I had only enough money to last two more weeks. And the lease on the tiny furnished apartment I had rented for a month was about to expire. So, basically, I had one week to find an apartment and a job. I was twenty-three years old, jobless, and about to be homeless in New York City.
And as odd as it sounds, I wasn’t worried. I mean, how hard could it be? A week should be plenty of time, I thought. I was young and naive and from Ohio, where people pretty much say what they mean, do what they say, and assume that the shortest distance between two points really is a straight line. We also tend to believe that, on the whole, things work out the way they’re supposed to. A few days before my lease was up, I told all three of my friends, who were smart native New Yorkers, that my time for job searching and apartment finding was almost over. They were horrified. “Gail, it takes weeks, sometimes months, to find an apartment here. You’ll probably get a job, but talk about cutting it close! Are you crazy?”
I wasn’t crazy. It just had never occurred to me that it would be hard. And, as it turned out, it wasn’t. I had decided that I wanted to work at one of the television networks—NBC, ABC, or CBS—and had, with my “exuberant persistence,” as one interviewer put it, scored interviews with all three. The nicest person I met was a guy named Tom Swafford, who was the director of community affairs at WCBS-TV. At the end of the interview, he said, “Well, Gail, one way or the other, we’re going to hire you. Call me in two weeks.”
Sure enough, I called Tom on the appointed day, and he said, “Gail, I’ve got a job for you. I’m making you manager of the Channel Two film library. One hundred and fifty dollars a week.” I was beyond thrilled. Now all I needed was an apartment. It was Monday, but I found the Sunday New York Times real estate classifieds in a trash basket. Under apartments for rent, I read, “74th St. off Prk; studio, 3rd fl wkup; avlb immed.” I called and spoke to a Mr. Mullins, who said to come on over. It was just one room, with a minuscule kitchen that you had to walk through to get to the bathroom, but I loved it. “How much is it?” I asked. “One hundred and seventy-five dollars a month,” Mr. Mullins answered. “Well, I can only pay $150,” I said. (I had been told you should spend only a week’s pay for a month’s rent.) He paused for a moment, looked me over, and said, “You seem like a nice enough girl. You can have it for $150.”
So I skidded in under the wire with both a job and a place to live. “You are ridiculously lucky,” one friend said. Another girl, who turned out to be a lifelong pal and who was wise beyond her years, said, “No, it’s not really luck. Gail is just too simple to make things complicated.” Being simple, I decided to take that as a compliment.
Now, here’s the problem: I’ve grown up (sort of), and I’ve learned a lot over the past few decades. I’ve become a bit less naive, and at times my “exuberant persistence” fades. In fact, there are times when I seem to be asking myself, How hard, how complicated, how overwhelmingly difficult, can I make this? (Maybe I’m not spending enough time in Ohio.) I have to catch myself almost every day. Not long ago, when I was trying to figure out what to wear to the Financial Women’s Association annual dinner, I realized that I had fallen into the “How hard can I make it?” trap. I was going to sit on the dais with some pretty snazzy women, and I wanted to look good. Perfect, actually. I made a list of different outfits: a red dress, a yellow dress with a jacket, a simple navy suit—the list went on. But I didn’t stop there. I also drew little pictures of each outfit, along with the shoes I would wear and the bag I would carry. And still I couldn’t figure out what to wear. My daughter Abigail, who is twenty-five, straightened me out. “Why are you making this so hard?” she said. “The invitation says, ‘Business attire.’ Just wear the navy suit and have a good time, OK?” Well, I wore the navy suit, which was fine, met some truly terrific women, and had a marvelous time.
Why do we do that? Why do we insist on doing it the hard way when the easy way will do? I think it’s because the more we learn, the more “educated” we become, and the more analysis we engage in, the more we set the stage for all the possible pitfalls to present their ugly selves in living color. Next thing we know, we’ve analyzed ourselves into a straitjacket. We get so consumed by the negative possibilities that we become inert. I wish I could say I have learned my lesson and don’t fall into the “How hard can I make it?” trap anymore. But, boy, would that be telling “a Tom Pepper,” as we call little white lies in our family. In fact, Abigail was so fed up with my “What will I wear?” dilemma that she said, “You know, you ought to write about this, Mom. Maybe you could help yourself along with some other people.”
So let’s learn this together. Let’s decide now that whenever a situation presents itself (a situation with our children or parents, a dinner party to prepare, a change of office space or homes, a vacation or a wedding to plan, a job to find—you name it), we will hold on for one second before we start piling on all the possible pitfalls and instead ask this question: “How simple, how straightforward, how really easy could I make this?”
Now, a few demons will have to be beaten down to accomplish this.
Demon Number One: Perfectionism
Forget it. The solution is not going to be perfect, and you’re not going to be perfect. To aspire to making things perfect is to court discord among family and friends. And, anyway, perfectionism is totally overrated. Perfect people are too hard to relate to. We’ve all been to dinner at people’s homes (maybe even our own) where the hostess was so exhausted from her efforts to create the perfect party that we almost felt like telling her to go upstairs and lie down, right? It’s no fun for anyone.
Which brings me to Demon Number Two: Don’t think you have to do it alone
Big mistake. The minute you hear yourself say, “You go ahead. I’ll do it. Don’t worry about me,” you’re in trouble. Nobody likes a martyr. Involve as many people as you can in any effort you undertake. And, no, they may not do things as well as you would, but since we’re not looking for perfection, it won’t matter.
And, finally, Demon Number Three: When something goes wrong, don’t get upset — roll with it
If something goes awry with the party, the move, the program, the presentation, or whatever (and something will), don’t get angry or even disappointed. Just go with it; be amused. We love people who “lean into it” when little and not-so-little things go wrong. One of the best dinner parties I ever went to was a cookout last summer where the family chef ran out of propane. The barbecued chicken was nowhere near done, but all the other elements of the meal were ready, and it was getting late. One of the guests said under his breath, “Uh-oh, they’ve got a problem.” But the chef and his wife just looked at each other and burst out laughing. “This is easy!” they said. “We’re going to reverse the order of this dinner. We’re starting with dessert, which will be a great change, don’t you think? And we’re ending with good old oven-roasted chicken.” Everyone laughed and applauded and dived into the strawberry shortcake. A year later, we’re still raving about that dinner. If it had all gone right, if it had been “perfect,” we would have forgotten about it.
So what will it be? Hard or easy? Simple or complicated? Perfect or really wonderful? The livin’ is supposed to be easy. Let’s make it that way. If I can do it, I guarantee you can, too.
Reprinted from Real Simple.com. Written by Gail Blanke