When I was in college, I would often visit the office of my college mentor on Friday afternoons after my last class. He was a kind elderly professor who would direct me to sit down, quietly light up a pleasant-smelling pipe with his window open (he came into the habit of smoking a pipe when such things were permitted on campus, but occasionally enjoyed the practice with his window open on a breezy day even after they were outlawed), and would ask me questions about my life, listening intently and occasionally share nuggets of really valuable advice.
I miss him greatly.
He shared lots of useful ideas over the years, but one of the most valuable things he ever shared with me was the idea of planting seeds for the future.
Basically, he encouraged me to spend some time every day doing something that would not pay off any time soon and might not ever pay off in any way. Don’t expect anything in return from it, but know that some of those seeds that you plant will eventually bloom into something wonderful, and some of those wonderful blooms will come back into your life, often when you least expect it, to lift you up.
It’s a practice that I’ve tried to do ever since then, with varying degrees of commitment and constant effort. I followed the practice quite a lot in my later college years and at the very start of my professional life, let the practice fall to the side for several years as I dealt with the start of my marriage and having children, and I’ve picked it up again in the last few years.
Why did I pick it up again, you ask? I picked it up again because I saw how well it worked.
There were a few times in the last several years where something that I once did for someone with no expectation in return came back into my life and lifted me up unexpectedly. In each case, it was a “seed” planted years and years ago, and in each case, it was something that I had completely forgotten about until I was reminded of it.
There were also a few times when I saw something going on in someone else’s life, a great thing, that I played some role in starting. I discovered someone on the periphery of my life who was on a far better trajectory than they would have otherwise been on. Not only did that simple fact alone lift my heart, I came to realize that those people were often going around planting seeds as well. Even more than that, I was often indirectly lifted by their good fortune and by the seeds that they had planted themselves.
Those seeds in bloom have helped people I know find new career opportunities, new love interests, new spiritual practices, and many other things. Beyond that, some of those people have helped me to find financial, professional, and personal opportunities in my own life, and have helped my family, too. Beyond that, I’ve seen other people “pay it forward” in various ways that have lifted yet other people in my life, and beyond that is a ripple effect that has improved the entire community I live in.
That’s a pretty powerful effect for something that typically just takes a few minutes here or a few minutes there.
I’ll give you one very specific example, something that happened to me just a few months ago, but the story starts much earlier.
In 2003, I went to a conference related to my job at the time, and at that conference, I spent about two hours, split across two or three days, talking to a person who seemed to be struggling with a career path forward. I mostly just listened to this fellow and gave him a little bit of encouragement and asked a few tight questions. We met during a poster session and then ate breakfast together for a couple of days and that was it. I literally never saw him again, as for some reason we didn’t exchange contact information.
About six months ago, I was at a tabletop gaming convention when out of nowhere, someone shouted, “Trent? Trent!” It was him, and not only did he remember my name, I came to find out that our conversations had changed the direction of his life. He went home, thought things over, and made some major changes in his life. He wound up being involved in the board game publishing industry. He gave me a gigantic hug and then loaded down my arms with a bunch of free games from his booth and proceeded to tell everyone within earshot about how I had changed his life. I felt awkward and overwhelmed by it. However, I’ve found myself playing some of those free games with my children and I’ve had a few wonderful conversations with him in the interim.
It was a seed that was planted, one that I completely forgot about until the blooms caught me by surprise.
Over the years, I’ve learned that a few planted seeds helped me to get my first job out of college. A few planted seeds helped me to get through a rough spot in my relationship with my wife-to-be, probably the most difficult patch we’ve ever had. A few planted seeds helped The Simple Dollar to become successful. One particular planted seed helped to start the ball rolling on what turned into one of my child’s closest friendships.
Seeds I planted long ago, with no expectation of anything in return other than the hope that someday it might be paid forward to someone, have consistently lifted my life personally, financially, professionally, and spiritually.
So, how do you plant seeds like this?
First of all, a good seed is one that purely benefits someone else. When you can do something that can help someone else find a better track in life, you’re planting a perfect seed. There are many ways to do that, as we’ll get to in a moment, but that’s the core idea here.
Second, don’t expect returns. The vast majority of seeds you plant won’t develop into anything at all, at least not anything that you notice. It’s very likely that the seed is caught by the wind and drifts far away from you, or it’s planted in infertile soil. That’s okay. Never expect anything in return. Do it for the sole good of helping someone else out.
Third, plant lots of them. Don’t do this once or twice over the course of a week and give up on it. Make this a regular practice and plant lots of seeds everywhere, no matter where you go.
Finally, be patient You might plant a seed every day for six months and see nothing. That’s okay. Many things take a very long time to germinate. Some are forgotten. Some leave your life entirely. It’s all perfectly fine.
Need some ideas? Here are twenty five seeds you can start planting all over the place in your own life.
25 Seeds for the Future
Seed #1 – Help someone with a simple errand. Help someone with something as simple as picking up a few items for them at the grocery store or dropping off a package for them. Mow someone’s lawn for them while they’re traveling or pull a box off a friend or neighbor’s front step and shoot them a text to let them know you picked it up before a thief could. If you’re out blowing snow at 5 AM, blow the snow off their driveway, too. Little thoughtful tasks like that make an enormous difference.
Seed #2 – Help someone move. If you know a friend is going to move soon, offer to help him or her with the move. You can help them fill up their car or their moving van, and help them unload if they’re moving locally. If they’re moving far away, you’ll help make a difficult transition a little easier and be a final positive reminder of a stage in their life.
Seed #3 – When you see someone struggling, offer to just listen. Often, people who are really in a tough spot just need someone to talk to who will listen. Just offer to be that ear. Say, “Sounds like you’re in a tight spot. I don’t know what I can do to help, but I can listen.” Follow that up with an offer to meet for coffee somewhere, and foot the bill if it’s easy for you.
Seed #4 – Take care of a parent’s child or someone’s pet when that person is facing a true emergency. If someone is dealing with a major life crisis, just step in and take care of their pets or their children automatically. Simply say “I’ve got your pets” or “I’ve got your kids” and tell them not to worry about them at all and you’ll take care of it. Make it seamless for them.
Seed #5 – Sign up for volunteer work. You’d be surprised how many life seeds get planted when you’re engaged in volunteer work. Not only do you sometimes plant seeds in the lives of the people you’re serving, but you’ll sometimes do the same in the lives of the people you’re working with. The simple act of service makes an enormous difference.
Seed #6 – Call someone you love and make the conversation entirely about them, by listening and asking questions rather than talking about yourself and your feelings and situation. It’s easy. Just call them up and ask how they’re doing, then listen intently. Ask lots of follow up questions. Answer any questions they have in return, but avoid turning the conversation into being all about you. Listen, ask questions, and leave that person feeling really valued.
Seed #7 – Check in consistently on a friend or loved one who you know is struggling. Checking in on a struggling friend or loved one isn’t just a one-time thing. Make it into a routine. Send a quick message once every day or two just to make sure they’re okay when things are really bad, and then maybe reduce the frequency a bit when the core crisis has passed – but don’t let the ball drop until everything is really good again.
Seed #8 – Step in to take over household chores during emergencies and personal crises. Bring someone a fully prepared dinner or stop in to prepare it for them (give them notice, but just tell them you’re going to do it). Take their trash can out to the roadside for them. Take a small burden off of already burdened shoulders and it will be remembered.
Seed #9 – Give a strong, positive personal testimonial or reference about someone else. Giving someone a strong reference when they haven’t even asked for it, generally when that person isn’t even around, not only helps plant a great seed in that person’s life, but it can also plant a seed in the life of the person you’re giving the recommendation to if that person is a good fit. Speak positively of others when they’re not around.
Seed #10 – Offer to review someone’s work before they submit it and review it carefully and thoughtfully. If someone is really stressed out about submitting a paper or finishing off a big project, offer to just look it over for them to see if you notice anything amiss. Pay close attention and try to find any minor details that need fixing, as an attention to detail is a demonstration of care, but do it in a way that’s very complimentary of the total package.
Seed #11 – Make a meaningful connection between two people in your life with the sole intent of those two building a healthy relationship independent of you. If you recognize some overlap or connection between two people in your life who may exist in very separate social spheres, seek to make that connection in some fashion without being overly aggressive. In other words, don’t try to be a “matchmaker” and set up blind dates, but just speak positively about the other person when speaking to someone. This leads into the next seed…
Seed #12 – Organize mixed dinner parties where you take care of all of the details and make it as easy as possible for people to attend. A mixed dinner party is where you invite people from different spheres of your life to a dinner party where they can meet each other and enjoy interesting conversation and maybe form the foundation of a friendship. The easiest way to make that work is to simply plan a dinner party on a particular day with all details taken care of – just give everyone a time and a place and what they need to bring, if anything. Choose potentially compatible people and think about some good conversation starters to nudge things along.
Seed #13 – Make someone’s favorite comfort food for them when they’re sick. Few things help more than delivering a pot full of homemade chicken noodle soup to a family with a few sick people at home. They can fill up a bowl and easily microwave it and a good pot will cover several meals. Simply showing up with it makes it so easy for them and so easy to accept, too.
Seed #14 – Write a handwritten thank you card for people in your life who have done something meaningful for you. Handwritten thank you notes are always a good move when someone helps you out, but they’re also a good move as a simple method of thanking a mentor or someone who may have played a foundational role in your life. Consider writing a few. If nothing else, it’ll make the recipient feel really good.
Seed #15 – Keep your home orderly so that you can tell people that your door is always open to them and mean it. Many people who struggle with organization find that they’re very reticent to inviting guests over. Overcome this by making a conscious effort to keep things clean and then make it clear to people that your door is always open to them, so that you feel joyous and ready to help when someone stops by.
Seed #16 – Take care of chores and errands for an injured or sick person; don’t ask, but tell them what you’re going to do. If a friend breaks their leg, for example, tell them that you’re going to mow their lawn for them on Saturday (or Sunday if there’s rain). Don’t ask if they need help – suggest something that you’re highly confident that they’ll need help with and say that you’re going to do it. That way, they don’t feel like they have to ask, and they see you as a very helpful friend.
Seed #17 – If you know someone is struggling with a particular issue, take the time to write some heartfelt and genuine positive advice for them. I do this regularly. If I know someone is struggling with something, I’ll simply write them a note that says, “Hey, I know you’re struggling with X. It isn’t easy and I’m always here to listen. Although my experience was a little different, I went through something kind of like this once a while back, and Y and Z helped me to get through. I’m going to give you a ring at X o’clock tonight just to see how you’re doing.”
Seed #18 – If you know someone is struggling to find work, send out feelers on your own social network to help them find work. Consider what skills they have to offer, then ask around and see if anyone you know has some sort of job opening they’re aware of for people with that particular skill set. This happens surprisingly often, and when it does, you can change a lot of lives at once.
Seed #19 – When someone you know creates something, share it far and wide. If a friend creates a new website or starts a podcast or makes an amazing woodworking project, share it. Let people know about it and how awesome it is. They’ll appreciate it and you may end up finding new fans for them.
Seed #20 – Draw a teenager into conversation and listen to what they’re saying. If you see a teenager sitting off to the side at a social event, sit down with that teenager and draw them into conversation if you can. If they start talking, listen in a very focused way and ask good follow up questions. Don’t bury them in your own advice, either; keep it on them unless they ask you for what you would do. Trust me, people remember who listened to them in their moments of feeling like an outcast.
Seed #21 – Write a note to someone in your own handwriting just telling them what they mean to you. This is a great way to touch back with a beloved old friend or a family member who has meant a lot to you over the years. Simply write about the things that person has done for you and how those things have made a profound difference in your life. This isn’t a thanks so much as a remembrance of who helped you.
Seed #22 – Volunteer for tough tasks in groups you’re involved with. Step up to the plate and do the tough tasks that no one wants to do. The person that does the awful tasks is the person that builds respect and trust within the group.
Seed #23 – Write down useful ideas that others share, and pass along good ideas you have to others. Make yourself into a conduit of good ideas. Make a practice of not only writing down your own good ideas, but the ideas you hear from others, but it goes beyond that. Don’t hoard your ideas. Pass them along whenever they are useful, and give credit to the source.
Seed #24 – Introduce yourself to familiar faces and get to know them by listening and asking questions. If you see someone often enough that their face becomes familiar, introduce yourself and get to know them a little by asking a few questions. Make an effort to remember their name, greet them when you see them, and, if possible, follow up in a positive way on some of the key things they’ve said to you.
Seed #25 – Find someone new in your profession and offer to genuinely mentor them. If you’ve reached a level of success in your career path, identify some new people on your path who show promise and humility and offer to mentor them. Take a direct interest in their career success, talk to them and learn what their goals are, and offer advice and help that will assist them in achieving those goals. Do it not for yourself, but in a genuine effort to lift that person up.
What you’ll quickly notice is that many of these seeds come down to a few things.
Offering specific help when you see that it may be needed.
Being humble and giving credit to others.
Connecting people to each other without forcing it.
Expecting nothing in return.
Use those key principles as often as you can and you will constantly plant seeds in life. Most will remain dormant, but some will eventually bloom into wonderful things in your life and in the lives of others around you. The ones that do bloom will repay you everything you’ve invested and far more. Others will bloom outside of the sphere of your life and lift up countless other lives as well.
Make your life into a garden.