Sowing the Seeds of Possibility

When I was 6, I won my elementary school science fair by attempting to grow bean sprouts out of an empty milk carton. Hardly groundbreaking stuff, but it sure was fun. Interestingly, my experiment was not a success. Sadly, nothing sprouted. I suspect now that I was awarded first prize because the judges could see my crushing disappointment, and noticed from my copious notes that I had tried really hard to do it all by myself (unlike some of the other fancier projects that had parents’ fingerprints all over them).

Science fairs are designed to encourage you to think critically and to risk failure. You put forward a hypothesis, and then develop a rigorous set of tests to support it. The thesis does not even have to be correct, therefore there can be no failure. During that fair, I learned to take immense pride in my little bean sprout experiment, and I also learned how to speak effectively in front of a group of people. Not a bad return on investment!

Part of what I do now as a coach is to encourage people to sow the seeds of possibility. Not to be afraid of messing up. As adults, we are programmed to fear failure above all else. Failure stings; failure hurts; it makes us feel bad. Yet, the whole history of scientific progress is littered with people being wrong before they were right. Without it, there would be no penicillin, no smallpox vaccine, no electric lightbulb. Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur and Thomas Edison were all massive “failures” in their day.

I often work with executives who want to move forward but are feeling stuck. They ask me: How do I connect to others in the industry, develop the absolute best business plan or create the ideal pitch to achieve my goals? And my response is: Who says it needs to be perfect? Isn’t all of life, in the end, a grand experiment of some sort? The problem with most of us is that we are afraid to get it wrong. We are too busy trying to formulate a compelling strategy or flawless opening line. And then the opportunity is past. Is there someone you’ve been meaning to call recently? Then pick up the phone. Some idea that sounds crazy, but simply won’t let you go? Give it a shot. What have you got to lose? Sure, you may need to do your homework, but too often I get pushback from my clients: “You want me to do what? But that’ll never work!” And I say, “Really? Have you actually tried? Have you really tried to do something in a different way, or are you just afraid of looking foolish?”

In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work in reforesting her native Kenya. Returning to her land after several years teaching in Nairobi, she was dismayed to find the once fertile forest of her youth stripped of its natural cover to make way for coffee and tea plantations. Villagers now had to walk miles just to get firewood, and the chemical run-off from the pesticides was poisoning their water supply. She decided that one obvious solution to their problem was to simply plant more trees.

She organized a small group of determined women to help her. Their initial goal was to plant seven trees, which they did. Five of those died immediately. Pretty discouraging, by anyone’s standards. But they didn’t stop there. Instead they learned from their many mistakes and became highly adept at planting. Other neighbors watched what they were doing and eventually the entire community got involved. The simple idea spread, and soon they were able to restore vast tracts of Kenyan farmland.

What difference does one tree make? A lot, as it turns out. Today, The Greenbelt Movement has harvested more than 40 million trees across the African continent. Acres of indigenous forest have been restored and protected, and thousands of women and their families are standing up for their rights and those of their communities- living healthier, more productive lives. Imagine if she had given up after the first few trees had failed?

We all suffer on occasion from the “gotta get it right” syndrome. Leaders especially, feel a lot of internal pressure to be in charge, to always know the exact right thing to do next. Talk about stress! But if you’re not at least okay with being wrong, then it’s unlikely you will ever come up with anything original. When the old roadmaps don’t serve you anymore, it’s time to join the rest of us and simply make it up as you go along. Plant a few seeds and see which ones may sprout.

The beauty of thinking in this way is that it releases us from the tyranny of failure, and frees us up to try new ways of doing things. Wangari Maathai didn’t know she would start a movement by planting a few trees, and she certainly didn’t know she’d win the Nobel Peace Prize. She just took that first next step, and then the next, and then the next.

And you can too.