Many years ago, I had the pleasure to sit down with John W. Gardner who is oft credited with the expression of “repotting” oneself as an approach to life-long learning and personal growth. He was someone who often repotted himself, even taking a new job in his late 70s. He lived almost 90 years, from 1912 to 2002, and yet his accomplishments seem too numerous to have fit into one life. The long list includes having led, served and founded significant organizations in the arts, academia, business, and government. Among many others, he served the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Stanford University, the Carnegie Corporation, and President Johnson as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
When I sat down with him at Stanford, in 1994, I had started a small internet non-profit (now grown up into Volunteer Match), and I was looking for help. To be fair, back then, I was always looking for help. I was relatively new to the United States, brand new to the not-for-profit world, and holding a newly minted MBA from University in another country. Clearly, I had repotted myself in many ways. I was also the mother of two toddlers, and it was really important to me that I make a difference in the world. After all, if I was going to put my children in daycare so that I could go to work, I wanted my work to matter. John Gardner seemed like a good man to meet. I am honored that he agreed.
He said much in that meeting while speaking very little. He asked about my organization, why I had started it, and what I expected. This was at the infancy of the internet and much was unknown about how my organization might grow. He was curious as only a life-long learner can be. I don’t recall getting specific advice — I do remember feeling surer in my path.
Why do some people “go to seed” while others remain vital?
Among Gardner’s many publications is one called “Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society.” In his own words, in this book, he “explored the question of why civilizations die and how they sometimes renew themselves, and the puzzle of why some men and women go to seed while others remain vital all of their lives.” And he explains that life-long vitality is up to us. He writes that “exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days.”
It’s clear that the expressions “going to the seed” and “repotting” are not accidental. Anyone who knows plants knows that potted plants will outgrow their vessel and often form a root ball — a tangle of roots that didn’t have anywhere else to go but to knot themselves up. When to repot a plant? When it is not thriving — either because of a soil problem or because it has outgrown its home. And how does one repot a plant?
How to repot a plant
With some help from Today’s Homeowner, I see five clear steps to review, while keeping a human life in mind:
- Lightly water the plant to loosen the tangled soil and roots
- Remove the plant and examine the soil — if it’s moldy or rotten you will want to remove those decayed parts. But only remove as much as is required since removing soil will stress your plant even more
- Trim and prune the roots, removing any extra long or dead roots
- Add soil to the new pot as needed, so that the plant sits not too deep yet not overflowing its new home.
- Gently center the plant on the new soil, adding additional surrounding soil as needed, and press the soil down until it’s firm. Water lightly.
What does that have to do with people who are repotting?
A couple of these instructions stand out for me, and they clearly apply to people as well as plants:
- Plants outgrow their pots and when they do, their roots go inward and get all tangled up rather than serving the purpose of grounding and sourcing nutrients. And old roots might even have mold or the soil might be rotten. People too outgrow their homes, their jobs and their friends. Roots that were formed years ago, might not be so useful
- Repotting is stressful. Step 2 cautions that “removing soil will stress your plant even more.” Keeping the soil as a way to minimize the stress reminds me that we as humans should keep what we can in the re-potting process to help minimize our stress.
I think these are both good points and lead to important questions about the timing and process of repotting.
The timing and process of your repotting
TIMING: Is it time to re-pot? It’s a stressful process so it’s one that deserves some thought. How are your roots? Are you thriving? What is helping you thrive or what is going moldy? How are your surroundings? Is your office toxic? How are the people in your life? Are your friendships supportive? Do you need a new pot? Or maybe you just need a little more sunshine and water.
PROCESS: Since the re-potting process is stressful, what can you do to minimize the stress? Can you keep the soil by changing jobs in the same company or at least in the same city? Can you start your new business with a supportive partner and a clear agreement? Or is the city or company the problem and that’s what needs to be changed? Or do you have a long root that is connected to what used to be a source of nutrients but is no longer? Maybe it’s time to cut that root.
There is much to consider in repotting. The first question is whether are you committed to remaining vital rather than going to seed. Next is asking if this is a good time for repotting. If so, are you worried about the stress of change? How can you minimize it? What support can you enlist?
Are you ready now? I know I am.
I hope this gives you some food for thought — and that you choose to repot when you are ready. I am always happy to hear from you, with any insights from my writings, or just to connect. You can reach me through my about page or find me on LinkedIn.