This year for gardeners is really tough. The northeast has been pummeled with heavy rain. Temperatures have run high. Rain and heat make sustained garden work difficult as soil damage is a real concern. The most devoted gardeners are forced to watch as weeds take over. I’ll concede that this is a struggle. We are so often trained to believe that hard work guarantees success. When the most obvious measures of success fail, where does that leave us?
I have been thinking lately – about the 90/10 rule articulated by Harvard’s Steven Covey. The 90/10 rule argues that personal happiness may rest, in part, on an understanding that 90 percent of life is based upon personal or subjective response to only ten percent of external factors. This is the flip side of learned helplessness. It is a way to understand what remains possible when things feel out of control. The 90/10 rule sets forth that while we may not be able to control external factors, we can control our response to them. Happiness, therefore, lies in the possibilities inherent in pivoting towards a growth mindset. It sounds simple enough. Alas, it is not.
There is, it must be said, an element of Pollyanna embedded within the 90/10 rule. Recall Pollyanna, the relentlessly upbeat heroine of children’s literature who, in the face of adversity, continually trains herself to focus on the bright side of life to the point of saccharine absurdity. Poor Pollyanna – what is so wrong with committing to the positive? Nothing, of course. The problem is that it is so hard to do some of the time. It feels like a practice – like yoga or anything else that trains discipline or mindfulness. Practice is hard.
I don’t pretend to know. I have good days and bad days. I am doing the best I can to remain focused on the things I can learn this year – the ways I can stake priorities. I think about how I can learn more and use information well. Which plants need me more? How are we planting our heat loving Zinnias and can we plan our beds differently next year?
I am also doing the best I can to notice the beauty we collectively nurture. I recall the June explosion of peonies. Peonies, beginning as metaphorically tightly clenched fists, let go over time. In their unfurling, they deliver evidence of the bounty of the struggle produced in storing things up. The world begins to glimpse at an opening, and we decide how to manage our time. We decide about the risks we take. To me, there is nothing like a vase of peonies with blooms relaxing into openness and humble splendor - just there in a vase in the kitchen. This reminds me that beauty, while neither predictable nor guaranteed, is always worth chasing.
I came across a recollection by Kurt Vonnegut who recalled speaking to an archeologist when he was himself a teenager. Vonnegut attributes his personal approach to creative exploration to this unexpected mentor who merely reframed the purpose of work. Vonnegut remembers saying he did a lot of things, he was not “good” at any of them, and the seismic shift that began.
And he said something then that I will never forget, and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them … And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.”
I do not pretend to “succeed” across the board at anything. I am as challenged as the next gardener by the weather, and by life in general. I do keep striving though, even as I give myself grace, to keep on learning. I must believe that the bloom is ever present on the dahlia and that the decision to keep on nurturing that bloom rests within all of us.