If you’re looking for lessons on living and giving, look to the garden and the natural laws that govern it.
Take the growth cycle of perennial plants, for example. They don’t just pop out of the ground full-sized and sprouting lush foliage. On the contrary, there’s an evolving, three-phase process that’s essential for the plant’s long-term success.
According to the old growers’ maxim, the first year a plant is put in the ground, it typically “sleeps.” Or at least it looks that way to observers. That’s because, beneath the surface, the plant is dealing with the shock of being placed into unfamiliar surroundings. It is getting reoriented and putting virtually all of its energy into establishing its root system.
Although it may not look like much to us, that fledgling root system is essential to the plant absorbing the nutrients it will need to grow to full size and to achieve its full capacity for production.
In its second year, a plant typically “creeps.” Its root system is now partially developed, so if the plant likes its surroundings and is getting good nutrition, it’s capable of devoting about half its energy to putting out new foliage. Each new leaf gives it a better opportunity to soak up sunshine, and a better capacity for photosynthesis.
But each new leaf also demands a certain amount of sustenance from below. Accordingly, the plant is cautious about overproducing, and continues to devote about half its energy to expanding its subterranean roots.
In year three, with a strong root system fully established, and its major stems already in place, a healthy plant “leaps.” Within the span of a single season, it can go from looking spindly to splendid, expanding to several times its original size and producing an abundance of foliage, fruits or blooms.
If you’re the gardener in question, this year’s activity probably feels like the payoff for a couple of years’ worth of patient labor. This is also the phase where the plant starts getting attention from others. People may ooh and ahh over the plant’s “sudden” bounty or, if they’ve been watching it grow over the past couple of years, admire how far it has come.
What’s fun, at this stage, is to celebrate all that hard-won progress and to be able to provide people you care about with flowers and produce. You might even offer them cuttings they can sprout, plant and grow in their own gardens. But you can’t stop watering and fertilizing now, and you can’t cut too much off the top, or you’ll find your lush plant looking bedraggled.
I think the metaphor is pretty clear to this point: We’re a lot like plants in all these ways. It takes some time for us to get established, and some resources for us to develop properly, and during our early developmental phases — while we are finding our bearings and developing our capacity — it may not look like we are producing much. If we try to produce or give away too much before we’re ready, our growth will be stunted.
But when we put ourselves in the right environment and invest patiently and with enough focus on what we really need to develop fully, we eventually get to a place of balance and joy where it’s easy and fun to give to others, and where we become a valuable resource to the world around us.
When everything is good — when you’ve built a base of good health, a loving circle of family and friends, a satisfying career, solid finances, deep self-knowledge and authentic self-expression — there is no greater joy than sharing the fruits of all this good stuff with others, and helping them to grow, too.
In life, as in the rest of nature, though, there are cycles. At times, we may find ourselves uprooted or shaken, or simply drained from too much unsupported output. Attempting to give our best in these times when we are not at our best can be a recipe for disaster.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of creating a balance — of giving and receiving, seeking and sharing, working and recovering — over the many seasons of our lives.
If you are determined to give your own very best, don’t give until it hurts. Instead, give until it feels good. Remember to periodically assess your root system of life-supporting relationships and daily practices. Take a look at the environments you’ve put yourself in and ask if they are the right ones for you. Consider whether you are growing and giving in the directions that give you the most satisfaction.
Above all, be patient with yourself. You’ve got a lot of great growing seasons still to come.
Bahram Akradi is the founder and CEO of Life Time Fitness.