What IS Core Strength, Anyway?
© 2022 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, May/June issue, 2022
It is possible, I have discovered, to have an intuitive understanding of what a word or phrase means without being able to define exactly what it consists of. For example, I often tell my husband that I love him, and I’m pretty sure he knows what I mean by that. But if someone asked me to write a sentence defining “love” for an alien who’d never encountered it before, I’d probably struggle to find the right words.
I ran into the same problem when I started researching women’s struggles for authentic voice a few years ago. Not a single woman I interviewed asked what I meant by “authentic voice.” They all intuitively understood what it was and why it was so hard to find and maintain. Men, on the other hand, were generally and genuinely baffled by the concept—a dichotomy that alone speaks volumes. But the point is, I had to come up with an elevator-pitch-length definition for men, and it was harder than I thought.
I suspect the same is true for the name I gave this column. It’s easy enough to grasp that having inner strength is a good thing; helpful in successfully navigating the challenges of a male-dominated industry as well as life in general. And all the topics I’ve written about in the past year address important elements in building that strength.
But sometimes, seeing a bigger picture is helpful in understanding how all the pieces fit together—like referencing a map to see where the GPS waypoints are actually taking us. So in the interests of providing that perspective, I thought I’d try to clarify what I mean when I talk about core strength.
In physical fitness, core strength is easier to define. It’s the strength of the underlying muscles of the torso; the foundation that enables athletes to perform complex movements requiring coordination, balance and technical skills. The core strength I’m talking about is different, of course. It’s mental and emotional in nature. But it serves the same purpose. It provides a stable and strong foundation that enables us to hold onto ourselves while still being flexible enough to maneuver effectively around the obstacles in our way.
Building that kind of foundational strength doesn’t take sit-ups or abdominal planks. But it does require developing two important qualities: 1) clear and mature knowledge about ourselves, and 2) a well-grounded approach to both our careers and our lives.
What do I mean by that? Well, having clear and mature knowledge about ourselves means, first, being able to separate who we really are from fantasy notions or media images of who we’d like to be or believe we need to be, as well as from the pressures and expectations of others. Having a clear sense, in other words, of our true or “authentic” selves; who we really are and what’s most important to us, apart from our job titles, professional identities, or any of the roles we play in other people’s lives. But it also means holding ourselves to mature standards in how we draw that picture of ourselves. We need to be able to look honestly at both our strengths and our weaknesses, own our choices and mistakes, and hold ourselves accountable for our impact on others—while still allowing ourselves forgiveness and the opportunity for growth.
If we have that clear and mature knowledge, we can let go of a lot of the pressures that make us unhappy and focus instead on the elements we need and want in our jobs and lives—and what choices and paths are most likely to lead to them. If we’ve looked honestly (but kindly) at ourselves and can take responsibility for all we see there, we’re also less likely to feel defensive, which makes us stronger and more effective with others. It also makes it easier for us to consider other people’s perspectives, which is essential in building the bridges and support we need to thrive and have impact in the world.
The second component of core strength—having a well-grounded approach to our careers and lives—has two parts to it. The first is being at peace with both our choices and the truth of who we are. Knowing who we are and owning our choices is one thing. Being at peace with all that is another. But being comfortable with ourselves is what gives us the strength to stay emotionally balanced, no matter what comes at us. It frees us from feeling the need to prove anything and helps us take responsibility for our mistakes, pay more attention to the needs and cultural norms of others, and roll with the punches more easily—which gives us far more flexibility and resilience in dealing with challenging situations.
The second part of becoming well-grounded is being internally motivated. That means being motivated by goals that are intrinsically rewarding to us, like loving what we do or who we do it with, feeling in control of our destinies, believing that what we’re doing is meaningful, or having positive and strong relationships in our lives. Why does that matter, in terms of core strength? Because if we’re not dependent on rewards other people control, like money, fame, status, or “stuff” in order to feel happy or good about ourselves, there’s less anyone else can hold over us. It also makes us less worried about others’ reactions or opinions, which helps us act from strength and hold onto our true selves, even as we accommodate to whatever work culture we’re in.
There’s a lot more that goes into actually acquiring that knowledge about ourselves and developing that grounded approach to our careers and lives, of course. Not to mention learning how to use that strength to our advantage as we navigate the choices and challenges we encounter along the way. That’s why I titled this column “Core Strength.” Because there’s a lot to cover, in how we gain and apply that strength.
For example, just to reference a few previous column topics: if we want to discover who we really are: what resonates with us, inspires us, irritates us, makes us feel alive, or gives us a sense of meaning, we have to explore—both internally and in the world outside. So information on Adopting an explorer’s mindset, Managing our fears, Getting comfortable with discomfort, and Asking the right questions can help prepare us for that. If we’re trying to let go of who we feel we ought or need to be and become more comfortable with who we really are, it helps if we can identify The voices in our heads and draw some guilt-free, 10-penny rules. If we want to develop a more grounded focus, it helps to understand the link between that and What really makes us happy.
Each of those topics has value on its own. But they also work together to give us something even bigger. And that perspective matters. If we can see how the pieces fit together, it makes it easier to recognize what’s important to work on, and how to link insights and discoveries in strength-producing ways. But it can also help us stay motivated and on track. And that, as any coach or trainer will tell you, is more than half the battle, when it comes to building strength.