Excerpt From Book

Taking Risks
“He who plants a tree, plants a hope.”
—Thomas Jefferson

“Very early on each spring, when I start to look around my garden and envision what I want to plant that year, I always go through the same process of longing for the familiar. Perhaps the roses of last year were particularly fragrant, or the love-lies-bleeding plants especially enticing, and I think, Ooh, I’ll do that again. But then comes the familiar tug inside that reminds me that my garden is my laboratory for my own growth, and that I grow only when I take risks. That is the tug towards a newer, more unveiled version of myself, and I quickly do an about-face and start thinking about what I can do differently this year.

Whenever we create, we are taking risks. The most inspired creations are born of deep risk—leaps of faith taken by people who dare to venture into new territory despite their fear, despite the odds, and despite the uncertainty of how it will turn out. In creating Sundance, Robert Redford put everything he had on the line—including his reputation, money, and reserve of energy—to build his vision of a creative laboratory for filmmakers in the mountains of Utah. A lot of people thought he was just plain crazy to launch such an ambitious vision outside of the typical entertainment centers of New York and Los Angeles—not to mention his intent to preserve hundreds of acres of unspoiled land that plenty of other people would have developed for profit. Yet today, Sundance has blossomed into a cultural icon with a yearly film festival that rivals Cannes. The surrounding land remains pristine and undeveloped as far as the eye can see.

Taking any risk impacts us way down deep, in the tectonic plates of our very existence. In order to make something new, we need to relinquish the delicate reality that is right now. To create a new business, we must leave our existing work. To make a house our home, we must take down what is there and create our imprint. To create a child, we must give up some of our independence. In all creative endeavors, we risk the fear of failure in a society that is very success-oriented (What will happen to me if I fail?). We risk not being accepted (What will people think?). We risk giving up the familiar, the comfortable (What if I don’t like the new reality that unfolds?). Yet in the face of all this looming threat, we, as artists of life, continue to brave on and take risks because deep down, we know that risks are what pave the path to our healthiest and best selves.

True risks are not arbitrary. I think we take risks based on our deepest desires. Anytime something feels like a risk, we are usually looking into the face of something we dearly want. If we weren’t, it wouldn’t feel so weighted, nor the choice so infused with emotion. Each time we become aware of these desires and act on them, we get one step closer to our essence. If the results turn out well, fabulous! Our confidence in our instincts grows. If they don’t, that’s okay, too—we learn something about what doesn’t work for us.

Simply trying something new is not necessarily the same as taking a risk. Trying new things out of curiosity is experimenting. Trying new things when there is something very real at stake is taking a risk. Trying a new lasagna recipe is an experiment—trying a new lasagna recipe when you’re throwing an important dinner party is a risk. Going out on a date with someone you are mildly interested in is an experiment—getting involved with someone you have intense feelings for is a risk. Experiments are wonderful ways to test the waters and see what you like and what you want, but it is the acts of daring that stretch you.

This isn’t about taking risks for the thrill of it, or for the heck of it. That’s adrenaline—or counteracting boredom. This is about consciously pushing the boundaries of who you are right now in order to see who you might become. It’s about testing yourself in the face of your fears and finding the grit to move forward in spite of them—giving your dreams a chance to fly even if you may very well land right on your butt.

A few years ago, I met a young couple at a yoga retreat who were originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts. They both came from respected families—Allison’s mother was a professor at Harvard, and Jessie’s family was from old Boston money. These two kids were a perfect match—they were both very adventurous, and neither seemed to fit the bill of privilege they were born into. They were generous and relaxed spirits and were just a delight to be around. It didn’t surprise me at all when they told me they had just moved to a small, rural town in New Hampshire and were spending their days renovating an old barn they purchased to make it into a home where they could one day raise their future kids. They had created a whole new life for themselves.

What was so fascinating was hearing their story about how this came to pass. They seemed so young and carefree, but one evening, as Allison and I lingered over dessert and tea, she told me about how big a risk it had felt to them to leave behind all the cultural expectations that had been put on them. They went back and forth about this decision for a long time. They desperately wanted to live a rural life, but they were worried about how their families would react and about whether they would be depriving their future children of an easier life. Ultimately, Alison told me, it was Jessie who said, “If we don’t do this, we’ll always wonder if we made the right choice. But if we do it, either way, we’ll get to find out.” And there it was—the clearest reason to take any risk in life.

You’ve already heard me say that a garden is the most forgiving of mediums, and so it is one of the easiest ways to learn to take risks. My garden contains a lot of risks I’ve taken over the years, some big, some small. There were the mini-risks, like early on when I pulled out the requisite evergreen bushes that come standard with every suburban front lawn. People from the neighborhood were literally lining up to take them, and I thought, Yikes. . . am I really doing this? It was a little scary because suddenly I was labeled “different” and because I had no idea what I was going to put in place of those big gaping holes. Destroying an existing reality before the new one appears in its place can be deeply unsettling, but also exhilarating at the same time.

Then there were the big risks, like the six huge robinia trees I ordered. I had seen these gorgeous trees when I was in England and immediately fell in love with their yellow and green leaves. I had a vision of six of them, arranged in two sets of three on either side of my walkway in triangular configurations. This wasn’t something I had seen done anywhere—most trees are planted symmetrically on either side of a pathway. But I really wanted these, and I really wanted that layout, so after checking with a colleague to make sure I wasn’t creating an overgrown patch of trees waiting to happen, I ordered them. Believe me, I was well aware this could look very strange! Once I got them in the ground, the trees grew and took on a life of their own. They look magnificent and are to this day one of the focal points of my garden.

Every single new planting can be a risk. You spend time, energy, and money. . . all things that have a lot of value. And you never really know how things will turn out. But to me, half the fun is the anticipation of what will be and how I will grow as a result.

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