What do you do with an unmarked bag of seeds?

Imagine you are handed, Jack-and-the-beanstalk-style, an unmarked bag of seeds whenever you start a new job.

The seeds, being unmarked, are a mystery to you. And let’s agree, for the sake of the metaphor, that you have no fancy app on your phone that helps you discern which seed is which.

If you want your garden to grow, with productive plants, beautiful flowers, big trees and, if you so choose, a magic beanstalk, what’s the best strategy?

It seems to me there are two real options.

The first is to wonder why in the heck you were given a bag of unmarked seeds, for goodness sake? I mean, it would be a lot more straightforward to know which seed is which, and the instructions you need to follow to make each one thrive. That way you’d also be sure not to invest too much time or effort into the beans that are never going to amount to much, and you can focus your efforts on following the proven instructions for growing a garden.

Another approach is to just start planting and caring for the seeds: preparing the soil, fertilizing, watering regularly, diligently nurturing each one as best you know how. And, to maximize your chances for success in the face of uncertainty, you’ll plant as many seeds as you can care for, and show up every day to take care of them.

If the first approach appeals to you, then you are most likely to be happiest in an organization with clear, well-defined career paths. In each role, you’ll know exactly what it takes to succeed, and you can allocate your time to just those specific seeds that you’re expected to plant this year, next year, and the year after that.

And if the second appeals to you, then you most likely find yourself in a startup or in some other kind of entrepreneurial environment.

In these organizations, the paths are rarely well-worn, the skills required are emergent, and the seed that will lead to the next big breakthrough is unknown.

In these sorts of organizations, senior management probably talks about making your own opportunity and taking initiative, but it can be hard to know what that means today and tomorrow.

But, with the right culture—the right soil in which you’re planting your seeds—your consistent work and excellent attitude will lead to surprisingly fruitful results down the line.

Here’s one way to think about it:

You know that you don’t know what leads to what. Which means that this thing I’m doing today could become something big, or it could not; this client could become huge, or maybe they won’t; this experiment that we’re running might be the future of the business, or it may not.

Like the seeds, we don’t know which activity or idea or client will become the next big thing. So, if we want to maximize our chances of making an impact, of creating a shift in the trajectory both of our company and of our own career trajectory, the best approach is to put more bets on the table (plant more seeds), and cultivate all of them with consistent, diligent professionalism.

This way, more of the things you work on have the chance to become great.

Which means things like…

…being proud of everything you send to every client, because you never know what they might say to the next person.

…paying close attention to the conversations that don’t directly relate to your work today, because that context might lead you to do something differently tomorrow.

…being proactive and attentive whenever you can, and always aiming to make those around you better.

…doing something surprisingly wonderful for someone you’ve not worked with for 6 months, whether a paying client, someone in a peer organization, or a colleague.

These and countless other actions boil down to the daily work of cultivation, of planting and tending to a big garden and working that garden like a professional.

The uncertainty cannot be changed. But if each individual seed is given the greatest chance to grow, in a year or two year’s time there’s no doubt you’ll have a thriving, eclectic, beautiful garden.


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