An Interview With the Writer, Speaker, Artist, and Former Oil Executive: Luci Swindoll

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Luci Swindoll’s mission statement comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and she’s pleased to recite it:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

For 30 years, Luci was a cartographer for Mobil Oil Corporation, during which time she sang opera professionally. She still drafts, draws, travels, writes and speaks to 350,000 women a year in Women of Faith arena events.

Thirty years with Mobil Oil and no marriage suggest that Luci married work, but a look around at the art, books, and photos in her new house says otherwise. So does her twelfth and newest book, Notes to a Working Woman: Finding Balance, Passion, and Fulfillment in Your Life, published in 2005 by W Publishing, a division of Thomas Nelson.

In the first half of Notes, Luci lays out life-work principles. In the second half, she interviews five fellow Christian working women: entrepreneur and artist Andrea Grossman, recording company owner and singer CeCe Winans, newscaster Peggy Wehmeyer, author Anne Lamott, and Women of Faith President Mary Graham. In this interview, we ask Luci about her own life and work.

Begin with the obvious, Luci: why this book?

Because I was asked to write it while I was still an employee at Mobil. Notes revives a book I wrote in the ‘80s, After You’ve Dressed for Success, basically about building character instead of a career. Also, since I was at Mobil 30 years, a lot of people are asking me about my philosophy of working, and this book is my answer.

You went to work in the 1950s, when most professional women were nurses or teachers, and you entered a dominantly male industry. What were you thinking?

I never set out to do something different or unique. I always just wanted to be myself—at home, at work, as an opera singer . . . whatever. I didn’t want to play games or perform.

How did you form your ideas about management?

I had friends at the office who, once they became the boss, turned into something else . . . intimidating and demanding. If I’m ever a boss, I thought, I would do it from the position of love and care and promotion. A real leader is one who is able to encourage people and get them out of the nest toward something better.

Where did you get those ideas about leadership?

From my father, a wonderful leader and the hero of my life. He put a lot of emphasis on fairness. He never wanted limelight, just to help people to do their best. My father also told me it was important to be a jack of all trades. If you know something about everything, he’d say, you can cope with anything. But if you master only one thing, how do you cope with everything else in life?

Would you say “jack of all trades” was the best advice he gave you?

No, the best advice he gave me was about money. When I was about ten or twelve, I borrowed $7 from each of my brothers to buy a kit to build a model airplane and boat. I opened the box and laid it all out. Mother came in and sort of rolled her eyes. But my dad said, “This is great, honey. You’re going to love making this! But where did you get the money for it?” I told him I borrowed it from Bubba and Babe, and Dad said, “How will you pay it back?” I had no idea. Then he said, “Let me tell you something about money,” and he held up one hand with his fingers wide apart. He said: “Every dollar you ever get, if you spend some, save some, tithe some, invest some and give some away, (ticking off each finger . . . you’ll always have money and you’ll always enjoy money.” I never forgot that and to this day I call it my five-finger exercise. It works!

What kind of pressures did your life bring?

From Christians, I got pressure for not marrying, especially when I was younger. I didn’t get very much pressure in the workplace because I was so integrated. I loved the guys I worked with, loved the job—was challenged by it. Some periods were difficult, but they were the making of me. It wasn’t hard being one of the few women in the petroleum business, even though it’s typically a good ol’ boy system. You just go in with the good ol’ boys, and I knew their families and wives and kids. When my boss retired, he promoted me to his position. I was the first woman in a management position at Mobil’s West Coast Pipelines.

In your book, you say a woman can be in the workforce “without threatening her special gift of womanhood.” What is a woman’s gift and what threatens it?

In a workforce like mine, the petroleum industry, I was the only woman in most meetings, but I was always treated like a lady. The men didn’t curse and tell dirty jokes around me. We all laughed and just had fun. The gift is that you are a lady and when you act like one, you’re treated as one. That was very important to me, but it was not a conscious effort—it was ingrained in me. I was the only girl in the family, but my father treated me like a lady from the day I was born until the day he died. And both of my brothers are complete gentlemen. I think womanhood is a special gift because it has unspoken influence. A business meeting was more dignified and the conversation was lifted if I was there. It’s kind of hard to define, but it has to do with my faith and gender both.

Did you consider your profession a calling?

Yes and no. I don’t really understand callings. I think everyone in life has a calling to be the best they can be before God . . . at home, at work, at play . . . wherever.

In Notes you say you were influenced by biographies of Beverly Sills, Kaylan Pickford, Sophia Loren, Golda Meier . . .

Beverly Sills is chairman of the Metropolitan Opera now and in her mid-seventies. Kaylan Pickford was a model—gray haired gorgeous, divorced, then widowed. Always a Woman is the book she wrote. After I read it back in the 80s, I wrote and told her how much I liked it, and she wrote me back. Then I sent her a copy of my book with a note. She was lovely. When she was 48 years old, she went into modeling because she never looked at herself as being too old to begin. I loved her spirit. Sophia Loren said beauty is tranquility; it comes from within.

Is it easier for you to be a Christian now, working in a Christian environment, than when you were in the mainstream workforce?

It was just as easy in my heart before, nothing about me has changed. Faith is my protoplasm. Without my faith in Christ, I would be a very different person. How I believe and manifest my belief is true to who I am—whether here, at home, or in a foreign country. I’m the same onstage as a Christian speaker as I am here today.

So, no, I don’t feel more Christian because I work in a Christian environment now. I feel exactly the same as I did at Mobil Oil. It’s very important to live the way you are inside. Being a Christian should not be constricting; it should be the essence of freedom because Christ came to set us free.

You never wanted to marry?

When I was younger, I didn’t want to marry because I had a million things I wanted to do. A lot of things about me are not transferable. I love my life as it is and I always have.

But it can’t have been easy always bucking convention.

While my high school friends wanted to marry and have a family, I wanted to go to college. While my working friends wanted to buy homes and settle down, I wanted to see the world. While my older friends wanted to retire, I wanted to be in ministry. Of course there were longings, heartaches, disappointments, but my desires for individuation and autonomy were stronger.

As far back as I can remember, I was reared in a family that was very positive and affirming. Both my brothers and I were encouraged to try new things, be ourselves, speak up, join in, have fun, trust God, and not give up. Coming from a household like that, I had a sort of built-in radar that connected with different avenues and challenges, unique to who I was. So, I walked down those roads.

During those years a seemingly unbreakable fiber grew inside me that assured me it was okay to be me. It didn't matter that others preferred the generally sought-after goals. What mattered was that I was happy in my own skin, content with my lot in life, and able to define myself without somebody else in the definition.

How does it feel to be getting older?

Getting older feels wonderful for the most part. Some things can slow the aging process—not worrying, laughing more, giving more of your life away. Being interested in everything—that’s way up on the list of what makes life glorious and youthful.

What about retirement?

I’d like to do it but can’t get to it.

In each Notes” interview, you ask that person to explain what some hymn means to her. What is your life hymn?

Trust and Obey. "When we walk with the Lord in the light of his word, what a glory He sheds on our way . . ." Though the way is narrow or small, He gives us light. An illumination goes before us because we walk in what we know is right. I’ve been doing it a long time. I can move in the glory He’s shone on my way. He deals in grace, not law. When we do His good will, He abides with us. We feel His abiding. Blessing comes. A blessing is like a good bath.

As an interviewer, what’s your favorite question to ask?

"What do you know for sure?" I first heard Oprah ask it and I thought it was wonderful.

And what do you know for sure?

Oh, many things—I am happy in my own skin. Jesus loves me, and I have a future with Him. Life is the greatest gift ever given. The world is full of fun and surprises. We’re the product of our choices. It takes a village to do anything well. We have only time, energy, and money to spend, so handle all three wisely. The richest life isn’t about wealth or prestige—it’s about love and caring. We only have what we give away. I’m rich. If I didn’t have a penny in the bank, I’d be a millionaire until the day I die. Everything has been paid for me; I’m the recipient of the One who became poor so I’d be rich. With Christ everything starts with life abundant: revel in it and doors will open. Will it be easy? No, but you will have Someone with you all the time—giving you life and breath and hope and joy. You can’t know ecstasy without knowing crucifixion. You can’t know health unless you have been sick. You can’t know victory unless you’ve known loss. You have no basis of comparison unless you’ve experienced opposites. I have worked hard to get the wrinkles on this face and to get to this stage. I’m very happy in the confines of a screwed-up world and a lot of challenges. Every day I draw in breath I say to myself, this is a gift. If God takes me today, I’m going right into His presence, and it gets even better.

But until then I want to be totally me, so that when I'm with the Lord face to face, it is my own life that I lay down and not the prefabrication of one who always tried to be somebody else.