I’m an aspiring vegetable gardener, and this year I managed to grow an astonishing quantity of lush, ripe tomatoes. Where I live, it is not unusual for tomatoes to languish on the vine, pining for sun and warmth that never comes, so the bounty of this harvest grabs and holds my attention.
Every day or two I go out to the garden and gather the ripest fruit. I marvel at the daily abundance and scurry to put it to good use. Even after sharing with our neighbors, my counter is mounded with plump red globes. I make and freeze tomato sauce; I keep picking.
Even as I exult in my tomato wealth, I notice that the leaves of the neighboring squash and cucumber vines are turning yellow. The beans have stopped the wild clambering skyward and are slumping against their poles, sinking toward the ground. At the peak of this perfect harvest, my garden is dying.
In life and work, we often experience great abundance at the very moment that our fortunes appear to decline. Sometimes the decline is the result of external events. Sometimes, just as we achieve the pinnacle of our aspirations, something in us begins to whisper that winter is coming.
If we don’t have a context for it, this can be deeply unsettling. We may conclude that there is something wrong with us, with our work, with our relationships. We may accuse ourselves or others of lacking focus, fearing failure, self sabotage. In fact, it may simply be that autumn has come to our soul and our businesses.
In autumn an inner prompting urges us to gather in the last fruits of summer and to prepare for the dark work of hibernation and renewal. It is time to slow down, to pull back, to change course at the very moment that the world around us cries: “Way to go! Do it again! Don’t change a thing!” Just as the squash in my garden produces blossoms that cannot possibly mature before winter kills the vine, so our minds continue to generate new ideas and projects in spite of dwindling resources. All the while Spirit whispers, “Please stop.”
Each August the changing light ushers in a sweet melancholy. For many years I struggled with feelings of sadness and loss as the days grew shorter. With time, I found a tiny flame of joy flickering at the heart of melancholy, and this year, as I welcomed the sensations and moods of fall, I discovered a current of purest bliss in surrendering to the changing season.
Three times I’ve experienced the turning of seasons in my business. Three times I’ve achieved a rich harvest only to feel a pull in my belly that said, “Stop. This is not who you are anymore.” The first time I fought that pull, and I suffered through many months of flailing. The next two times I surrendered, and while it still took time for spring to come, I was able to sustain my business (and it me) through the dark season until a new offer was born.
When we resist the bitter sweetness of autumn’s arrival, we live as though fall were a problem and spring the solution. This causes unnecessary suffering and reduces our capacity to notice and respond to the unique opportunities and challenges of the darker seasons. When spring does arrive, we are exhausted from railing against the winter (and we may become drunk on the sun).
How different it is to know that when passion, conviction, and stamina are waning, there may be nothing amiss. It is only autumn, come to remind us to enjoy the harvest and prepare for winter.
How do we do this? First, we must allow room for the complex mood of this season by savoring both celebration and loss. We name and acknowledge the fruits of the past season, even as we embrace the possibility that our old way of working is passing away.
Too often, we polarize our experience, feeling we must choose between celebrating the old and committing to the new. In truth, our new ventures will be born in the cradle of the old. So, in autumn, we take time to notice and mark our successes, appreciating what worked and letting our failures teach us. We revel in whatever recognition we have earned, and we humbly accept correction.
Fall is a time of completion, so it is well to attend to the details of existing. Collect monies owed; pay the bills. Clean out files; finish reports; remove clutter. Trim expenses so that your business can be sustained on a leaner, wintertime cash flow.
Just as it is folly to plant corn out of season, so we will be cautious about making new commitments or starting new projects. Our just-past successes will likely throw off the seeds of many more new ventures than we can possibly support, so we will wisely collect these seeds for planting at a more auspicious time.
A gardener protects and nourishes the topsoil by planting cover crops or applying mulch. We invest time in training to develop the underlying skills that will be needed when spring and summer roll around.
In the US, the notion of autumn goes against our cultural biases with respect to success. Success (we are told) is a function of setting goals, defining objectives, taking action, measuring progress, refining your choices, and repeating. While true in part, this approach pretends that spring and summer make a year. It suggests that you can plant a garden in mid-winter if only you use enough fertilizer.
Every gardener knows better. To every thing there is a season, and planting out of season is folly. Learn to recognize the arrival of autumn and to make the most of the turning seasons. This is how to be ready when spring returns.
PRACTICE: How can you know when it is fall and not failure that is slowing your pace and blurring the edges of your plans? One way is to notice how it feels to read this article. What sensations are showing up in your body as you imagine surrendering to a seasonal transition? What emotions arise as you contemplate the possibility that all is well? What tasks seem natural and appropriate when you consider that winter may be around the corner, and that hibernation would prepare you for a fertile spring? Writing your answers to these questions will help you develop the discernment to recognize and respond to business cycles.
Invite your staff to consider the metaphor of autumn. How do priorities change? How will success be measured in this season? What do they need from you and from each other to make the most of this phase of the cycle?