Your ducks are not in a row and that’s OK

April 21, 2022

by Ravi Raman

The snow has finally melted here in Minnesota. More than that, the first fresh green shoots of new growth are visible, though you need to strain a bit to see them. The hostas in our backyard look bleak, a drooping pile of dead leaves, but deep green new growth is lurking and barely visible under a thin blanket of mulch. The same goes for the birch tree outside my office window. Its deathly appearance belies its health.

I’m used to gardening and more generally watching nature. To say my mom has a green thumb is an understatement. As a kid, we would grow tropical plants in the middle of northern Pennsylvania (despite freezing cold winters!) in a greenhouse. Most of my summer days were spent tending to a large garden or staring at trees in our yard as if by force of will I could get the fruit trees to produce fruit faster.

A gardener, even a reluctant one such as myself, gets used to trusting nature. Things can look bleak before any bounty arrives. Progress is not linear. The same holds for progress in careers and business.

When I first left the safe confines of a salaried job, I went through a few dark nights (a few years actually) of the soul. The thing about big companies is that they have a predictable rhythm. Performance reviews, business reviews, strategy reviews, predictable direct-deposit paychecks, company-provided health insurance, and the like.

Even though, and particularly in Tech, there are massive uncertainties in the product and business environments, there is a methodical “hummmmmm” to the rhythms of daily work-life that keep things moving forward at a metronomic pace. Such a rhythm can make you think that progress should always be predictable, linear, and rhythmic.

Working for yourself, particularly creating something from scratch, requires a different type of outlook. My experience was one of burning through savings while wondering if what I offered would be as helpful as I hoped, and whether the level of “help” would be sufficient for clients to justify the investment. Moreover, would I even enjoy doing something I loved to do as a past-time as my full-time vocation?

As I got to work calling myself a “Coach”, it required letting go of having my ducks in a row and praying at the altar of performance reviews, bonuses, metrics, and processes. I found that insights came on their own accord, often unplanned. I also found that progress (financial or otherwise), while somewhat predictable with enough of a long-term timescale (annually viewed) was completely misleading when observed on a monthly (or even quarterly) basis.

Looking backward I can see that at the very times when my ducks weren’t in a row, I was on the verge of a breakthrough. When I thought my new career choice as a Coach wouldn’t work (due to unpredictability of client work, not wanting to be on Zoom all day, fundamental issues with the methods I was using to coach, etc.) I would end up with clarity that moved me forward. It has gotten to the point that I don’t expect my ducks to be in a row, and don’t care if they are. If it happens, great, but having life progress predictably doesn’t seem to be how the universe works.

What does any of this have to do with gardening?

I think gardening – or just being an observer of nature – helps you zoom in and out, gaining a helpful perspective on the varied and rhythmic nature of things. My hostas, planted by the previous homeowner, aren’t dead, they just appear dead on the surface. I now know that the more dead they look in the winter, the more bountiful the growth in the spring. The birch tree outside my window also looks pretty dead, but I know it certainly is not. I’m also ready for some surprise plants to emerge, as we are in a new home and have no idea what bulbs and other perennials are lurking underground.

I don’t know where things seem chaotic or withering in your career, but it helps to zoom out for perspective. There is a difference between something really being a lost cause, and the circumstance simply requiring some patience for growth to happen on its own accord, even if it isn’t on the time scale you expect.

Let your ducks waddle about. Trying to keep them in a row takes too much work, and isn’t possible anyway.

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