How To Thrive in Life
Years ago I was talking with a friend about the idea of thriving in life—not just surviving it. We talked about how easy it is to get caught up in the trance of living; work, relationships with significant other, raising children, commitments, responsibilities, changing the oil every 3000 miles, work … a decade can pass before you know it. Lulled by passivity and going with the flow, one day we wake up and find we are shadows of the “masses of men” who have lived before us, drowning in what Thoreau described as “quiet desperation.” We live, but we are not really alive. We don’t thrive because we too busy trying to only survive. We settle for ambivalence, trying to keep our heads above water—and our asses out of a sling.
My friend, a master gardener, worked at a large estate and was one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met regarding horticulture. At the time, both of us were facing life transitions and lamenting about feeling stuck. I realized I knew very little about how to thrive as a man. Since my friend was an expert on plants, I asked “What about a plant? What does it take for a plant to thrive?” I assumed my friend would say something like, “enough sunshine and water.” Instead, he said something that changed my life.
He told me about a pine tree in the garden where he worked.“ At the estate, we have a tree … a pine tree and it’s dying.” He looked almost forlorn. “It’s dying because we have these tremendous Douglas Fir trees that surround and envelop it.” He continued “to save the pine tree, we need to either move it to another part of the garden or cut back the Douglas Firs.” He paused for a moment, and his eyes sparkled as if he had just had an epiphany “What a plant needs to thrive is to be in the right environment. Put a plant in the right environment and it will thrive on its own!”
It was a transformational moment for me. I realized I was struggling to stay alive in a toxic environment. A toxic environment will suck the life out of your heart. It might be a job, a relationship, or some project that you’ve been stuck on. Whatever it is, you feel it killing your purpose. It’s like drowning in a teaspoon of water or receiving a thousand paper cuts to the soul.
As my friend and I went on to deliberate about our metaphoric pine tree, we talked about the three possibilities for its future.
Option 1: Die. The tree stays where it is and dies.
Option 2: Adapt. Change the tree’s environment; cut back the Douglas Firs to give it room to thrive.
Option 3: Dig. Move the tree by digging it up and transplanting it to a more spacious place in the garden.
Ruminating on option 1 reminded me of the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. As tempting as the status quo can be, in the end, both the tree and the frog die. Staying stuck can only be an option for so long until life forces you to make a decision—at which point your options are most likely limited. It’s best to make a move when you first discover the problem.
Many men I shared this story with assumed that option 3, leaving their current environment, would be easiest. Quit the job, get a divorce, move to a new state—and one or all may be necessary. But the right thing and the easy thing are rarely one in the same. I believe it’s wise to ask yourself, “What is the harder thing to do?” and try that first. The harder thing might be to stay and try to work it out, go to counseling, get a coach, find a second opinion. The more difficult thing might be making a plan of action that requires compromise and waiting for the right moment. So before you consider playing the all-or-nothing card, consider option 2 and work to adapt to your current environment.
Sometimes, by making simple changes, you can modify your life in significant ways. Ask yourself if there are modifications you can make to change the toxic environment. It might be as simple as having a conversation with your spouse or boss. Maybe you need to set boundaries. Perhaps it’s taking a look inside and creating a shift in your thinking or reframing your perceptions.
If you find yourself unable to change the environment, option 3 may be your only course of action. You may have to dig yourself out and move to more hospitable spaces. There are times when this becomes necessary because your environment is truly toxic. This will most likely require an act of courage and a great act of self-love, because like the pine tree you are planted and uprooting is a painful process. If you are in an abusive relationship, be aware that they create toxic environments; be they lovers, friends, or employers, they rarely change.
If you are not thriving, you must make a choice: Die, Adapt or Dig. Entrepreneur W. Clement Stone put it this way:
You are a product of your environment. So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective. Analyze your life in terms of its environment. Are the things around you helping you toward success—or are they holding you back?
My greatest wish is for all who read this to choose a life of thriving. You are the master gardener of your life. Choose wisely, and grow well.