I was recently asked by a friend how to get into gardening as a career. After many years working in an office, he wanted a change. Horticulture seemed to offer what they were after so I was only too happy to give them an intro as to what to expect. It got me thinking about the many different ways that people come into this profession and how to ensure we continue to develop and grow.
I think I have always been a gardener. We moved house when I was 4, and my parents set about transforming the garden at our new home. I was only too happy to muck in. I even made my first garden for my action man, complete with a lawn, swimming pool and tiny hedging plants. I remember helping in the veg garden spreading manure in the winter and the pride I felt when, next autumn, I could take a marrow that seemed almost as big as myself to the Harvest Festival celebrations. As I got older, in a bid to avoid household chores, I offered to take care of the garden. I would cut the grass, trim hedges and sweep the paths to receive my pocket money. In the summer I would supplement it by helping at the soft fruit farm down the road, although I think I probably ate far more strawberries than I picked.
It was only natural that when it came to selecting my career path I chose Horticulture. I knew I wanted to spend my time outside taking care of and managing landscapes. Whilst I was studying at university, I would spend my free days and weekends working in plant nurseries and alongside landscapers to make extra money. Once I had completed my degree I was able to take on a full time role working as a gardener.
I am a big believer in the master and apprentice model. To work in close quarters with someone who has a detailed knowledge and extensive experience is a great way to learn and develop a new skill. Ken, my first full-time boss, took me under his wing to foster my interest and help develop me. His patience and guidance were a huge influence for which I am still thankful. It was my first experience of the people for whom horticulture is not just a job, but a way of life.
Since then I have had many different roles. I have worked landscaping new-build properties, taken care of historic estates, maintained celebrity’s gardens, and tested new plant varieties. In every different role I was lucky to find many new things to learn to keep me inspired to continue my ongoing professional development.
If we are to develop in our role the constant improvement and refinement of our skills is a must. One of the most valuable skills we can cultivate is learning how to learn. In an era where information proliferates there is no shortage of sources, whether it is from books, websites or our mentors. We need to know ourselves and how we learn best so we can focus our efforts and get the most out of them if we are to excel.
There have been many studies of peak performers and what helped them to become the best in their field. One of the most commonly quoted is the now famous study by Anders Ericsson, popularised by Malcom Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ as “The 10,000 hour rule”. Anders’ study stated that, to become brilliant at anything, one must first do at least 10,000 hours of practice. Obviously it is not quite as simple as just practicing for 10,000 hours. The quality of the practice also matters. There should be clear goals, feedback mechanisms and periods of assessment and reflection. These are essential to further refine the skills which, will eventually turn a beginner into a world-class expert.
Some people say that an ‘expert’ is simply someone who is one step further along the path than yourself. It is important that we take time to build relationships with those who have also previously been in our position. These people can act as our mentors, able to help us along our own path, offering help, guidance and contact with the people who will be able to aid our development and progression.
To be successful in any area, it is essential we also cultivate the right character. In her book ‘Grit’, Angela Duckworth identified some of the key traits that gave people the ‘stick-with-it-ness’ that enabled them to reach the top of their profession.The four key elements she identified were:
Interest – You need to be fascinated by your subject. If you lose this fascination you need to find a way to revitalise your excitement and enthusiasm for it. It can help to find a small aspect of your field that catalysed your interest and really focus in on it with intense scrutiny.
Practice – You will need to practice relentlessly. Not just hours of repetitive practice, but practice that is working towards a real and tangible goal in order to succeed. Make sure you get unbiased feedback along the way, and take action on it to constantly refine your practice.
Purpose – It is important to know exactly what you are aiming for, otherwise how will you know where to shoot? Our lives, even as adults, need space for fun and play, but we should always keep an idea of the ultimate aim in sight.
Hope – Possibly one of the most essential elements. You have to truly believe that you can (and will) improve and get better.
We often see someone who is brilliant at their profession as a ‘natural’ who was ‘born to do this’. We act as though their innate skills had been awarded to them at birth. We only ever see the finished article. We are usually completely unaware of the many long hours of hard work and practice they have put in behind the scenes to get to this level of performance. It has taken many years of careful cultivation and help from many different people to tend those delicate young shoots and ensure they flourish, developing into the fully-grown specimens that we finally see.