Balancing potted shrub on right hip, I walk carefully along the rock wall dividing our property from a lightly wooded and heavily weed-infested area. Returning to the driveway, I repeat my trek six times. All shrubs present and accounted for, I clamber down into the planting area and begin the painstaking process.
Place pot. Consider placement. Adjust placement. Climb awkwardly up on rock wall. Walk back to garage for spade. Walk back to planting area. Clamber off rock wall. Start digging. Hit roots. Dig further over. Hit bigger roots. Mutter. Climb up on rock wall. Walk back to garage for pruners. Walk back to planting area. Jump lightly off rock wall. Cut through said roots. Plunk shrub into hole. Turn scraggly branches this way and that to optimize their effect. Pile dirt back into hole. Tamp down gently. Repeat for other shrubs. So far, so good.
Climb gracefully up on rock wall. (Am I getting the hang of this?) Walk around side fence into backyard. Unwind hose. Unscrew nozzle. Snake hose through chain link fence. Walk around fence. Swing easily off rock wall. (Yes, definitely.) Reinstall nozzle on hose. Climb up on rock wall. Walk back to tap. Turn water on. Walk back to nozzle end. Jump off rock wall. Drag rest of hose through fence. Shake hose to untwist kinks. Shake again. Mutter. Put nozzle down. Climb up on rock wall. Walk back around fence. Untwist hose by hand. Walk back to nozzle end. Jump heavily off rock wall. Water new plantings. Climb rather slowly up on rock wall. Walk back to tap. Turn off water. Drag hose back through fence until nozzle hits. Walk back around fence to nozzle end of hose. Step wearily down off rock wall. Release water pressure. Unscrew nozzle. Haul middle-aged body up on rock wall. Walk back into backyard. Reposition hose. Reinstall nozzle. Walk back to planting area. Sit down on rock wall. Slide off. Gather planting detritus. Climb carefully up on rock wall with detritus under one arm. Walk back to garage. Sort detritus into recyclables, compostables and actual garbage. Walk back to backyard. Sink gratefully into patio chair.
Partway through this gardening tour de farce, as the hose kinks resisted my best shakes and launched me on my fortieth rock-wall traverse, my mutters risked becoming curses as impatience rose in me. I am, after all, accustomed to doing Important Work at a dynamic pace, to accomplishing a lot in a little time. Spending my work days developing proposals, I help companies chase contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Where drop-dead deadlines rule and there is always more work than time, a cut-to-the chase mentality prevails. Every minute is precious: Get on with it, already.
The contrast could hardly be greater. The ‘go, Go, GO!’ work week, with multitasking as art form, gives way to the backing-and-forthing of weekend gardening: puttering as inevitability.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. I’d hate to argue with Aristotle, to whom this is attributed, but I never mind quibbling. According to dimly remembered first-year logic class, it follows from the premise that not just excellence but anything can become a habit—whether it be proposal-land’s zoom-zoom or the routine operation’s considered effort; the quick-and-dirty of the start-up or the slow-and-steady of the established organization.
Aristotle’s remarks (if any) on the importance of cultivating more than one habit are, unfortunately, lost in the mists of time. But we don’t need the Ancients to tell us what we can figure out for ourselves.
We already know that life’s uncertainty demands some generalist ability. As Heinlein’s Lazarus Long said, A man should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
I, myself, have never butchered a hog nor conned a ship, and don’t intend to start anytime soon. But we don’t have to buy into the details of Heinlein’s vision to see the value of being good at more than one thing. And if life demands a range of skills, those skills demand a range of gears. Exercising only one gear risks numbing our capacity to shift up, or down, when the occasion demands it. Plodding through endlessly repetitive processes, we risk losing the ability to react quickly and to the point in a crisis. Charging hard all day, everyday, at work, we risk losing the capacity to slow down long enough to unkink hoses without swearing, never mind comforting the dying.
Specialization is for insects. As I survey my newly planted, scraggly shrubs with pride, I am reminded that I must reject the comfortably familiar pace as often as I can, defaulting instead to the speed that stretches me. At home and at work, I must balance multitasking with puttering. Only then will I have all the gears I need for the truly Important Work.