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

by | Nov 4, 2008

In a garden and a business, there are actions appropriate to every season. A wise gardener doesn’t panic because autumn has arrived, nor does she pave over her vegetable patch when it snows.

Though I wrote the following article several years ago, I think it has special relevance today. Financial markets are subject to cycles, and just as surely autumn has hit Wall Street, spring will return and business will recover.

While the next 12 months are likely to be challenging for those of us who are or want to be self-employed, there are real opportunities during down markets. When business is slow, there is time to educate yourself, to deepen your understanding of what you have to offer, and to create products and services that your clients will hunger for when the season changes.

I hope you enjoy this piece, and I welcome your comments.

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.

Far from being the harbinger of ill fortune, autumn prompts 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, “Slow down.”

When we resist the bitter sweetness of autumn, we live as though fall were a problem and spring the solution.

This 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 the 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.

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 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.

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 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.