Plant the Seeds
Willy: Tell me – is there a seed store in the neighborhood?
Stanley: Seeds? You mean like to plant?
Willy: Yes. Carrots, peas...
Stanley: Well, there's hardware stores on Sixth Avenue, but it may be too late now.
Willy: Oh, I'd better hurry. I've got to get some seeds. I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground.
– Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller
In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's life is unraveling. He is a 63 year-old traveling salesmen, driving hundreds of miles each week to see clients while still struggling to pay the bills for his shabby Brooklyn house.
Willy's health is deteriorating: constantly exhausted and stressed, he frequently suffers from delusions and manic episodes that ignite petty arguments between his wife and two sons. It doesn't help that his 34 year-old son Biff, a failed football player turned cowboy turned petty thief, has just moved back home to straighten his life out. The two now argue incessantly, mostly about what could've been. Biff was a high school football star whose career was cut short when he flunked out his senior year, partially due to Willy's parental negligence. Willy once dreamed of owning his own business, but unwilling to take risks and convert dreams into reality, he never made the leap.
They both desperately want to make a change. Biff reassures his Dad he'll just start a new sporting goods venture with his brother or make a casual trip downtown and get a high-paying sales gig. Willy tells his son he'll just go into his boss's office one day and finally demand him for a salary so he won't have to travel. To them, a turnaround, an easy fix, a new beginning is right around the corner.
Of course, they both don't realize that substantial, sustaining improvements in life don't happen so easy. They don't happen overnight, with just a snap of the finger or after a 30 minute bull session. Instead, big changes happen after years and years of investment and re-investment of good habits, skills, and relationships. That's why Willy and Biff are so stuck in their respective situations: because of poor decisions they continued to make over several years and that will take several years to reverse.
It's trite. It's obvious. But sometimes we all forget this cumulative, compounding effect of experiences over time. Playing Little League teaches us grit, which gets us through algebra homework, which gets us to college, which gets us to a certain career or to meaningful relationships. The habits build and build on each other, like a snowball growing larger as it rolls down the hill or a few dollars compounding into a few hundred thousand as they sit in stocks. If done right, investing and re-investing in specific goals is what generates life's biggest returns.
In Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday uses Bill Clinton as an example of someone who leveraged the compounding effect of re-investment in relationships to become President:
"As a young man, Bill Clinton began a collection of note cards upon which he would write names and phone numbers of friends and acquaintances who might be of service when he eventually entered politics. Each night, before he ever had a reason to, he would flip through the box, make phone calls, write letters, or add notations about their interactions. Over the years, this collection grew – to ten thousands cards. It's what put him in the Oval Office and continues to return dividends."
In other words, when it was time for Clinton to cash-in his years of hard work to get elected, he had seeds in the ground to harvest. He had friends, and his friends' friends, and his friends' friends' wealthy donor friends, and so forth.
In the age of viral success, sudden disruptions, and instant answers at our fingertips, an illusion develops: that we can be anything, anywhere, anytime. We can change a title on LinkedIn and suddenly be an entrepreneur. We can read a few articles or watch a few YouTube lectures and be an expert. We just need to brand ourselves, be "well-liked", and make the change without the years of experience, skills, and support to back us up.
As we learn from Willy's situation in Death of a Salesman, that's the wrong approach. After decades of traveling, he never built any real skills, forged any meaningful relationships, or pursued any substantive goals. Instead, he frittered away night after night with a mistress in Boston, spent his long car rides day-dreaming and "what if"-ing, and avoided investing time and energy into his sons' lives. After 30 years, he (as the metaphor goes) still didn't have a thing planted in the ground. And the seed stores were all closed.
As Warren Buffett preaches, "the most important investment you can make is in yourself."
Periodically we should ask ourselves: am I investing for the long run? Am I building the right cumulative habits and skills and relationships, even if they may not make an impact for several months, years, or decades?
Am I planting the seeds?
(1) Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller
(2) Ego is the Enemy (2016) by Ryan Holiday