posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA
I met her at the Farmer’s Market. I was apprenticing on a farm at the time, selling bouquets of fresh flowers I’d been up since 4 am harvesting.
She paid for her flowers and looked at me with sharp eyes.
“Are you a hard worker?” she asked. “Do you take outside jobs?” I assented to both, and I was hired on the spot. We agreed that I would work in her yard weekly for the remainder of the summer.
The following weekend I showed up at the agreed-upon time and address and found a list of tasks pinned to the door. The hedges were to be pruned, the potted plants repotted, the vegetable area tilled and sown, all landscaping mulched and weeded. I rolled up my sleeves and managed, barely, to get it all done by the afternoon. It felt good to have cash in my pocket—the first I’d seen in a while—so I disregarded my exhaustion, and the anxiety and scratched-up arms I’d sustained in the course of trying to prove myself by getting everything done.
But when I showed up the next weekend, there was no note pinned to the door. I knocked, and when she answered she assessed me with those sharp eyes.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
Confused, I stammered “to do the yard work—we agreed Sundays?”
“Yes,” she said, “but that list of jobs I gave you was for the whole summer. You’ve finished them all. You’ve worked yourself out of a job!”
The door closed. Finis.
Have you ever done this to yourself? Dug in your heels, rolled up your sleeves, and thrown yourself deeply into the task at hand, only to find that in the end, all of that hard work actually took you away from where you wanted to go? Have you ever thrown all of your time, energy, and resources at a problem, only to find that your attempts to resolve it only made the problem bigger?
We’ve all been there. We’ve been taught that hard work is the answer to most difficulties, and so we dutifully put our nose to the grindstone and plug away. But there’s an essential ingredient missing in that formula.
Yes—design: the application of intelligence and strategy. The creation of a plan, a blueprint for not only where you want to go, but how you will get there.
When we panic, we forget our intelligence. We jump right in and throw any solution we can find at the problem. That moment to pause, to wait, to plan, feels impractical, even dangerous. And yet, unless we take the time to design the most practical strategy for arriving at the solution we want, we will be wasting a great deal of time and energy in trial and error.
Had I taken just five minutes before plunging into that yard work job to create a strategy, I could have devised a sustainable, ecology-based plan to guide my work. I could have focused on one task at a time, using the clippings from the hedge to create a wattle fence for the vegetable beds; throwing all the weeds from the landscaping into a bucket to make weed tea to fertilize the potted plants; creating mulch from the spent leaves of last year’s plantings to protect the soil and hold in moisture for the delicate seedbeds.
I would have done a much better job, and yes, it would have taken me more time—but my pace would have been sustainable, and the end product would have been far more integrated and satisfying. I would have earned the money I needed for my hard work and my employer would have received a healthier, more resilient garden.
Before I became a counselor, I was a permaculture designer. Permaculture distills the laws of ecology—the most elegant system of sustainable design on the planet—into a few solid principles that we can follow as we design our own lives. I applied these principles time and time again to gardens in every state of neglect, and watched them thrive. When I began to study psychology, I found that permaculture principles work just as beautifully in the design of human lives and relationships.
One of the principles that translates best is this one: use the least effort to get the greatest effect.
This flies in the face of "no pain no gain" that our puritanical culture preaches. But consider:
Bertolt Brecht said “Grub before ethics.” Maslow said there is a hierarchy of needs: a person must first have food, shelter, fire, and water before she can focus on self-development or creativity.
If certain needs are not met, we stop developing.
This is as true of gardens as it is of people. If the soil on your land is depleted, no amount of backbreaking tilling, planting, or weeding is going to ensure a good harvest. But a tiny investment in building the soil will yield spectacular results.
If you are deeply exhausted, investments in education, nutrition, and exercise are not going to pay off. But if you give yourself a bit more sleep— everything transforms.
The principle of least effort for greatest effect has a beautiful assumption at its center: you are already moving toward self-realization. Everything is. You do not have to work and work and work to achieve perfection. Your only job is to discern what obstacles are hindering your natural perfection, and remove them.
By perfection, I mean a living, breathing balance, such as we see in a climax forest or a well-nourished, well-loved child. In natural perfection there is always room for growth, but there is nothing actively hindering that growth.
Sometimes the obstacles are blindingly obvious: racism and poverty and other inequalities jump immediately to mind. Other times they are more insidious: we think we need to work harder when really we need to relax and be more receptive. We think we need to explain when really we need to listen. We think we need a cup of tea when really we need a relationship. We think we need a relationship when really we need a cup of tea.
If we can somehow open ourselves to the idea that we are intrinsically fine just as we are, the obstacles start to reveal themselves. What, then, is hindering us? Do we need shelter? Water? Fire? Food?
Do we need someone to listen to us? Do we need an hour more sleep per night? Do we need a room we can be alone in? Do we need a schedule that allows us to sleep late, or rise early?
Do we need to be working in a field that utilizes our natural gifts rather than ignores them?
Do we just need a freaking cape?
So: how do we learn what our natural plan is, and what our obstacles are?
When you take the time to build an intelligent design for your life, you look at the areas of overlap between your talents, your training, your passions, and the needs of the world. You find the sweet spot that encompasses all four, and THAT is where you put any extra energy, time, or money.
Tiny efforts in the area of this sweet spot will yield exponential effects, because your passion and education and talent line up to push your ideas into the world.
Think about this for a minute: what if you don't have to DO MORE....what if all you have to do is remove the obstacles that hinder you from what is already happening?
Ahhhhhhh. Did you feel that? That's the power of least effort for greatest effect.
If this sort of ecology/psychology overlap is exactly your cup of tea; if you want guidance and structure to help you create that intelligent life map for where you want to go, join us for Permaculture and the Psyche in April. And, as always, I love to hear from you in the form of questions, comments, or emails!