Like most women, I found the challenges of regular life, a career and parenting often seemed overwhelming. I was recently asked to speak on how I managed stress. My first reaction was to say, “Not very well,” but I then reflected on my adult life and realized there were some things I did to make life more manageable and enjoyable, despite the stress.
I learned the need to consciously manage stress when I went off to college. As one of only two women in my engineering class at the University of Florida when women were still fighting for basic rights, I regularly encountered demeaning comments, harassment and outright confrontation. As I entered the workforce as a design engineer in the defense industry, I was usually the only woman in the room. My husband and I were denied our first mortgage because the bank wouldn’t count my income since I was a woman, even though I made more money than he did. The fair credit act was not passed until 1976, four years after I graduated from college. There were no laws then against harassment in the workplace. It was a very tough time to be a female engineer in the defense industry. I had my only child in 1979 and that brought its own unique stresses for more than 20 years.
Throughout these challenges, I learned to channel humiliation, resistance and conflict into resilience and determination. How I did this exactly, I’m not quite sure, except that I believed in myself and valued my career, so I knew I’d figure it out. It was from these experiences my life’s mantra emerged: I refuse to be a victim.
I went from being an entry-level engineer to the first female President and Corporate Officer at General Dynamics where I managed a $1B multi-state business with thousands of employees to President and CEO of BAE Systems, Inc. where I ran a $13B global business with 40,000 employees. I was the first woman to run a major aerospace and defense business in the U.S. I can’t begin to articulate the stress of being responsible for the success and well-being of 40,000 people. There was no such thing as a good night’s sleep: either concern about an issue awoke me at 3 a.m., or I was in some crazy time zone solving another. Long hours and global travel were brutal. At times it took a serious toll on my health, but most of the time I got by pretty well. When I retired three years ago and started The Cardea Group at the age of 64 while serving on three corporate boards, the level of stress did not change, just the sources.
Over the years, I have developed tools and techniques that have helped me cope with stress while having a great, demanding job and an interesting, exciting personal life.
Below are the top 12 that have been with me all of my life:
1. Cast off your superhero expectations: Embrace the fact you can’t do it all, and outsource those daily tasks that demand your time but don’t energize you. This strategy was the main thing that helped me survive my child-rearing days. I realize I was fortunate to have a career that afforded me this option, but I still had to work hard to relinquish my “wonder woman” expectations.
2. Learn to compartmentalize: It is often assumed that women can’t manage their emotions as well as men, and watching my male colleagues do a better job of separating personal things from work seemed to support this assumption. To be successful, particularly in a male dominated industry, like defense, I decided I had to do the same thing. So, I taught myself to put troubling or difficult personal thoughts into a “locked box in my brain” to better focus on the work at hand. I would then “unlock” the thoughts when I had the time and space to deal with them at home. This visualization takes practice, but it works!
3. Take vacations: When a close friend died and another became seriously ill, I decided I wasn’t going to wait until “later” to fulfill my bucket list. As early in the year as possible, I schedule personal time and vacations, strive to do something new and interesting each year and get them on my calendar. I have never left a day of vacation on the table. To date I’ve traveled to more than 30 countries, and this year I am traveling to the Galapagos Islands and Paris, in addition to periodic domestic trips.
4. Care about something other than work and family: The most interesting and well-adjusted people I know are engaging, well read, well traveled and have passions outside of work and family. For me in addition to travel, I am actively engaged in philanthropic work, love to read and am passionate about women’s issues and human rights. I’m also a bit of a “foodie” and love to collect cookbooks and experiment cooking ethnic foods.
5. Embrace life-long learning as the world and technology changes: Being a dinosaur makes me feel isolated and often angry, so I am always learning and testing the latest technology and trying to keep up with social media. My philanthropic work provides me with ways to interact with young people and that helps keep me current.
6. Give back: I’ve mentioned my philanthropy in other contexts, but I find immense pleasure and satisfaction in helping those less fortunate than me and supporting causes that matter. I want to have made a difference when it is all said and done.
7. (This one is for the ladies) Spend time with your women friends: Women are tougher on other women than they are on men. As I began to climb the ladder in the defense industry, I was often the first and only woman to hold a particular job. I felt no need to reach back and help the few women who had joined the workforce behind me. Since I had made it by myself, I thought that they should too. But, as I watched my male colleagues and how they established networks, mentored and sponsored rising male stars and enjoyed the collegiality of it all, I decided I had it all wrong. I began helping the women coming up in the organization and industry, developing life-long friendships along the way. The older I get, the more I value relationships with women as I have found it is these relationships that tend to endure.
8. Quit agonizing over your adult children: Realize your adult children have the right to live their own lives, and try not to micromanage. This one took me a long time to embrace, and when I finally accepted I can’t run their lives as well as I can run my own, the whole family benefited.
9. Keep a notepad by your bed: If something is bothering me and affecting my sleep, I write it down. This practice often allows me to let go of the stress and fall back asleep.
10. Schedule time for yoga or some physical activity you enjoy: Even though the physical and mental benefits of exercise are unarguable, prioritizing the time to exercise can be difficult. I still struggle to make it a priority, but I have found that having someone to hold you accountable is paramount, as is blocking time on your calendar to exercise.
11. Be optimistic: It is your choice, and your choice alone, to see the glass as half full or half empty.
12. Explore mindfulness: I’m only a year or so into meditation, but I find it very helpful, especially at night to help me sleep. I know this journey has just begun…another part of that life-long learning quest.
I have learned that I am my own worst critic, and we can all do better if we learn to give ourselves a break. Most important, it is good to know that no one has a magic formula for a stress-free life, so don’t stress! You’re probably not falling short. I find that chipping away at the stresses and tackling things one at a time makes my life more manageable and enjoyable.