The Parable of the Soils

Tom Morris

This past week, on a fun trip to Baltimore to speak on success to one of my favorite financial service firms (you guys know who you are), I read John Kotter's excellent book Leading Change. Why do some change initiatives work and others fail? Why do some programs that succeed wildly at some companies seem to go nowhere at others? This is the topic of Kotter's book. And it's a topic on many people's minds. It was also, by coincidence, the topic of the Sunday sermon two days later at the church I attend.

Let me play the role of preacher and read to you from the New Testament, The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 13 verses 1-9.

That same day, Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him so that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where there was very little soil, and they sprang up right away, since there was no depth to the soil. But when the sun arose, they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds yet fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear."

I like to think of myself as something like a Johnny Appleseed of ancient wisdom throughout the land of modern business. It's been especially interesting to me over the years to see how people react to the insights on success that I've discovered in the works of so many of the great practical philosophers. I've been very gratified with the number of standing ovations the great thinkers receive, and with the incredible emails I get when I return back home. I love to feel the energy in a big room, or in a convention center, when people are responding to new perspectives on excellence and achievement they know they can use.

But in many of even the most enthusiastic audiences, inevitably, a few people are apparently unmoved. I've finally learned that I can't win over everybody, despite my desire to change the life of every person in every audience, however many hundreds or thousands that may be in any one hour. Some people are just not yet ready. There are birds in their lives snatching up and devouring any positive insight that comes their way. Other people get very excited while they're hearing, and keep up their enthusiasm for days, or even weeks, but they don't let the message sink deeply into their minds and hearts. And they wonder months later what happened to all the wave of energy they felt. Some people have thorns in their lives - worries, stresses, self-destructive behaviors - that choke out the wisdom that could have taken root and grown. But I'm so glad to see how many people in every walk of life are fertile soil, take the seeds of ideas and insights, and allow them to blossom into life changing wisdom.

The minister in my church, one of the best public speakers I've ever heard, told a story about his first time on the radio, when he was twenty two years old. He had twenty minutes to do a sermon, and had practiced it over and over to get the timing perfect. The sound engineer had emphasized the importance of not having any dead air at all. The young preacher needed to use the entire twenty minutes, but no more. He practiced it until he finally had it nailed.

On the day of the live broadcast, he got the signal and launched into his sermon with a combination of nerves and enthusiasm. He got to about his half way point in his prepared material, looked up at the studio clock, and saw that it must have broken - it showed only four minutes elapsed. He quickly checked his watch, and it seemed to have broken too. Four minutes. Well, he quickly concluded that he was so excited, and talking so fast, that he was double timing the talk. He finished in eight minutes flat. But dead air was not allowed. So he gave the whole sermon again. And he had to do it yet again half way through to fill the time.

He went away completely embarrassed and was shocked when a lady came up to him later that day in a store and told him how much his message had meant to her. She was good soil.

When I played guitar in bands, I remember on occasion performing when I was sick with the flu, or some monster virus. They show must go on, so I learned how to do my job regardless of how I felt. I've had to use that same inner strength in my work as a public philosopher. Once every few years, I'll have a talk to give somewhere in the country, and I'll be so sick I can't imagine how I'll be able to do it. But I somehow do. And usually the audience has no clue I'm delirious. I seem like that most of the time anyway, so no big deal.

But before one speech several years to, a talk to The Urban Land Institute, at a national meeting in Florida, I had such a horrible cold the night before, I lost my voice completely. When I woke up for the talk the next morning, I had no voice. I could whisper but not actually speak. "How can I do this?" I remember thinking. I gargled with salt water, drank hot tea with honey and lemon juice and used all the positive thinking I could muster. Two hours later, when I walked on to the stage in front of many hundreds of people, I could croak, but that was about it. I held the microphone to my lips and croaked out a talk on the 7 Cs of Success.

I was surprised by all the applause. I went back to my room thinking, "Well I did my best." But as I flew home I wondered to myself why I had even tried. I should have stayed home. No one could be affected by that talk.

I discovered years later that an audio tape of that talk had changed the lives of countless real estate people. Of all presentations! In one real estate office, the developer of a large beautiful resort community had listened to that tape over eighty times. His head of sales had heard it over sixty times. All their sales people had played it dozens of times. They structured their Monday morning meetings around its principles. And when they moved on to other jobs, running other sales offices, and now working as consultants nationwide, they took those ideas into their new challenges. One of the original salesmen who was trained on that tape recently told me he has listened to it over four hundred times, breaking two cassettes in the process. And he says it has changed his life, putting him in a position to help other people in his field all over the country. The people who worked for that one developer have gone on to do great things. And they have used the tape of that talk I gave with almost no voice to inspire themselves and others on to amazing achievements. These people were fertile soil indeed. The sower was hardly able to move, and the seed barely got out there at all. But they were fertile soil and the growth that has resulted has been stunning.

What can we all draw from this? The parable of the soils warns us about assuming that the issue of success or failure always turns on the sower or the seed. Sometimes, the basic issue is the soil. When we do our jobs, we have to realize that there are all sorts of soils out there in the world, and there are all sorts of conditions that may prevent or promote our ideas taking hold and flourishing. Our job is just to work at the peak of our abilities, while knowing that the results lie ultimately in the soil.

What does that imply? First, if you're in any executive position, make sure that you hire the best people you can find - give your enterprise the most fertile soil you can. And then fertilize that soil - but not with the scraps, leavings and droppings that some companies throw at their employees. Use the universally proper soil enhancers described in If Aristotle Ran General Motors: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity. Attend to the intellectual, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual needs of people at work, and you'll be amazed how fertile the soil can become.

Second, we should each ask ourselves what sort of soil we are. I for one am very demanding about quality issues when it comes to sowers and seeds. But I should always also engage in that age old enterprise of self-knowledge and make sure I'm the best soil I can be, so that I can make that most of any seed of insight I come across.

Why do some programs work in some companies but not in others? Why are some initiatives successful in one context but a failure in others? Why do some people use the insights of the great thinkers to leap up to a higher level of life experience and achievement, and others just don't? The parable of the soils gives us a helpful reminder.

Whenever you want to plant a new idea or policy, ask first, "Have I prepared the soil?"

May you and I ourselves be the richest and most fecund soil imaginable every day!

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