HOW MAL LEARNED TO COOK ARTICHOKES
THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN’T GIVE IN OR BACK DOWN.
No problem! I once knew a woman who lived her life by those words, and the life she had was magnificent. Mal Johnson was a journalist and civil rights activist who befriended me when I was just getting started and struggling to find the right direction for my career. We met when my husband, also a journalist, surprised me by inviting her to dinner. At the end of the evening, Mal invited us to visit Washington and stay with her at her condo in the Watergate.
She was the most exciting person I’d ever met. She was also the most inspiring, as she told her stories of the battles she’d won. If Mal could do all of the things she did, I could too. If she had the courage to face any obstacle and say, “No problem,” so could I.
When she was young, her husband was in the military and they were sent from the East coast, where Mal had a teaching position, to a base in California where there was a glut of teachers and she couldn’t get a job. She told her husband, it was no problem. She would find a different job.
He said, “But you don’t know how to do anything.”
She picked up the job ads. “Don’t worry about it,” she told him, “I’ll find a job. Here, look at this one.” It was an ad for a chef at a private estate. “I can do that.”
“What are you talking about? You can’t boil water!”
“Don’t you worry about it. I’ll learn.”
Mal talked her way into the job. It was for an heiress who was accustomed to fine food. No problem. Mal invested in a gourmet cookbook and started her job.
She stashed the cookbook in the servant’s powder room off the kitchen. When she was told what was wanted for dinner, Mal slipped into the powder room, wrote the recipes on three-by-five cards, and returned to the kitchen. Then, one the day the lady brought in a bag of things Mal had never seen before. “Mal, I have a guest coming for dinner tonight. This is his favorite. I know you have the menu planned, but please cook these as well.”
Mal looked at the things. She had no idea what they were. No problem; she would figure it out how to cook these ugly green things that didn’t even look edible as soon as she found out what they were.
She telephoned her husband at the base, described the things, and asked him to go to the base library and look through books until he could find something that looked like them. “You’re going to get caught now for sure,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it. Just find it and tell me what it is.”
He called half an hour later. “I think I have it. It’s an artichoke. Mal, you’ve never heard of these things. This is the end!”
“No, it’s not. I’ll do it. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
It was better than fine. Mal served the dish to the artichoke connoisseur, who announced that they were the finest he’d ever eaten, and asked for her recipe.
“I’m so happy you like them, and I’d love to give you the recipe, but I can’t. You see, it was my grandmother’s recipe, and she made me promise I’d never let it out of the family. But I’ll cook them for you anytime.”
During my time with Mal, she told story after story about her victories over life’s circumstances. One of my favorite stories is about how she learned to drive a car. Mal’s husband died young, leaving her with little money, but a new car that friends told her to sell. She needed the money, and she had never learned to drive.
Mal wouldn’t hear of it. “I looked at that brand new automobile sitting out front, and I made up my mind I would learn to drive it, and I’d learn it by myself. I went out and bought a book.” I stopped her and said I didn’t even know there was a book on how to drive. “Of course there is. There’s a book on how to do anything you want to learn.”
“I learned to drive at four o’clock in the morning. I studied my book until I was pretty sure I knew what to do. Then I set my clock for four a.m. and went out driving. I kept it up until I was good enough to take my test.”
Mal went on, from teacher and chef, to become a journalist, travel the world as the United States’ first black female White House Correspondent, accompany Richard Nixon on a trip to China, and be inducted into the Journalists Hall of Fame. She was 76 years old when she started her own media consulting firm. The last time I saw her, a few months before she died, at 83 she was busy planning for the next women’s summit.
Mal proved the power of a no-problem attitude. It says, “Don’t present reasons why I can’t, because I’m going to.” With that, you can go wherever you want to go.
I love words, learning them, experimenting with them, and listening to how other people use them. A few weeks ago I shared some words (Really? Wow! You’re kidding!) that have made my life more interesting because people have fantastic stories to tell, and these responses encourage them to keep telling them to me. You can win people every day if you know the magic words.
These two little words have muscles. They can end hostilities, defuse conflicts, relieve stress, help in navigating all kinds of relationships, and lead to success.
THE TWO MOST POWERFUL WORDS FOR SUCCESS IN LIFE – AND BUSINESS ARE “NO PROBLEM.”