When my husband and I bought our home, it was surrounded by lawn, uniformly green and meticulously weed-free. Despite my ambivalence toward suburban “lawnscapes,” I felt a responsibility for that grass, which the previous owner had clearly worked hard to maintain. But my heart wasn’t in it (my husband’s even less so), and the yard soon showed signs of neglect.
As I surveyed our struggling turf, I started dreaming of gardens. Lots of them: shade gardens, lush and riotous rain gardens, swaths of native grasses, all escaping their fence line and marching into the yard.
The idea took root in my mind, but I hesitated. What did I know about gardening? (Not much.) What did I know of landscape design? (Even less.) So, I read books and perused seed catalogs and bought a membership to the local landscape arboretum. I even wrote an article about the health benefits of gardening. (Check it out at “Beyond the Harvest: Five Ways Gardens Support Your Health“.)
As my imagination teemed with ideas, though, my confidence recoiled. For three years, I did not so much as pick up a shovel.
Sleep, Creep, Leap
There’s an adage in gardening that perennials (plants whose lifespans extend beyond one season) “sleep” their first year in a garden, establishing their roots in the earth. Then they “creep”: New shoots poke tentatively toward the sun, while transplants offer just a few blossoms. Finally, if well-nurtured, perennials “leap” into their full glory.
Pursuing your dreams is a lot like growing a perennial garden.
This thought occurred to me recently as I tended one of the gloriously imperfect dream gardens I eventually created in my yard.
But countless people’s dreams remain asleep in a hazy daze of discontent. Even dreams we can clearly envision — writing a book, moving abroad, launching a business, exhibiting our art — get caught in a prolonged creep phase of preparation and stalling. Why do so few of us leap into our dreams? And how can we know when we’re ready?
We might start by redefining the “leap.”
“To me, the leap is not some big, grand plan, some dramatic change,” says Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead. “Leaping is when you give yourself permission to step into your vision now, but without overhauling your life in doing so.”
If you’re stuck in sleep or creep mode, this advice may move you more confidently toward your dreams.
In the Playing Big program Mohr created to empower women to step into their visions, she asks participants to articulate what is calling to them. And then she challenges them to start living that dream today.
“This actual day. So, if it’s Wednesday, we’re talking about ‘How do I live it on Wednesday?’” she says.
It’s true I could have picked up a shovel any old day of the week. But what if your dream is to become a graphic designer? Or a doctor?
“We’re looking for the scrappy, lightweight form of living that calling, not the form of it on LinkedIn,” Mohr says. “That’s probably going to require training, which can happen in parallel. But for now, we want to get to the essence of the calling.”
So, if you want to be a dancer, turn on some music and dance. If you want to be a doctor, sign up today to volunteer at a hospital. If you want to be a graphic designer, look at what’s behind that desire: Is it to be more playful? To surround yourself with color and ideas? Brainstorm ways to feed that desire right now.
“It’s never just one leap,” explains Roo Harris, a coach who guides burned-out professionals in reshaping their lives to align with their values and passions. “There often is a big leap, but it’s one leap among many.”
If you know something has to change in your life but don’t yet know what that looks like, Harris recommends the kind of leaps that cultivate qualities you’ll need as your vision comes into focus.
“Try going out salsa dancing on a Thursday night on your own. Or wear a bold outfit to work that’s different than what you ordinarily wear,” she says. “Practicing everyday acts of courage is an important way to build momentum and expand your comfort zone. It’s a muscle.”
Find Your Own Path
“I’m a big believer that we reap what we sow, and that we’re planting all the time,” notes Harris. However, if you’re not in tune with your own values and desires, you may be cultivating someone else’s garden, not your own. Next thing you know, you’re studying for the bar exam when what you really want is to teach high school Spanish.
“You might have to do some work to get in touch with your inner voice,” she adds. And this can be a process that requires time and exploration.
“Take some actions to connect with yourself in some way, perhaps meditating or spending time in nature. Put down your phone. In those quiet moments, you can begin to hear your own thoughts more clearly.”
Make Bold Moves
Women, in particular, have often been conditioned to be “good students,” says Mohr — to diligently prepare and research, to defer to others’ authority, to perform to others’ expectations. They tend to overcomplicate their plans with unnecessary first steps and fine-tuning.
To break out of these stalling and hiding strategies, she recommends taking bold but manageable leaps that can be started and finished within two weeks.
“We think we need an incubation phase when we’re already way past that,” she notes. “We assume we have to become a certain kind of expert when we already have an idea or a voice or a story or an approach to share that would be very valuable.”
How will you put your dream out into the world? Can you trust that you’re ready to present your new idea at the next PTA or city-council meeting? Will you hit “publish” on your controversial blog post? Will you lead a workshop on that topic you know inside out — even if it doesn’t reflect your official title?
“I never see people regret a leap, but they are surprised to realize that now they have to plant the next crop, make the next leap,” says Harris. “In the process of the leap, you gain tools that were missing before, and now you’re armed for the journey forward.”
“It’s just more leaps,” adds Mohr. “Leaps are never done in isolation. They’re part of a cycle, a feedback loop. Leaps put you in contact with people you want to reach. They help you learn something about yourself in relation to your dream.”
I don’t know what compelled me to start leaping, but I finally broke ground on my lawn. Focusing on one garden bed a year has been a manageable yet steady pace. Each garden has been rife with mistakes and happy accidents that taught me valuable lessons.
And I’ve come to realize that, though this dream garden of mine may never be finished, I am a gardener now. Which, it turns out, was the dream all along.
This article originally appeared as “Dreaming Bravely” in the April 2022 issue of Experience Life.