Some of my best ideas come to me when I am driving a tractor on the SK Herefords ranch near Medina, New York. The ranch is owned by my friend Phil Keppler and his business partner David Schubel. SK Herefords grazes 400 head of cattle on 800 acres of land, and it’s where I go when I need “farm therapy.”
For me, farm therapy is spending at least one day working on a farm. I know when I need farm therapy. My writing starts to get a little stale. I find myself beginning to be frustrated by the everyday things that running an innovation consulting firm and teaching at a university entail. Here is why farm therapy at the SK Herefords ranch works for me. It is a change of pace. Walking around in muck boots in six inches of soupy cow manure sure is a change of pace from giving a talk in a well-appointed lecture hall or leading a new product development session in an organization.
So is driving a tractor, bush-hogging 30 acres of fields to prepare the land for the cattle to graze. Tractor time gives me time to think. While I do need to pay attention when I am bush-hogging, it isn’t the same as writing a book, teaching a class, or leading an innovation session. (If you are unfamiliar with a bush-hog, think of a 20-foot-wide lawn mower.)
Farm therapy provides me with a clearly visible measure of accomplishment. I feel a real sense of satisfaction when I look back over an evenly-mowed field that was dotted by clumps of tall weeds and uneven growth just hours earlier.
In my usual work, I don’t have the luxury of seeing that immediate and visible accomplishment. Students may begin to think differently after they have been in one of my seminars or new products and services will be implemented in the future, but I can’t see that change right away.
Finally, when I’m on the farm, the decisions are up to someone else. In my daily life I have to make countless decisions, just like you. When I go to the farm, Phil makes the decisions for me. Phil tells me what to do, and we make it happen.
“Let’s move those hay bales off the north 40.” We go do it. “We need to feed cattle at David’s place.” We load up the feed truck, and off we go.
It’s that simple. I don’t have to make the decisions. I just go, and I do the job. I’m amazed by how refreshing it is and how renewed I feel. After farm therapy, I can almost guarantee that I will gain a new insight into a problem I am working on. A great idea crystalizes for a chapter in a book, or a new insight for a program design presents itself.
John Gardner in his classic book On Leadership, interviewed many leaders and asked them how they renewed themselves. Some had a favored environment or pastime. They had a beach to walk on or a steam to fish in. However, a general theme appeared, that he summed up in a short line of advice: “Do something nonverbal. Music, nature, sensory enjoyment, work with one’s hands, gardening, sports.”
Another reason why farm therapy is so beneficial is based on a classic tenet of the creative process. Often breakthrough ideas come to us when we step away from the problem and “incubate.” You’ve likely experienced it yourself. You’ve been working on a problem for a long time. You haven’t made progress, and you back off to do something else. After your period of incubation, the idea hits you.
To nurture your creativity, find your own form of farm therapy. Whatever your farm therapy is, make sure that it has these three attributes:
- It is a change of pace from your usual activities.
- You can see a tangible result from your actions, so you can feel a sense of accomplishment.
- You don’t have to make decisions as to what to do next.
That’s it. Find an activity that fits those criteria, go out and do it. You will be amazed at the impact it will have on your clarity and your creative muscles when you break from your routine. Truth be told, I have taken a few falls into soupy cow manure when my muck boots have gotten stuck. Now that’s a change of pace!
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