Core Strength: Being Happy and Having Impact in a World Run by Men
Lane’ latest book is geared toward helping women build the strength and skill they need to successfully navigate the challenges of working in male-dominated environments without losing themselves in the process. The book’s content draws from her own experience (including her success as the first woman columnist at Flying magazine, with an international audience that was 96% male), research and interviews with women in various industries around the country, and feedback from participants in her workshops and talks. Working across differences—especially if we’re a minority in a majority-culture environment—requires us to become master bridge-builders. In this book, Lane explores how we can build the grounded self-awareness and strength that prepares us for the challenges of cross-cultural bridge-building. She then shares valuable insights about how we can use that strength to build strong, authentic bridges … and draw appropriate boundaries where we need to … without losing ourselves or burning out along the way.
In the spring of 1999, I became the first woman columnist in the 72-year-history of Flying magazine. Flying was founded right after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight from New York to Paris, and in the years that followed, it became the leading publication for pilots and aviation enthusiasts in the world. I’d been a pilot since I was 24, and I’d been a professional writer for 10 years before being hired at Flying. But being the first woman in a company or industry role is always challenging, because it requires getting respect and support from co-workers who aren’t used to interacting with women in a professional capacity.
In my case, however, that inherent challenge was complicated by the fact that in order to be successful as a columnist, I had to gain the respect and support of not only my male co-workers, but also a significant portion of the magazine’s 300,000 readers—96% of whom were also men. And because I was the first, I had to figure out how to do that on my own. There were no other women to guide me; no support groups; no mentors to lean on. And yet, I managed to become not only a successful columnist, but also the West Coast Editor of the magazine—a position I held for the next 12 years.
How did I manage that? The short answer is that by the time I was hired at Flying, I’d spent a long time figuring out and coming to peace with who I was, what mattered most to me, and what was really going to make me happy. So I was able to bring the power of that knowledge to both my writing and my interactions with co-workers, industry contacts, and readers. At the time, I’m not sure I could have articulated exactly how having that grounded clarity about myself aided me, or how it affected my interactions with others. But looking back, I can see just how critical it was in my success—even if some aspects of how it played out were surprising to discover.
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But the long answer goes beyond the happy ending of how I was able to use that knowledge, and the strength it gave me, once I had a clear and determined hold on it. It’s about what it took to get there, and just how difficult it is for women to find and hold onto that clear and grounded sense of self and voice in the world.
Much of the advice about navigating the challenge of being a minority in a majority-culture work environment focuses on techniques and tactics: acquiring allies and mentors; dealing with microaggressions; using company processes effectively. And all of that is important information to know. But it’s not enough. If you tell a gymnast techniques that can help her perform a challenging routine, but she doesn’t possess the strength and flexibility to execute those maneuvers, the information is of limited value. The first step, as any coach or trainer knows, is building up the core strength and flexibility that makes everything else possible.
The same principle applies to psychological, intellectual, and emotional challenges. The first step in gaining the ability to navigate them successfully is getting ourselves internally strong and grounded. That core strength is what gives us the ability to hold onto ourselves while still being flexible enough to maneuver effectively through and around the obstacles in our way.
Building that emotional and psychological strength and stability takes time and effort. But instead of strengthening our abdominal muscles, it starts with building the components of mature self-awareness. That means doing enough questioning, reflecting and exploring to separate out who we really are from who others expect or want us to be. It also means being honest with ourselves and taking responsibility for our actions and mistakes, and developing respectful awareness and consideration for others as well as ourselves. Core strength also comes from being emotionally stable and well-grounded. So in addition to gaining more knowledge about ourselves, we need to work on being comfortable with that truth; at peace with ourselves and our choices, motivated from within, and clear about what matters most to us, both in terms of our values and in terms of what we need from a job or life in order to be happy.
Adding to the challenge, of course, is that attaining that level of knowledge and comfort isn’t enough. Just as with physical strength, we need to maintain it if it’s going to do us any good. And in some ways, that’s even harder than achieving it in the first place. When I talk to women in their 20s about this subject, I encounter a variety of responses. There are some who say they’re still struggling to figure out who they are. But there are others who feel as if they’ve already done a lot of thoughtful reflection, found answers, and are far more confident about who they are and where they’re headed. And yet, when I talk to women in their 40s and 50s about the road they’ve traveled, almost all of them acknowledge that they’ve struggled with setbacks, wrong turns, losing sight of themselves, or getting lost along the way. And that’s true for me, as well.
I was 37 when I was hired at Flying. There were certainly points before then when I would have asserted, quite adamantly, that I knew myself well and had fierce confidence in who I was. But in between those moments of clarity were stretches where I stumbled and lost my way or allowed myself to be silenced. My job at Flying, in fact, marked my second attempt at making my way in the world of aviation. I’d gotten lost, the first time around. And before making the decision to try again, I spent four years thinking long and hard about who I really was, what still mattered to me, and not only where I wanted to go next, but how to get there without losing myself again.
It was an awareness of that dichotomy: on the one hand, the tremendous power and strength that come from a clear and grounded knowledge and acceptance of who we are and what matters to us, and on the other, the immense difficulty women face in gaining and maintaining that clear sense of self, and figuring out how wield its power effectively, that motivated me to write this book.
One of the reasons it took me four years to rebuild a strong and grounded sense of myself, after losing it in pursuit of relationship happiness and professional advancement, was that I couldn’t find the kind of guidance or information that would have really helped me. The books on the market all made it sound easy: a simple matter of “finding myself”—as if it were as simple as finding a lost glove, somewhere inside me—or prescriptive, 3-step formulas that only made me feel more alone, because I knew the challenge was far more complex, went much deeper, and was going to involve a lot more work than that. So I forged ahead on my own, stumbling my way toward clarity through a long and painful process of trial and error. Perhaps I ended up stronger for having to figure it all out on my own. But there was also a lot of time wasted and lost.
Even when I felt strong again—after leaving a long-term relationship that was limiting my ability to be my full self, re-examining my core beliefs and truths, exploring and building new circles of friends, re-evaluating my career goals, and drawing some new non-negotiables for my life—I still had to figure out how to use that knowledge to successfully navigate a challenging, male-dominated environment and culture. And once again, I had to navigate alone through instinct, trial and error. It wasn’t until I had the benefit of more than 20 years of hindsight that I was able to look back and understand what I’d done, and why it had proven so effective.
But as I looked back on what I’d done and learned, it occurred to me that some of those insights and lessons might be helpful—not only to anyone working on diversity and inclusion issues, but also, and perhaps most importantly, to the women following behind me. I knew, having walked the road myself, that there was no simple formula or prescriptive self-help answer to finding, following, or protecting the kind of mature, grounded self-awareness and self-acceptance that was essential to working effectively in a diverse or male-dominated environment. It was an explorer’s journey; a lifelong effort requiring courage, commitment, a lot of hard honesty, and more than a few tears. And in the end, each woman had to find her own way, and her own answers, as any explorer has to do. But as someone who’d done a lot of solo flying and hiking, I also knew what a difference it could make to have access to the wisdom of others who’d traveled that route before you, or a guide to what elements and equipment might be helpful, as well as markers or hazards to watch for along the way.
So I set out to gather and share as much of that wisdom and information as I could—not only from my own experience, but from the experience of others, as well. I spent more than three years reading, researching, and interviewing women all over the country. And the results were fascinating. When I compiled all the data and transcripts, there were, in fact, patterns that emerged; common elements that were important or helpful in every woman’s journey, as well as common hazards women needed to avoid along the way. And when I compared what others said about important elements and hazards with my own experience, I realized that my own story and process matched those patterns surprisingly well. But there were also two other powerful and surprising themes that emerged from my interviews and research.
The first was just how universal women’s struggles for those core elements of self-knowledge and self-acceptance are. Contrary to how it’s sometimes portrayed, not every woman battles the same issues when it comes to developing a strong sense of self and voice. Not every woman feels pressure to be nice or perfect; not every girl loses her voice in early adolescence. The norms, burdens, expectations, and pressures women find themselves pushing against vary widely, depending on our ethnic, racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and environments.
But in all my research, and all the time I spent explaining to people that I was working on a book about women’s struggles to find and hold onto their authentic selves and voices, not a single woman asked me what I meant by that. I had all kinds of men ask that question—enough that I had to come up with an elevator-pitch-length definition for them. That alone speaks volumes about the disparity between women and men’s experiences when it comes to being or expressing themselves. But the most typical response I got from women was a knowing nod. Sometimes the nod was accompanied by a sigh; other times by a raised-eyebrow exclamation of “Oh! That is SO important!” But in that intuitive understanding and nodding of heads, I sensed that somewhere, they’d all struggled, or at least were viscerally aware of hazards lurking altogether too close for comfort.
The second, and more surprising, thread that emerged was how silent, and how lonely, those battles for self and voice are.
One of the people I interviewed in the course of my research was a woman, not much younger than myself, who told me about her difficult journey toward rediscovering her sense of self in her 40s. She’d come from a prominent family, so she had many advantages and privileges. She’d attended a prestigious girls high school, where she’d been taught and encouraged to speak up with an authentic voice, and had graduated from a very good college. She’d been a successful executive director of a non-profit foundation. And yet, somewhere in the process of an unfortunate marriage and the demands of family and children, she’d lost her way. And the process of reconnecting with herself, and changing her life to allow that self to flourish again, was painful, although liberating and rewarding in the end.
“Did you say anything to any of your friends or family, while you were struggling?” I asked her. “Did you ask anyone for help?
“No,” she answered.
“Why not?” I pressed. There was silence for a long moment.
“I think I was just too embarrassed. Too ashamed,” she finally answered. “With all that background, how could I have lost my voice?”
In a flash, it hit me. That was the real problem; the reason so many of us struggle to find and keep our true selves and voices over the course of our lives. Ironic as it may be, we don’t talk about it. Even if we recognize the problem, we’re too embarrassed to admit and share our struggles. We battle alone, stumbling through the fog, unaware that there are others who have walked this exact trail before us who could help us find our way. And so we deprive ourselves—and others—not only of assistance or advice that could shorten the process and make it less painful, but also of the comfort and relief of realizing that we’re not the only ones struggling.
I thought back to Betty Friedan’s famous diagnosis, in 1963, of “the problem that has no name.” She began her book The Feminine Mystique with the words, “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American Women.” The problem Friedan was identifying was the desire of white, middle-class American women for a life beyond the home. But more than 50 years of progress later, while women of all races may routinely work outside the home, fill professional offices and research institutions in greater numbers, and even fly fighter jets and space shuttles, we still struggle with how to be not only our successful selves, but our authentic selves, manifesting mature and authentic voices while we navigate the difficult choices and pressures of our lives. And while we may now talk openly about the problem Friedan’s generation faced, we still don’t talk openly about how often we struggle with, and fail at, this second challenge and problem.
“It’s really amazing, how fragile an authentic voice is,” the head of one girls’ school said to me, the first time we talked. “And how insidious the threats to it are. You don’t even realize what’s happening until something drastic occurs.” I suspect there are millions of women––especially women in their 40s, 50s, and beyond––who would have nodded knowingly, had they been part of that conversation.
And yet, we rarely talk about it—at least in terms of our own stumbles and struggles. Not until long after the fact. After the divorce. After the rebuilding. And even then, it’s tempting to gloss over the embarrassing parts and focus on what we’ve found, instead of how, exactly, we fell down or got off track. Nobody writes their alumni magazine about how they woke up one morning and realized they’d lost their way or their voice. Even though we do each other a grave disservice by not doing that.
Just in case I needed proof of that truth, a few days after my interview with the woman who’d been so embarrassed about losing her voice, another interview subject—an impressive, successful college professor with a long and storied career—said to me, “Well, you’re lucky. I looked at your website, and clearly, you’ve always known your voice and your passion. You never had to struggle for it.”
I drew a sharp breath, horrified. “No!” I exclaimed. “Oh, that’s so not true! Why do you think I’m so passionate about this subject?” I went on to tell her the story of finding, losing, rediscovering, and my struggles to keep my sense of self and voice intact over the course of my life.
“You need to tell that story,” she said, when I was done. “Women need to hear that story. We all think we’re the only ones who don’t have it all together.”
I thought a lot about that, as I began writing this book. And I realized she was right. The predominant approach books, magazine profiles and websites take, when it comes to ostensibly supporting or helping women, is what I might call the “strong role model” approach. We highlight “successful” women and talk about how they manage to be so terrific. What their secret to fabulous success has been. How they successfully manage careers, families, and being happy and in shape, all at the same time. Emphasis on the word “successful.” And we expect that to inspire other women to follow.
But in reality, all those PR-perfect role model images sometimes do more harm than good, because they perpetuate the myth that those perfectly successful and balanced women exist. Women who nod gracefully to some difficulties along the way, but aren’t asked about, or don’t share, the more complicated and painfully imperfect aspects of their journey: the costs, struggles, regrets, difficult choices and compromises they not only knew, but are quite possibly still struggling with. As a result, those stories can end up intimidating or discouraging every woman who doesn’t see a specimen of perfection when she looks in the mirror.
When women read about all these fabulous, successful women, it reinforces their belief that they’re the only ones who don’t have it all together, increasing the pressure they feel to look and act as if they’ve got it all together, no matter how much of a fraud that makes them feel at the core. And it becomes a vicious cycle. The more pressure we feel to keep up that front, the more difficult it becomes for us to hear or trust the guidance of our own hearts. And that makes it harder to build the core strength that would allow us to actually be more successful, in addition to being more resilient and happy in both our professional and personal lives.