Maybe it is because English is not my mother’s first language, but I grew up in a household where slangs and cliches were seldom used. I believe it is because of this that I have been interested in the etymology of certain adages. The expression that emerged for me in getting ready for this presentation is “you’re as old as dirt.” This saying isn’t as hard to decipher as some. Since the dawn of the earth, there has always been dirt. So…if you’re as old as dirt you’re pretty darn old.
When I first traveled to the West Bank, I got in touch with how old dirt actually is. One of the most memorable experiences I had during my journey was my walk to an olive orchard to help farmers harvest their olive trees. The route to the trees was along a barren, rocky, dirt road. It was a narrow path so people had to walk single file. On a number of occasions, it was hard to see the people directly in front of me because of the cloud of dust the was being kicked up around the person. Think pig pen from The Peanuts. I looked down at my own feet and saw how dirty my boots were and began to wonder what other feet have been shrouded by this dirt — prophets, pilgrims, skeptics, believers, war mongers, peace makers. I instantly felt connected to all of these sojourners. It was an emotionally overwhelming moment to imagine my feet walking in the foot prints of my Abrahamic faith ancestors. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dirt as old as dirt.
When my children come home from school or a play date dirty I tell them it is a sign that they’ve had a good time. As their mother my daughters’ filthy clothes and smudgy faces let me know that they have engaged in life in an unencumbered way. They haven’t censored themselves in their play. They have not been limited by the unnecessary caution that keeping clean demands.
I am a psychoanalyst and many of my patients talk to me about getting dirty as a way to express their need to delve into the more difficult aspects of their life. My patients often share with me their frustration that even though they understand certain aspects of themselves they can’t reconcile what they know intellectually with how they feel emotionally. I call it the head and heart disconnect. There is actually a neuropsychological explanation for this that I explain in layman’s terms using dirt and the earth as an exemplar. When we walk through tall grass enough times it gets warn down and establishes a path. Once the path is created, we continue to walk along the dirt path. It is easier than making a new path from tall grass. Our brain is like tall grass. We tend to repeat behaviors, even those that aren’t good for us, because it is a path that has already been worn down. The challenge of therapy is to challenge people to make new paths. Neurons can be redirected to make new path ways but it does take time and it is not always an easy journey traversing along the tall grass in order to get to dirt.
The Parable of the Sower – also known as the Parable of the Four Soils – concerns a sower who scatters seed, which fall on four different types of ground. The hard ground “by the way side” prevents the seeds from sprouting at all, and the seed becomes nothing more than bird food. The stony ground provides enough soil for the seeds to germinate and begin to grow, but because there is no deepness of earth the plants do not take root and are soon withered in the sun. The thorny ground allows the seed to grow, but the competing thorns choke the life out of the beneficial plants. The good ground receives the seed and provides much fruit.
Many biblical scholars have noted that the Parable of the Sower highlights four different responses to the gospel, which I won’t delve into with you tonight. Instead I thought we might think about our internal responses to the way in which we work. Work is any effort directed to produce or accomplish something.
Let’s looks at the four soils again. The hard ground “by the way side” prevents the seed from sprouting at all, and the seed becomes nothing more than bird food. I believe it is safe to say that we’ve all had the experience of going against our gut instincts ending up in a place of regret ruminating on the words “I knew better.” As entrepreneurs we take many calculated risks sometimes using nothing but pure instinct. Have you ever heard yourself say “I just know that this is the right direction for me” or something like it? We often hit hard ground “by the way side” when we go against what we instinctually know. I am not suggesting that the seed of creativity germinating from instinct is always received by the ground nor does it always germinate and grow. However, when we stop trusting ourselves our creative selves become ensnarled in thorny ground and this essential part of what makes us entrepreneurs is deadened because the creative life is chocked out of it.
Before my career as a psychoanalyst, I was a minister. During the first semester of my first year in seminary I said to a friend “I don’t think studying theology is for me. I think I want to be a therapist and not a theologian.” I soon dismissed my instinct as first year jitters and three years later received my Masters of Divinity. I worked for six years in a congregation that I loved and cared about deeply but my longing to be a therapist only intensified as I would refer, when necessary, congregants out to mental health professionals to delve more deeply into their issues. The longing didn’t disrupt my work as a clergy person but it did dampen how I felt about myself. I wrestled with feelings of being a fraud and a hypocrite. I hit hard ground and it became harder and harder to feel good or energized about my work. When I could no longer set a vision for my congregation or plant seeds for future growth I knew it was time to leave my work. It took five years, but I retrained and became a psychoanalyst. I love what I do despite the challenges of running my own small business. My first year was difficult. I had difficulty getting patients and paying my rent. I operated in the red for quite some time. And yet, I felt alive and right. I know I had finally found my vocation.
The second soil. The stony ground provides enough soil for the seeds to germinate and begin to grow, but because there is no deepness of earth the plants do not take root and are soon withered in the sun. I am really struck by the words “deepness of earth.” I live on the ground floor of my building in Brooklyn. As the tenets that live closest to the earth, my family has taken it upon themselves to maintain the front garden. When we first moved in the garden was overridden by weeds. Currently, it is home to some beautiful mums and serves as a burial ground for a few beloved dwarf frogs. As an urban garden exposed to the general public, the garden harvest goes beyond basil and parsley. Digging in the dirt, my children have found a plethora of items; including, a light bulb, keys, a battery, pens, and some broken glass. When we encounter such things I get frustrated and call these things trash. My children, on the other hand, call this bounty treasure. My oldest daughter has even gone so far and has written a story for school about the origins and the journey of the key she found. I see how shallow the earth can be while they see how profoundly deep it goes. As entrepreneurs we need to see how deep the earth is under our feet. Yes, we need to ensure that the seeds — our ideas — we plant can take root and grow. And, we need to dig in the dirt to see just how deep the earth goes.
I work with a number of people who suffer from anxiety. Sometimes if an individual is ruminating on a particular fear, I ask them to talk me through the fear and to try to take the fear to its possible endpoint. Let’s say someone is worried that their spouse will be unhappy with how said person is managing their finances. I might ask the person to tell me what they fear will happen if their spouse is unhappy about their financial circumstances. Following the person’s answer I will ask “and then what?” This continues until the person I’m working with has gone as far and as deep as they can with their fear of what might happen. I think as entrepreneurs we live with a great deal of what if and then what questions. What if I start my own business and then what if it fails? What helps us sustain ourselves in the period of not knowing? It is being able to see the “deepness of the earth.” It is our ability to see the rich layers of our imaginative selves. It is our ability to see treasure where others see trash. It is our ability to know where to plant our ideas enabling them to germinate and grow. It is our ability to dig deep within ourselves and make peace with our failures and our successes — however we might define them.
Soil three. The thorny ground. The thorny ground allows the seed to grow, but the competing thorns choke the life out of the beneficial plants. Ah, competition. Once upon a time when I was an avid runner, I ran a great deal of races. My aim was never to run faster than the other runners, but instead my goal was to run faster than my previous race. I was always racing against myself. Have you ever noticed yourself getting in your own way? That is a form of competition that we don’t talk about very much. We are used to competing for clients or competing for jobs. Competition is not an inherently bad word. It can be a great motivator in which to challenge ourselves beyond our comfort zones. It can be tricky business competing with ourselves because we can get in our own way. As we discussed earlier, we take the path of least resistance instead of making a new way for ourselves. We over analyze and get mired in the what if, then what cycle. We remain overly cautious and not allow ourselves to take risks and mute our gut instincts.
And finally there is the good ground. The good ground receives the seed and provides much fruit. How do we know if the ground is good? Each summer I spend time in Martha’s Vineyard at a friend’s house. My friend designed and built his house on his own. Over the past fifteen years, I have seen a house erected and I saw a beautiful, lush garden grow. But this wasn’t suppose to happen. My friend had his soil tested and was told that is wasn’t good ground and nothing what grow there. With patience and compost the supposedly bad ground yielded much growth. So one way to tell if the ground is good is by planting your seeds in the earth despite what others have told you and wait for the results. We entrepreneurs are constantly testing the soil to see if it is good and fertile ground before we make our decisions or decide our course of action. This is taking a calculated risk, but a risk just the same. And like my friend, many of you see opportunity where others might see disaster. And like my children, many of you see treasure where others might see trash. We might not ever know, at first glance, whether the soil is good or not. What makes you entrepreneurs is that when facing the unknown you have the remarkable ability to imagine and create and to see possibility.
Last month I read a piece about seeds in The Farmer’s Almanac. It was about the marvelous journey made by seeds. The article started off by stating that “many plants, even those we consider invasive, must set seed to survive as a species. How plants disperse their seeds is one of nature’s most fascinating adventure stories.” Apparently, there are five categories of seed travel. There are the drifters, which is the most common form of travel for seeds. Wind, with the help of gravity, is the most common means of seed dispersal, especially for small light seeds. If conditions are right, some light seeds may fly as far as 500 miles! The floaters travel by water. Water dispersal is most effective at dispersing seeds, if a rivulet or an ocean is moving and the seed is buoyant. Let me introduce you to the hitchhikers. Merely by going about their business, birds and animals serve as agents of seed distribution: seeds, by design of attraction, become hitchhikers. And now let’s hear about the exploders. Some seeds and ripe flowers have the energy and structure to scatter themselves even shooting seeds a good distance. Some plants actually flip their seeds — sometimes more than three feet. And finally, the fire needers. Fire, although often destructive, is also an agent of dispersal for some seeds. The ashen remains of fire may create ideal conditions for growth to recur. Fire-dispersed seeds do not move and they must stay dormant for long periods of time.
The marvelous journey made by seeds is important for entrepreneurs to hear. There are times when we wish we could just drift or float our way to our vocational destination. There are times when we wish we could hitchhike or explode our ideas out into the world. Pardon the cliche but there also those us who don’t know how to get off the ground and yet we must set seed to survive. As entrepreneurs, I am sure you each have your own fascinating adventure stories. Please, I implore you, to disperse your creative selves out into the world. You can drift or float. You can hitch a ride or explode on to the scene. The takeaway is to remember that you and your ideas are needed in this world. We need people, you people, to see what others can’t yet see. We need to scatter your seeds of ingenuity so that they may germinate and grow.