The Five-Second Solution to Mind-Bending Pressure

It was spring 1980 in the Illinois Statehouse, and the legislature was debating, once again, whether or not to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution. The seven-year window was closing with three states still needed to ratify the amendment.

Illinois was in the national spotlight. Liberals argued vociferously for gender-blind equality, while conservatives charged the ERA would force women into combat and destroy the family. Several previous efforts had been quashed by political infighting and the daunting, opposition-spearheaded requirement that a three-fifths, super majority of the Illinois legislature was needed for approval.

Lesson for a Cub Reporter
A cub reporter with the statehouse press corps, I was interning for the local NPR affiliate, and it was my assignment to cover the ERA debate—not only for our station, but also as a stringer for NPR.

Exciting, yes. Depressing, too, in the end, because ratification failed, once again, due to horse trading and political power grabs.

Most of all, it was a lot of pressure for a newbie public radio producer/reporter.

One afternoon in our little closet of a statehouse studio, minutes before All Things Considered would air, I was polishing off a report about breaking ERA developments. I’d reviewed it with my NPR editor, John Ydstie—then a new associate producer for Midwest coverage, now one of the network’s award-winning correspondents—on the phone from Washington, and it was time to record the story, a one-minute update for the opening national newscast. We had a hookup through phone lines, and as I rehearsed the script, John was listening and speaking into my ear through headphones.

Some of the Best Advice I’ve Ever Received
I was really, really nervous. The big wall clock’s black minute hand clicked to the top of the hour. It was already time for ATC’s opening music. I had to get it right on the first take.

At that moment, John gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. In a very zen-like voice, he said, “Just breathe.”

Somehow, those magic words and his calm tone enabled me to do just that—take a deep breath, clear my head and do a perfect recording. The piece aired minutes later, one more bit of news on another busy day.

Though the details of my report are buried somewhere in my brain, the lesson of that day is as clear now as it was more than 30 years ago, especially as it applies to the creative process.

Under Pressure, Maintain Focus in the Present Moment
At moments of intensity—whether it be a demanding performance, the stressful ebb and flow of change and uncertainty, a creative block—take that moment to breathe, get clear and focus on the present.

Just that slightest of mental vacations can be enough for you to ace your performance, discover the glimmerings of a solution or simply find sure footing for the next step on your creative journey.

And even when one breath isn’t enough, keep breathing. The Equal Rights Amendment was written by suffragette Alice Paul and introduced to Congress in 1923. Despite many setbacks, 35 of the needed 38 states have ratified the amendment; the ERA has been reintroduced to Congress in every session since the extended ratification deadline expired in 1982. The latest effort, H.J. Res. 47, would remove the ERA’s ratification deadline and make it part of the Constitution when three more states ratify. The battle is far from over.






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