Walking through Michael Sherrill’s Retrospective Exhibit at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, it was almost as if I was seeing several artists at work. The exhibit started with mugs – huge, beautiful mugs that I could only dream of making. Soon it moved to other large forms, with Asian and Native American influences. Just around the corner were some of the most exquisite – and in some cases, biggest – teapots I had ever seen. Then came some abstract and totally unique shapes. We were now far from functional vessels. We were entering the true art zone.
Soon after, some of the natural forms started to emerge. Rhododendron leaves started appearing. You could almost hear each phase calling to him, saying “Come experiment over here. Let go so we can try something new.” And he answered the call, even though it meant leaving something that worked really well.
One of the questions I often hear from clients sounds something like this: Is this my pinnacle? Have things gotten as good as they ever will? What if I can’t make the transition to the next level? Will it be downhill or will I stagnate from here? Does what I’m doing matter?
As is often the case with big questions, it seems that answer is usually: It depends.
In walking through Michael’s Retrospective, every phase looked like a pinnacle to me. In fact, where he started would be cause for huge celebration in my house. (We do a happy dance every time my pottery reaches a new height. Seriously. Actual dancing is involved.)
In the exhibition, you could see how one thing led to another – the seeds of every phase seem to be planted in the one before.
The thing about these stages of growth -and what might feel like stagnation and boredom – is that it can look like death. That’s how nature forms seeds. It’s worth remembering that.
The transition from one phase to another is uncomfortable as hell. We don’t all choose to heed the call. Instead, we hold on. We stay in the job too long. We fail to hire the kind of person we need on the team right now. We keep the project afloat, even though its original purpose is long gone. We keep making what sells.
We would rather have stagnation and boredom than face the death that brings the discomfort of uncertainty, reinvention and not knowing how to do something. So we stay out of the froth that marks the edge of our capability.
Yet the froth is where the growth is. One of my all time favorite quotes is: “You are either green and growing or ripe and rotting.”
This quote really hit home this morning, as a load of mulch was delivered to my garden. Right now the garden is full of rotting weeds from last year’s inattention. With spring arriving, it will become green once again. I can either cultivate the plants I want, or let it just do its thing.
If I want to harvest delicious edibles from this place, I will have to cultivate. I will have to feed the plants I want and starve those that take up space and nutrition without giving anything back. I have the power to set the conditions for the kind of growth I want. Honestly, I would rather just harvest. In order to garden, I have to ask for help.
As leaders, we have the same responsibility with ourselves, our teams and our organizations. We must cultivate. We need to feed our minds with the nutrients that generate the fruit of our spirit. We must foster in our teams what bring out the best in everyone as they achieve their common goals. We must allocate resources in a way that feeds what the organization needs and starves the projects, people and other non-essentials.
Every phase of growth will involve some level of death. A company of 3 is not the same as a company of 10, or 100, or many thousands. In order to truly grow, it requires many deaths leading to the breakthrough moments of new life.
So much of Michael’s work depicted this theme. In his work Remnant, you see it most clearly with the dead oak leaves alongside the new growth.
There is also a secret behind the beautiful work you see from Michael and me and everybody else on the Earth that has done something worth sharing. Behind it are the thousands of experiments gone wrong. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING is perfect. You don’t see the days of despair, the questioning, the tearing out the hair wondering why something didn’t work.
Ironically, it seems to me that the more I enter the land of ambiguity, the more I like what comes out the other side. If I can tolerate the discomfort of the froth.
What seeds have you planted that are ready to be cultivated? Where are you ready to step into the froth at the edge of your capability? What do you need to let go of so the green growth can spring forward? What discomfort and ambiguity are keeping you at bay? What will it take to start the experiments to something great?
As always, please share this with anyone you think would find it useful. And let me know how you are using what you learn!