing small means our actions are motivated by our fears, insecurities, low self-worth, and scarcity. It’s impulsive, reactive — and often frantic.
Playing big means our actions are motivated by what brings us true fulfillment and deep satisfaction. It is slower, focused, and more deliberate.
Whether we play small or big has nothing to do with the size of our accomplishments, or with external, objective measurements; it’s more about the underlying beliefs and assumptions that are driving our actions.
Here are my top tips for learning to play big more often — so you can create the life you really want.
1. Commit to the Experience
We often feel stuck because we think we need to have the perfect plan or vision before we can start. But nobody can predict the future. Committing to a static vision means we disconnect from our deeper awareness and desires, which keeps us stuck in lousy relationships, careers, and situations.
Commit to the experiences you want most in your life — to feel free, alive, loved, and connected, and to have peace of mind. Let your plan or vision be in service of this, and be willing to change your plan.
2. Recover and Rejuvenate
Many of us believe we can’t take the time or energy to do things that feed us physically, energetically, emotionally, and spiritually. We tell ourselves we must continuously “suck it up” and keep going.
This may be beneficial in specific situations, but in the long term, this pattern of deprivation kills our performance, as well as our enjoyment of life. This scarcity mindset is a form of weakness. In order to truly focus on what strengthens you, learn to receive, recover, and rejuvenate.
3. Stop Living Urgently
We often believe we have to live and work at high-intensity or in a frantic state of mind. This is “prey mentality”: Animals who are afraid of being eaten often live this way. That’s not you. You’re a human being at the top of the food chain.
Instead of acting like you’re going to be eaten, slow down. The peace of mind and relief you’re seeking is in the present moment — not at the end of a to-do list or arbitrary finish line. If you really care about your quality of life, slow down. Then slow down some more.
4. Know What You Want
Knowing what you don’t want is not the same as knowing what you do want. Stop complaining and pointing fingers. Instead, learn to turn complaints into requests. Acknowledge problems, ask yourself what you want, then take action.
5. Take Responsibility
We often believe we’re responsible for the happiness of others — and if we’re good people and do the right thing, the universe will in turn take care of our happiness. This is a powerless, victim mentality. Learn to identify this drama-triangle dynamic and then take personal responsibility for what you truly want.
6. Find Strength in Challenges
The small part of us wants to outrun our problems and challenges. It believes something must be wrong if we’re facing a challenge. But when we shift into our larger state of mind, we understand that what we truly want in life — to feel free, alive, loved, and peaceful — is on the other side of these temporary discomforts. Learn to see that challenges are opportunities to grow and become stronger.
7. Get Over Yourself
Success comes in many forms, but eventually we realize the fulfillment we’re looking for isn’t on the other side of some finish line. Learn to get past your small self’s need for validation. Focus on service instead of performance. It’s not about you; it’s about what really matters and what makes a difference.
8. Give Up Chasing Goals
Even well-intentioned goals can become another hamster wheel consuming our lives. Underneath this need for constant improvement is usually a fear of stagnation or that we’ll never be good enough. Feeding this pattern is a recipe for misery.
The more promising path forward involves training ourselves to recognize our existing good fortune while still allowing ourselves to improve, create, and move forward.
9. Love Yourself
It’s a huge trap to attach our self-worth and well-being to our accomplishments and the judgments of others. Negative self-image breeds neediness and toxicity that destroys everything we care about. Our most important relationship is with ourselves, which is why it’s critical to learn to become your own best ally.
10. Stop Escaping
This pattern of pursuing something, achieving it, feeling relief for a while, and then feeling like something is missing again never ends. Sounds depressing, huh? It’s not. It’s actually an opportunity to enjoy this life more fully.
Let go of the idea that one day you’ll be able to fully enjoy your life; simply train yourself to do this now. Tap into the reality that you’re part of something much larger and more mysterious than you can imagine. Realize your life is more than the sum of your current problems, challenges, goals, and aspirations. Slow down. Relax. Be grateful.
This is your life. It’s time to learn to enjoy it simply as it is.