“Working Women Wednesday” is a series in which we profile leaders in their field, shedding light on who they are and how they’ve achieved success.
As the editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Living, Elizabeth Graves oversees a magazine that touches on all aspects of life. Born in Milwaukee to New York transplants, she credits her upbringing in the Midwest as giving her the perspective necessary to successfully command an East Coast-based publication with national reach. Read what she has to say about the lessons she learned during childhood, the one thing every home should have, and the value of time off below.
Is there a lesson you learned during childhood that you continue to carry with you in a professional context?
My Midwestern upbringing always reminds me to look at the country in a broader sense. I feel like the people I knew there, my friends and family, are often my barometer. I think, “Would this story inspire them? Would they do this? Is this too much money?” A Midwestern perspective is a practical one, and I’ve always carried that with me as an editor. It’s helped me understand how people outside of New York live and enabled me to create stories that they hopefully find useful. I mean, I wouldn’t want to constantly be doing stories on clambakes when I know that’s not something the entire country does.
What does “home” mean to you?
Home is where my family is. When I’m in New York with my husband and son, that’s home; when we go back to Wisconsin and are with my mom, that’s also certainly home. It’s where I recharge and find comfort surrounded by things I love.
Is there one thing that you think every home should have?
A perch. Everyone needs a place in their home where they can go and regroup, that they’ve cultivated and made their own. Whether that’s a reading nook or a window to look out while having a cup of coffee, it should be a place for respite from those daily stressors we all face.
And where’s your perch?
A very wide windowsill in my apartment. My son is little—he just turned three—so I love to sit there with him on my lap, and we’ll look at the Empire State Building every night. We’ll see what color she is and just kind of… observe the expanse of the city.
It would be entirely possible to work 24 hours a day if you didn’t prioritize and focus on the things you really needed to do and feel fulfilled by.
Has being a mother changed your approach to your career?
It’s made me more efficient, I think, because I’m very cognizant of [my son’s] time. I work hard, and I work long hours, and I’m kind of always available, for better or worse. I want to get stuff done, and I want to get home to him. It’s a good reminder of why I do what I do and that I’m very lucky. In a lot of ways, what I do is very much intertwined with my life outside of the office—all of the things you can experience as a family.
What do you need around you in your office to do your best work?
I don’t need a lot. There are a few objects that I brought in from home and a pitcher of water to remind myself to hydrate, but I don’t like working around a lot of clutter. I prefer an open expanse to work in, and I was that way as a freelance writer too. If I had a really big assignment, the first thing I would do was clean the house and then get down to work. When I’m organized then everything is right with the world.
Any prized objects?
There are a few pieces of Catalina Pottery, which I collected for a while after I went to Catalina Island on assignment years ago. Then there are a few stacks of coffee table books.
What are the books at the top of the stacks?
Life of a Pattern by Neisha Crosland, lots of Martha books, Collected by Fritz Karch and Rebecca Robertson…
When do you say no?
I guess it depends on what the situation is. When I say no at work, it’s because I’m focusing on the brand and things that will move the needle. There are so many things to do these days that you could easily get caught up in just fielding requests and doing them, so it’s important for me to decide what’s useful, what’s inspiring, and what will make for a good story. And whatever I do needs to check off more than one of those things in order for it to be worth the time and effort. I also always trust my gut in order to keep my priorities in line. It’s entirely possible to work 24 hours a day if you didn’t prioritize and focus on the things you really need to do and feel fulfilled by. Otherwise you’ll feel so harried that you can’t enjoy life, and for me, and for everyone who works on my staff, it’s incredibly important to actually have a life when you’re working at a magazine that has “living” in the title.
That in mind, what your thoughts are when it comes to time off?
It’s important, but I know myself well enough to know that I’ll need to check email. So I say, “Okay, you’re going to check in the morning, and then you’re going to check at 5 p.m., and that’s going to be it.” It’s important for everyone to respect everyone’s time and to understand the need to get away. Most people have a story of a manager who really didn’t respect vacation or believe that you should take it, and I never want to be that person, especially given the content that we cover.