Seasons of Success: How to Use Bad Times to Cultivate a New Harvest

by | Jul 25, 2011


I’m an avid vegetable gardener, and a few years ago 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 went out to the garden and gathered the ripest fruit. I marveled at the daily abundance and scurried to put it to good use. Even after sharing with our neighbors, my counter was mounded with plump red globes. I made and froze tomato sauce; I kept picking.

Even as I exulted in my tomato wealth, I noticed that the leaves of the neighboring squash and cucumber vines were turning yellow. The beans had stopped the wild clambering skyward and were slumping against their poles, sinking toward the ground. At the peak of this perfect harvest, my garden was dying.

Abundance and decline are part of the same cycle

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 you don’t have a context for it, this can be deeply unsettling. You may conclude that there is something wrong with you, with your work, with your relationships. You may accuse yourselfs or others of lacking focus, fearing failure, self-sabotage. In fact, it may simply be that autumn has come to your soul and your businesses.

Far from being the harbinger of ill fortune, autumn prompts you 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 you 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 your mind continues to generate new ideas and projects in spite of dwindling resources. All the while Spirit whispers, “Slow down.”

Fall is not a problem to be solved

When you resist the bitter sweetness of autumn, you live as though fall were a problem and spring the solution. This reduces your capacity to notice and respond to the unique opportunities and challenges of the darker seasons. When spring does arrive, you are exhausted from railing against the winter (and you 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 you to enjoy the harvest and prepare for winter.

The art of the seasons

How do you do this? First, allow room for the complex mood of the season by savoring both celebration and loss. Name and acknowledge the fruits of the past season, even as you embrace the possibility that your old way of working is passing away.

Fall is a time of completion, a time to pick up the pieces. Collect monies owed; pay the bills. Organize files; finish reports; remove clutter. Trim expenses so that your world can be sustained on a leaner, wintertime cash flow.

Just as it is folly to plant corn out of season, so you will be cautious about making new commitments or starting new projects. Your just-past successes will likely throw off the seeds of many more new ventures than you can possibly support, so you 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. So invest time in training to develop the underlying skills that will be needed when spring and summer roll around.

Success has seasons, too

Success (we are often 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 everything 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.