The Art of Doing

What a Teenage Sailor Taught Me About Dealing with Stress

Jessica Watson on her 2010 voyage around the world

I’ve fantasized about being an author since I was five years old so selling a book was a dream come true. But the process of actually writing a book made me feel like I was living in a submarine. After months of researching, wrangling, interviewing, transcribing, writing, editing and endless decision-making, I wondered, “Will I ever get through this?”  I fretted about everything from the tape recorder malfunctioning to the distinct possibility that we were producing something that no one would ever want to read.

Watson’s boat, Ella’s Pink Lady

It was the youngest participant in our book, the Australian Jessica Watson, who told me something that helped me deal with my stress. When Watson was just 11, she heard the tale of a young circumnavigator from her mother, and set a goal to do the same—sail around the world, non-stop, alone. Over the next five years, Watson underwent intensive self-directed research, training and planning. At 16, when most kids are still preoccupied with whatever version of popularity their peer group participates in, Watson set off on a 34-foot boat on a journey to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. When we interviewed her about her voyage she told us,

“The success of your trip is as dependent on your mood as it is on your rigging. You’re down there in the middle of the ocean weeks from land or help. You can’t just say, ‘Okay, I’ve had enough.’ …. If you start thinking, ‘Ohh, it’s wet and it’s cold,’ that little thing turns into a bigger thing. And then you get more upset about that. And that makes you more upset about the next thing. And it snowballs. And soon you’re saying ‘There’s a whole ocean to go.’”

[EXPAND ]When I was in the midst of an authorial panic I’d sometimes think of what Watson had told me about how she’d dealt with all she’d gone through—the storms, a capsized boat, system failures, the boredom, the loneliness and the months and months at sea:

“One of the big tricks when you’re out there is to say, ‘Hey, it’s cold and I’m in a bad mood, but I’m going to get through the day, and eventually I’m going to warm up and feel better.’”

What I learned from her was simple. Breathe, focus on one task at a time and keep a cool head. Or as Watson put it,

“You can’t change the conditions but you can change the way that you deal with them.”

Although some might associate success with a raging Steve Jobs or a disdainful Donald Trump, we were surprised how often the people in our book spoke about their emotions and how managing them was critical to accomplishing their goals. Their emotional struggles were as varied as the people themselves. But like Watson, what they shared, was an awareness of the powerful emotions they felt. And when those emotions compromised their goals, they had the commitment and the skills to examine them and figure out how to cope with them.

Homecoming: On May 15, 2010, 16-year-old Watson sails into Sydney Harbor after 210 days at sea. While a customs officer stamps her passport, she devours whip cream from its nozzle just before joining the Australian Prime Minister in a ceremony. Watson’s first wish back: to get her driver’s license.