No Thyself

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By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, September 23, 2007

We now come upon Rule No. 43 in our Rules for Living Series: Don't promise more than you can deliver. What, you ask, happened to rules No. 1 through No. 42? Did you miss something? No. I'll get to them. But right now I'm thinking of No. 43.

I am thinking about this one because I have a feeling I've been promising more than I can deliver, and I'm trying to figure out how to de-promise. In my own defense, and in the defense of all my fellow over-promisers, we are a generous people. We promise because our hearts are so vast, our desire to do good -- to give! -- such an overflowing vessel. You know who you are. You say yes a lot. You come up with bright ideas. You become overwhelmed with excitement over the brilliance of your own brainstorms. Homemade guacamole with cilantro from your own garden for the PTA that never asked for snacks. A deluxe PowerPoint presentation for the boss's conference even though you don't know how to use PowerPoint. An anniversary party for your sister at your house with a tent and featuring asparagus tips and champagne, and maybe little cocktail napkins with cute lovebird sayings.

Here's a recent example. In fact, this do-gooder, a dear friend, is the one who taught me Rule No. 43, although she herself did not call it that. She stopped over one day. She said, "Hey, let's take the kids ice skating." I said my kids didn't know how to ice skate. She said her three kids didn't, either. She said, "Let's see if the rink offers lessons." She got out the phone book and became understandably excited that she could sign up all five of our kids for a lesson later that day. "It was meant to be!"

I told her I had planned to get some work done that day; I had a few conference calls scheduled. She said she'd take my kids, make a day of it. In fact, she'd been wanting a birthday present idea for my kids, so why not just stop at the sporting goods store first for some skates? I said this was getting complicated. She said what about a movie after the lesson? She said, "Popcorn!" She said, "Raisinets!" My kids, who were overhearing all of this, were doing back flips with excitement, and I have to admit I was feeling the tingle of joy that overcomes a person, of any age, who contemplates playing hooky. I made some calls, rescheduled my conference calls, said, "Let's do it."

An hour later, we were all loading into the car. My friend said, "I'm so tired." I joked that she had burned herself out on the planning stages of this day. She said, "No, I think I might be getting cramps." She said, "You know what, you guys go ahead without me," and handed me her credit card. She said, "I just really need to lie down."

So this is how I ended up schlepping five hyped-up kids to a sporting goods store, an ice skating rink and a movie, by myself, on a day of derailed conference calls. Of course, I could have canceled the plan. But five hyped-up kids were more than I knew how to de-hype. And my friend had planned, at first, to do this alone, so why couldn't I? I remember sitting at the ice skating rink, right after a teenager spilled her nachos on my knee. I remember thinking: I can't even be angry at my friend for putting me in this situation. She hadn't, after all, really put me there. I put myself there. I chose to go. But -- alone? I never would have come up with such a complicated plan for five kids and me -- alone. But my friend's plan was born of generosity and a big heart and big ideas and the hope of making a very special day for our doe-eyed darlings. How could I be mad?

I remember thinking: Don't promise more than you can deliver. Sure, you want to do stuff for others, but if the desire is bigger than the possibility, you have to scale back. Desire vs. possibility. Weigh them. Stop, think. A lot of time desire is 10 and possibility is 2. You have to look at the ratio. Otherwise, you end up booby-trapping your friends, colleagues, family members. You end up with someone you love stuck at an ice skating rink with nacho cheese dripping down her leg.

I am getting better at this, thanks to my commitment to adhering to the principles of Rule No. 43. (I'm nixing the anniversary party.) I turn to the ice skating example a lot, stop, think. The real trick is in the recognition. You need to applaud yourself for even noticing that you have promised too much. As for de-promising, well, there are few options. You just say, "Whoops." And, "I am so sorry." And then you duck out of the thing you said you'd do and close your eyes for cover. Then you promise yourself that you will never, ever over-promise again.

Voila! Have I made myself clear? Are you ready to apply Rule No. 43 to your own life? Are you sure? It requires discipline, some tough love and the acknowledgment that you can, at times, be a person who disappoints. Hey, you're human. It's okay! Just promise to never, ever over-promise again.

What? Huh? You want to know about rules No. 1 through No. 42 in our Rules for Living Series? Oh, did I say I'd go over them, too? Oh, my goodness. Look, we're out of space. I am so sorry.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.


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