Turning Life’s Manure into Fertilizer

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Better than a pony, there is hope and wisdom in that giant pile of manure

Remember the story about the twin brothers, one an optimist, the other a pessimist?   When the optimistic boy finds a pile of horse manure rather than wrapped gifts under the  Christmas tree, he is gleeful: “With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere!”  I’ve never been that optimistic, but while coaching last week, I realized I have found a way to turn the manure of my life into treasure for others.

One reason I love coaching individuals is that this work lets me use all my hard times, trial and error experiments, failures, and hard-earned insights to support, help, and encourage others.  I can point out short-cuts along the way; provide resources; help clients shift perspective, see new possibilities, and believe in themselves; remind them that they are not the only person facing a similar situation; and simply be with them so they know they are not alone.

Have you ever:

  • Had no luck during months of job hunting? Maybe even had a great interview but lost the job to someone with more connections?
  • Moved cross-country one year and had everything crater such that you moved back the next year?
  • Lost a relationship (romantic or platonic) that you believed was forever?
  • Followed the expected/accepted path and then been stunned to find yourself deeply unhappy and unfulfilled?
  • Started a company that failed to thrive or otherwise taken a big risk that didn’t turn out as you hoped?
  • Felt like an utter failure or wondered how you’ll claw your way out of the hole you find yourself in?
  • Longed for some ease, certainty, and stability when all your hard work seems to have gotten you nowhere ?

Me too.*

And all that experimentation, frustration, and bouncing back make me a better coach than I otherwise would be.  My guidance doesn’t come just from theory, book learning, second-hand accounts, or observations; it comes from personal experience.  My struggles now help ease the way for others.  The manure has become golden wisdom!

As a friend, mentor, parent, or manager, you can do the same thing.  Sometimes, we hesitate to discuss our struggles because we fear they will take away from our credibility or accomplishments.  In fact, the opposite is true: when you share your failures as well as what you learned from them, your advice is more credible because it’s field-tested.  Which is more powerful to you: “Trust me, I know the way out,” or “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out”?**  It also makes your advice more realistic and easier to follow; because if you’ve never struggled or made a mis-step, your advice doesn’t feel applicable to the person and their predicament.  –And even if your guidance doesn’t fit this person or the present circumstances, the recipient (friend, mentee, employee, or child) will still have the comfort and support of knowing it isn’t just them who has had doubts, hit dead-ends, had to begin anew, etc.  Just that can provide great encouragement and sustenance.

Every time I use my experiences to help someone else, I feel great joy, and the sting from the hard times decreases because good has resulted from my struggles.  It’s a wonderful alchemy (no heavy metals needed)!  And a great way to “pay it forward” and thank the friends, mentors, and teachers  who share their hard-earned wisdom and perspective with me in order to save me some floundering and suffering.

What manure can you turn into fertilizer to help others grow and flourish?


* Though that first list makes my life sound like a never-ending train wreck, it is also true that:

  • I live a happy, fulfilling life
  • I always had successes, joys, and positive learnings along the way—even during the bleakest years
  • I gained more strength, resilience, confidence, humility, and gratitude from the hard times and struggles than the easy successes—which makes continued risk-taking and experimentation easier

**Clip from The West Wing,  season 2, episode 10, “Noel”

The parable of a man stuck in a deep hole with steep sides:   West Wing - I've been here before

   “Are you stupid?  Now we’re both down here!”

   “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out


Related Materials

Anne Lamott on the power of “Me too!”
I haven’t found the book, article, or interview by Ms. Lamott where I first encountered this idea, but it’s briefly referenced here.

Brene Brown’s TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability
Like Ms. Lamott, Ms. Brown notes that “Me too” is one of the most comforting things we can say to people.

The talk focuses on the surprise (and unwanted) finding of  Ms. Brown’s research: being vulnerable is the key to connecting with people and living a full, content, “whole-hearted” life.  In other words, sharing hard and scary stuff is necessary to build deep connection and live a deeply fulfilling life.

Michael J. Massimino, “A View of the Earth at The Moth (or here if you prefer reading to listening)
Mass applied to NASA four times (and interviewed twice) before he was accepted.  Then when on a mission that he and thousands of others had spent five years and millions of dollars preparing for, things went wrong almost immediately.

This story is also a great example of how many more people are thinking about and rooting for us than we often realize.  We are not nearly as alone as we often believe.  I’ve read and heard this story at least three times; each time I tear up at the end.

“Late Bloomers” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, October 20, 2008
Gladwell argues that genius isn’t just a product of youth; some of the greatest works of art have been created after years of experimentation and “failure.”  (I say the same applies to meaningful lives/ meaningful ways of living.)  He also notes that the emotional, professional, and financial support of spouses, parents, friends, and mentors was critical to their success.

A few quotes to whet your appetite for the full article:

  • The Cézannes [and Mark Twains] of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.
  • “I mean, imagine if the craft you’re trying to learn is to be an original. How could you learn the craft of being an original?” [Quoting author Jonathan Safran Foer]
  • . . . If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.
  • . . . [S]ometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.


Photo courtesy of Unsplash at Pixabay.com

Alexandra Marchosky
Alexandra Marchosky
I coach individuals and organizations to do and be better by more fully living their values.
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