Business Lessons; Life Lessons

I’ve always been a big reader. Besides fiction and sustainability-related books, one of the other categories of books I read most is business books. (A low-footprint lifestyle helps me protect my time so I never have to say I don’t have time for reading! So if you want more time for reading, that’s just one more incentive for you to minimize your footprint, and I hope this blog and my book will help you.)

One of my favorite business reads over the past few months was The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. This book by Victor W. Hwang explores the “secret ingredients” that turn a place into a hotbed of innovation and investment. I also greatly enjoyed The Lohman Way: Entrepreneur Lowell Lohman’s Story and Strategies for Building Multimillion-Dollar Family Businesses, by E.L. Wilks.

But yesterday I picked up a business book that ended up being possibly my all-time favorite so far: The Five Temptations of a CEO, by Patrick Lencioni. (The photo above shows the book in the Little Free Library I set up in front of my house.)

I devoured the book in a couple of hours. The author identifies five “temptations” that CEOs fall into, that end up harming their companies. These five temptations are 1) choosing status over results; 2) choosing popularity over accountability; 3) choosing harmony over conflict; 4) choosing certainty over clarity; 5) choosing invulnerability over trust.

Mr. Lencioni wrote his book for CEOs of companies. But, as a self-employed person, I’ve always considered myself to be a CEO too, albeit CEO of a company with just one employee. Today, looking through the lens of “The Five Temptations,” I’ve gained a deeper understanding of a catastrophic business failure I experienced a few years back, and how to avoid repeating those mistakes.

Here’s what happened. A few years back, I got involved in a venture with other self-employed people. We were working together, but keeping our finances separate. Things were going fine, til one year I absolutely tanked financially. Ended up not only with zero money to my name, but actually in the red. Truth be told, I’d been struggling for quite some time, but I had just kept throwing money at my problems rather than look into the root causes.

From a “Five Temptations” standpoint, here are the mistakes I made:

1) Choosing status over results: After achieving a certain measure of success, I became preoccupied with where I stood in relation to my teammates. I got into comparing myself with them and envying them the recognition they were getting, and seeking such recognition for myself rather than staying focused on our actual work, which was to help people make desired changes in their lives.

2) Choosing popularity over accountability: In working with clients, I was out to be “liked,” be the “good guy,” rather than be the “tough guy” who pushes people to fully attain their desired results. A no-win game.

3) Choosing harmony over conflict: By not being willing to ask hard questions, I squandered time and energy engaging with people who weren’t good candidates for our products and services (and in the process, probably overlooked people who were seeking what we were offering).

4) Choosing certainty over clarity: Rather than make decisions based on the information available to me and move forward, I became a procrastinator, always waiting for that last bit of essential information so I could be 100% certain of success before making a move. Never happened!

5) Choosing invulnerability over trust: When I started getting into trouble, rather than confide in my teammates I kept things to myself and struggled alone, focused on “keeping up appearances.” If I’d been willing to be vulnerable, I’d have gotten some solid advice and moral support (which did in fact happen later, once I was willing to confide in them).

What’s nice about the “temptations” framework is that it offers a simple (though not necessarily easy) path to self-correction. Although I’d never heard of the Five Temptations until yesterday, much of what I did to recover from my business collapse was in keeping with what I read in Mr. Lencioni’s book.

I am very fortunate to have what I consider a calling in life, and quitting it is not an option. Therefore I always need to be willing to look at myself and make corrections when things aren’t going well.

My favorite business books are applicable not just to business, but to life in general. In an upcoming post I’ll talk about a time in my life when I fell into the “Five Temptations” to the detriment of some of my most valued personal relationships. And how I got out of that!

Unexpected Flower

This morning. Hauling water out to the plants that need it most (at this point, endless days of no rain, it is a triage game). Feeling annoyed to no end as the water I’ve painstakingly carried runs off my sloped yard and onto the sidewalk. (I dig little trenches uphill of each plant but they fill in quickly so I have to stay on top of it.)

And just as I’m feeling sort of defeated, my eye catches on a spot of purple. A morning glory! A beautiful purple morning glory I did not plant! A pretty treat for my morning. And a reminder that even when my current efforts don’t seem to be accomplishing much, a sudden flower can pop up seemingly out of nowhere. Probably from someone else’s past effort. I take it as a reminder to have faith, to keep contributing my efforts to the general pool, and just enjoy that process and not get too stuck on outcomes.

Coincidentally, via Facebook’s “memory” feature, this morning on my Facebook feed I encountered “Bicycle Morning Glory,” a painting I did about five years ago and had forgotten about. I don’t remember who bought the original painting but presumably it is “blooming” in someone’s home or office. And I was pleasantly surprised to see this old forgotten creation “bloom” in my e-universe this morning.

Five Subscribers

As I was checking a new post, I happened to notice that this blog has five subscribers. Five is a nice number, in the same family as three or seven for me. Numbers I’ve always felt an affinity for.

I’m amazed that there are bloggers and YouTubers and others out there with five hundred or five thousand or five million viewers. It just blows my mind. How does anyone even get there?

But right now, I don’t care about the answer to that question. Five subscribers is huge to me. It’s a group of people; an audience. I feel an obligation to provide quality and substance. Five. A number of readers I can feel. Five pairs of eyes. Five minds. Connected through this blog and (presumably) an interest in the topic.

As a kid, starting when I was maybe 12 years old, I loved to sit in my room at night and listen to the radio. (King Biscuit Flour Hour; Dr. Demento — for those seeking historic context.) Sometimes I’d be reading at the same time; more often drawing or writing.

On summer nights especially, the whole night felt alive. I felt this connection between the DJ, the other listeners, whoever they were and however many — thousands? millions? — and myself. Though I didn’t think of it consciously, looking back I realize I always felt somehow that we formed a living pulsing net, stretched across the USA (though it was FM radio and that’d be impossible).

My room, by the way, was pure 1976 tween/teen girl. Posters of gymnasts: Olga Korbut! Nadia Comaneci! Artwork and magazine clippings tacked to the cork bulletin board on my closet door. Blacklight fuzzy velvet poster of a puma crouched on a tree limb. And of course an Elton John poster. My favorite album was Captain Fantastic. In case you were curious!

On summer nights especially for some reason, the ceiling of my room seemed like an artificial barrier, visual only. My mind was fully merged with the sky and stars and wind and the music on the radio. Radio is magic like that; I still feel that way.

And now here we are in the age of blogging, videoing, TED-talking. People who were once just folks like you and me, suddenly attract audiences of thousands or millions in a flash. A thousand likes; a million views; “It went viral”!

And yet, for me, having five subscribers to this blog is huge. Huge! Maybe someday it’ll be 10. 20. Maybe even a hundred or a thousand or more, who knows. But right now I don’t care about that; I am simply humbled and thrilled and amazed to have FIVE readers who actually care enough to subscribe. Anonymous, known in number only, we are nonetheless all connected. By our similarities, sure, but also by our differences. Like the radio listeners on some summer night 40 years ago, when the world was younger and the possibilities seemed to widen out forever.

Though I get discouraged by things sometimes, and I’m sure you do too, in my heart I still feel that the possibilities widen out forever. And that the world can be as young as we make it. I’m here for you guys. My five subscribers. Literally, I’m here for you! Thank you and God/dess bless you on our journey.

Blistering Desert, and Forest Refuge

Day after day, blistering heat, no rain in sight. Watering the plants I’ve scrounged at curbside (or the plants that kind friends have brought me) involves hauling 20 to 40 gallons of well water to various corners of the yard, watering can by watering can full. I’m about done in. If you’re curious what I look like in my own mind right now, picture the “American Gothic” woman but a bit squidgy around the middle, and with no pitchfork-wielding husband standing by her side. #Fried #Hardscrabble

At this point I’ve just gotta say, All right, plants, I’ve done my best with you. If it’s not your time it’s not your time. Other plants will grow, other shrubs will be left at curbside for me to scrounge. I might still do the water-hauling thing, at least it’ll burn a few calories, be good for my core. #MidlifeMoment

I just spent the day doing errands along one of our main thoroughfares, watching landscapers weed-whack the expensive turfgrass under the expensive palm trees (that replaced the old oak trees that had been growing there). The fumes and noise were overwhelming as I bicycled past.

The expensive palm trees are held up by braces. What a costly, high-maintenance operation. Why do we humans do this? Why do we cut down old trees and understory that were self-maintaining, and replace it with resource-consuming high-maintenance stuff? It’s not even particularly pretty; it’s very sterile-looking like the landscape in one of those Sim City games.

Just my brief experience of homeownership so far, struggling to get a few plants to grow so I can have some vertical green around me and not be forced by the lawn-gestapo to maintain a vast expanse of flat shaved thin green desert, would be enough to make me a raving lunatic forest-fanatic if I were not already.

And now for your viewing pleasure, various forested lots I espied while “killing time” before an appointment. (BTW I try to never actually kill time. That’d be such a waste of a nonrenewable resource!) I love the residential lots. These people have escaped the treadmill of lawn maintenance, and created deep green sanctuary for themselves, and for wildlife.

Food-growing Secrets of a Brown-thumbed Gardener

Do you get online and compare yourself to the rockstars of your world? (However you define “your world,” be it a profession or a sport or what have you.) And end up feeling discouraged?

Well, one category where I fall into that comparison-itis is gardening, particularly food gardening. Unfortunately, despite having a great desire to have abundant homegrown fresh food, I not only tend to be lazy and impatient, but also, seem to have been born as one of those “people who kill plants.”

When I hear of someone who’s growing all their own food, including fruit trees and other higher-gradient stuff, and making a whole homecooked meal from their garden (and maybe even raising the trees to produce the wood that they then make into charcoal for their grill — that was a fictitious example to inject humor into my case of “Martha-Stewart-itis of food gardening”, but I’m sure such people are out there doing that!), sometimes I just want to cry and give up.

But I have no wish to give up! So I persist in my efforts to learn and grow from where I’m at right now. Though my successes have been modest at best, I have expanded my repertoire and ended up producing some delicious nutritious food, even when my “yard” was just a couple of pots, or a piece of ground no bigger than a table.

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up so far over my years of food-gardening. If I can do it you can too! (By the way, my plant-killing ratio over the years has dropped from pretty much 100% to only about 50%, a rate that can be compensated for by persistence!)

• Learn your local edible “weeds” and wild plants. First and foremost on my list of gardening tips, find the food that you don’t actually have to garden because it grows for free! It’s shocking how much of what we consider “weeds” is edible, nutritious, and tasty. And it grows lush and stout with no artificial irrigation or other human intervention! If you’re willing to have a yard that changes with the seasons, you can have fresh wild greens for many months of the year or even year-round in some places. No yard? No problem — forage! Even in urban areas a huge amount of fresh food is growing. Go on a “weed walk” or workshop with a local expert; also consult the guides published by your local native plant society.

• Container gardening. No yard? No problem! I was amazed at how much can fit into a container garden. I had four kinds of delicious greens growing in a pot at my home in an RV park where I lived in Austin, Texas. At the moment I have about a hundred tiny papaya tree seedlings sprouted in two pots.

• Make friends with your local nursery. Buy seeds from them, but also, look into their selection of veggie seedlings. Starts from a nursery were a goddess-send to me when I was first getting started, and I still rely on them quite a bit. Baby plants from your local nursery are more likely to be locally started and cultivated than starts you purchase from a big-box store, which may have been trucked in from thousands of miles away (and therefore, in addition to being weakened by long-distance transport, will not be as well-adapted to local conditions). Also, your local nursery offers “homegrown” expertise and customer service. NOTE: If you’re going to pick your local grower’s brains, be sure and buy from them too! Don’t ask them a bunch of questions and then use that expert info to buy from a big-box store.

• Get on the internet! Local gardening groups; Google; YouTube. You might be surprised — even many of my skilled gardener friends are not too proud to google for details on (for example) how to plant a mango seed!

• Use your local ag university; county ag extension office. UF-IFAS here in Florida produces a wealth of information including the spectacularly useful graphics shown in this picture; there’s probably something similar in your area. Your tax dollars are helping to pay for it; make use of it!

• Love Thy Neighbor! Connect with your neighbors who garden. Oftentimes they will have surplus seedlings they’re trying to give away. (And they might have produce they want to share rather than have it go bad.) Accept their offers to share the bounty (which might include their expertise — gardeners tend to be generous that way).

• Talk to strangers! As they say, a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet. See a fruit tree in someone’s front yard? Knock on the door and ask if you can pick some. I saw an orange tree growing in a yard, knocked on the door. When the guy told me sure but warned me that the fruit was bitter, I informed him I wanted to make marmalade, and I offered to drop off a jar for him when I had made some (which I did, subsequently). It’s not growing food per se but it is growing community … which can lead to growing food.

• Work on a farm! Back when I was living in Austin, I was fortunate to have several small organic farms within bicycling distance of my urban home. I worked as a volunteer for a couple of summers on one of those farms. In exchange for my labor-hours, I got knowledge, experience, and all the fresh peak-of-season produce I could take home.

• Meet those “Martha Stewarts”! Those food-growing superhumans, those horticultural Martha Stewarts whose Facebook posts make me want to cry and give up … turns out they tend to be extremely generous and eager to share tips and knowledge. They love growing food, they care about the environment, and they WANT everyone to be able to do the same. Connect with them on social media or in your neighborhood.

• Get out of the way! One concept I really had to wrap my brain around, was that after all, plants WANT to grow. Sometimes all they need is for me to get out of their way. I believe that excess worry can create bad vibes. Sometimes when I come back from a trip out of town, my garden looks better than when I left! A nice reminder to “let go and let God/dess.”

• The more the merrier! Community gardens are a great way to get started. If there’s one near you, get involved as a volunteer/helper for others even if you prefer to have your own garden at your own home. In some places, Master Gardeners volunteer huge amounts of their time and expertise to shepherd users through every step of the process. Take advantage of this pool of expertise, as well as the shared tools and the morale-boosting face-to-face company.

• Don’t fight nature. Don’t try to garden in the hardest season, whatever that is for your area. Here in Florida where I live, summer is the hard season. Or if you have to garden in the hard season, at least don’t beat yourself up or think it’s reflective of you if your efforts don’t bear much “fruit” (or veggies). This took me a long time to learn! I finally realized I was trying to garden during the hottest time in Florida, when even some experienced gardeners and farmers give it a rest.

• Sprout it out! Bean sprouts are easy to grow. Many kinds of beans will sprout in a jar. I’ve had the most luck with mung beans and lentils, both purchased from my local Asian market (though ones from the regular supermarket have worked also). Simply get a large mason jar, pour some dried beans in. Don’t fill it too full; less than a quarter full is good. Add water and let the beans soak overnight or for 8 hours. Drain off the excess water. From then on, rinse the sprouts once or twice a day. You’ll have nutritious sprouts for days! Sprouts are tasty, nutritious, cheap food you can grow even if you live in a high-rise apartment with no windows or balconies. I’ve even taken them, in the jar, on business trips as travel food.

And last but far from least,

• BE PERSISTENT. I cannot overstate the importance of persistence in gardening. Despite my congenital brown thumb I have managed to grow a considerable amount of greens, potatoes, and even some fruit trees at some of the places where I’ve lived — and until recently I’ve almost always been a renter. I’ve found that greens are easiest, but maybe that’s just because they are what I want most to be able to grow. Collard greens, mustard greens, arugula, cabbage, callalloo spinach are among those I’ve grown so far. Your mileage may vary as far as what you find easiest to grow. But regardless, keep at it! In the words of Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never give up.”

Recommended Resources:
• Infographics on “What to Plant for Each Month.” This website is for Florida, but you might have one for your state too. This page is part of the Gardening Solutions website. Gardening Solutions is a program of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). I am bowled over at the free public resources that exist. There is support on many levels for food-growing.

• NextDoor.com site for neighbors to build community. Once you type in your zipcode, you’ll be able to join your local neighborhood. I have met many many more of my neighbors in person via connecting on NextDoor! Neighbors in my area mainly use the site to share information about neighborhood meetings, crime & safety, and local business. Recently I have started posting to solicit interest in exchanging seedlings and garden expertise. I’ve met some wonderful likeminded folks this way, as well as received many plants and given many seedlings away too! (Yes, this PERSISTENT brown-thumbed gardener has reached the point where she too has baby plants and seeds to give away! As I said before, if I can you can too.)

• Nice article in Mother Earth News, on the distinction between hybrid, heirloom, and open-pollinated seeds.

Category Intro: Jenny’s Personal Journal

In this category I take you behind-the-scenes of my life; the struggles, hard moments, just this & that of being human. The nitty, the gritty, the not so pretty. My lifestyle is my main example that I’m using in my campaign to popularize a low-footprint lifestyle, and if I’m going to convince you guys that this lifestyle is practical and do-able (as well as having great personal benefits), you need to be able to see the reality, not just the “expert” facade.