“I learned when I was a child that it was better to be lichen. It was better to be hardy and durable and scrappy, and a little rough. It was better to look inedible, lest you get eaten. But what if I’m an orchid?”

You’re tough. You’re resilient. But what if… what if you are also an orchid, who needs just the right shade, the right place to perch, the just right amount of water? It’s ok. And you might need to hire someone to do the (metaphorical) misting for you. And also- in your employees or teams you might have orchids, lichens, pine trees, cedar trees, thick grasses. How do you meet the needs of everyone, and get your own needs met? The good news is- it’s possible.

Transcript and notes:


Recorded 12 July 2023.


Hi, everyone, thanks for tuning in.

So I was talking, I was talking to one of my coaches yesterday. And what she said to me was, "but what if you're just an orchid" And while I didn't say exactly this, what I thought immediately was, I can't be an orchid. Orchids don't survive.

As you all know, I was recently reading Braiding Sweetgrass, and there's this whole thing in there about lichen, and how it works, and how it forms. And how it's an interesting kind of symbiotic coexistence and how it starts in the places where nothing else is. On empty rock. Under naked sky. And how it exists and persists and it's delicate if you walk on it, but also, it will survive and survive and survive until something else can take root. It will last for a long time. It is old. It is also food if you need it to be. So many little things about lichen.

But I learned when I was a child that it was better to be lichen. It was better to be hardy and durable and scrappy, and a little rough. It was better to look inedible, lest you get eaten. It was better to work your way across bare rock faces. It was better to be able to perch in the shower of sea spray, layer after layer of salt meaning nothing. It was better to be a little hungry than overfull. Meanwhile, meanwhile: orchids.

Now the funny thing about orchids is that some people say that they're super easy to grow and some people say they're super hard to grow and picky. And I suspect that this has to do not just with the temperament of the person and the rest of their plant experiences but also with their environment. If your environment is orchid easy to begin with- if it's a little humid, if you have places for the orchids to cluster and grip and climb. If you have some kind of forest-y canopy for them to shelter under- that might be all you need.

That might be it, and it might be really easy to grow an orchid if you give an orchid, orchid space. Orchid resources. Orchids don't really grow in dirt. Their roots need to be kind of loosely exposed. That's okay.

What if you have loosely exposed root-type media for the orchids to grow in? Or trees for them to clean to? They don't need dirt. Don't put them in dirt. If you put them in dirt, the roots might start to rot. Especially if you give them too much water, which is really easy to do. They want certain kinds of light. They want certain kinds of weather. If it's too dry in your house, because it's winter, or because it's summer, you might have to mist them. Maybe every day.

How do you feel about playing with spray bottles?

I used to love doing it as a kid but I forget for weeks on end and you know what doesn't like that? Is an orchid. So it really depends where the orchid is living. If you give the orchid the right environment it will thrive and it will bloom again and again and it will be happy. If you pet it, if you talk nicely to it; if you have special small-plant magic.

My East Coast partner has special small-plant magic. And her orchids are re-blooming on her kitchen table. With a kind of benign neglect and affectionate attention. Well above the reach of the bunny rabbit with whom they share space. Usually I just kill them. Or at least they appear to be dead. I can't even tell.

But what if- my coach said- "what if? What if you're an orchid? What if you are an orchid? And what if that's okay, what if it's okay for you to be an orchid? What if you're not doing anything wrong by needing mist? By needing exposed roots where everybody thinks they should be covered? What if you're not doing anything wrong by needing attention? And shade, but not too much? Just right."

Goldilocks needed things just right, too. And we have this story that she was doing something wrong by saying "this one's too hot. And this one's too cold. And this one's just right."

I think we should be very concerned about the idea that a little blond haired girl is okay walking into somebody else's house and partaking of all of their resources with no permission. That sounds awfully terribly familiar.

But that she was choosing between something that was too hard and too soft, and just right. That- that seems okay to me. In fact, it seems ideal.

Should not we all get to choose between things that are not quite right this way, and not quite right that way and find the ones that suit us best? And thrive in that environment, take a nap, eat a meal, sit in a chair. We just need to be working in collaboration with the people providing those resources and asking permission. Especially if they don't belong to us.

"But really, what if you're just an orchid?" she said. And I, I couldn't at first and then I was like, I don't know. I don't know. Orchids don't survive. I, I wouldn't have survived to this point if I had. But I did. I'm here and maybe now this is my orchid era.

In business, this is complicated. There's a certain you have to show that you are pulling your weight that comes with leadership. People want to know that they're in the process and in labor together and not just out there alone, working while you sit back and collect your coins. And that's fair.

But also part of why we might need to hire people is because we are orchids. Part of why we might need specific resources is because we are orchids.

The key is to remember that the people who work with us and for us may also be orchids of their own kind. And if they are also orchids, and they come to us and say "I need a spray bottle, I need a place to stretch my roots out. I need a little shade, but not too much."

We cannot say "my needs need to be met. But yours do not."

That is the root of so much fracture and resentment. And we've come to expect it. We've come to expect it which is terrible. We should not be burning people in the sun while we sit at leisure. Those people in the sun shouldn't be neither our clients nor our employees. They should not be our contractors. We should not be trying to wring every last drop that we can out of them. And if we can't provide what they need, then we need to make room for them to find it somewhere else, even if it is complicated for us.

But the bottom line is- the bottom line is that the bottom line is not the most important part. The bottom line is that what's the most important part is meeting those needs.

If you want an orchid working with you, then we have to be prepared to provide shade, misters, exposed roots- but not too much. All of that goes with having an orchid. The trick is we have orchids and lichens and pine trees and cedar trees and grasses. And often our businesses need a little of a lot of that stuff.

So what do we do with that? How do we make a space where everyone can thrive together? And where we don't have to feel guilty for meeting our orchid needs because everybody has needs and they're all getting met.

We can be in integrity and get our needs met at the same time.

That means acknowledging that there are probably conflicting access needs. That means almost certainly being a fully distributed team so that everybody can work from where works best for them. It means figuring out meeting schedules that if they don't meet everyone's needs at a consistent time, then they can be at different times on different days or for different people. It means giving people a generous budget to set up their work area the way they need it to.

It means caring about your people first.

The customer is not always right. That idea has destroyed so many things in so many people. People say that from a place of commerce and capitalism, but it's not true. We have to meet all the needs in the room.

And sometimes we have to protect our people. They're our people.

Sometimes we just give them a spray bottle, or an exposed rock. Or an empty field or a freshly burned forest. Like seeds, we let them plant themselves and then we nourish them where they are. And we believe them about what they need. We treat them like adults, which is so rare. And we treat them like adults that we care about. And that can start with us but it can't end with us.

What if you're an orchid? And it's just okay to be an orchid.

Thanks for tuning in. Talk with you soon.