Smith College President Kathleen McCartney on How She Course-Corrects From Stress

In her Thrive Questionnaire, she opens up about prioritizing family, staying optimistic, and finding mindfulness.

Shana Sureck Photography
Shana Sureck Photography

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people. 

TG: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed? What gives you energy?

KM: Exercise! Even if I only have 10 minutes to do a few yoga poses in a hotel room, I do it. 

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

KM: Pema Chödrön wrote, “[Things] come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” 

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

KM: I make the time for project management, which involves using our strategic plan as a roadmap, discussing options with my senior team, and allocating human and financial resources. 

TG: Do you have any role models for living a thriving life?

KM: The Dalai Lama, whose writings taught me the art of happiness, Gloria Steinem, who taught me to trust my instincts, and my brother, who taught me to see the good in everyone.

TG: When you notice you’re getting too stressed, what do you do to course correct?

KM: Nothing reduces stress like a long walk in the natural world. Even in a city, one can look up at the sky. 

TG: What’s a surprising way you practice mindfulness?

KM: I take three deep breaths throughout the day, especially before starting to read email. Creating even a moment of stillness helps me stay present. 

TG: What brings you optimism?

KM: Young people bring me optimism because they care deeply about the pressing problems facing the world and are preparing to lead. 

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve the way you connect with others. 

KM: I ask questions of members of my community and practice active listening.

TG: What was the biggest turning point in your life?

KM: Becoming a mother was the biggest turning point in my life as I learned why we are here. Singer and songwriter Holly Near wrote, “My love for you is the reason for my birth,” a sentence I love to tell my two daughters. 

TG: What’s your secret time-saver in the morning?

I don’t aim for efficiency in my morning routine; rather, I build in time for the things that I won’t get to do later in the day because of evening commitments. I wake up three hours before work begins so I can work out on my elliptical machine, read the New York Times, eat a healthy breakfast with my husband, and take a leisurely walk to my office.

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