Or “How I Used to Have a Life Before I Started a Business”

Once upon a time, I dreamt of leaves. Every night.

In fact, leaves permeated my subconscious mind so thoroughly that in the bizarre world of my dreams, or even in those half-waking moments just before sleep, I found myself eating leaves, wearing them as clothes, and even using them as a form of currency. Cities were built of them and all language, spoken and written, was based on them.

For that period of time, it was as if my brain had decided that leaves, not atoms nor molecules, were the building blocks of all existence.

Now let me tell you why …

After two years at my second college, I had become frustrated by a lot of things, and decided to drop out to write a novel. But I needed to make money to live on. So that summer, I took a job as a groundskeeper at a place called “Motel in the Woods” in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I worked six hours a day, seven days a week.

For the first few months, the job meant mowing the grass, doing some painting, making or helping the owner make small repairs to the various buildings, and often washing the sheets and towels that the cleaning ladies would regularly drop off in the laundry room that served as my office.

I didn’t care much for working every day of the week, of course, but it was better money than a retail or fast food job, and the owners — a young married couple with a three-year old daughter — were truly a joy to work for.

As summer drew to a close, though, and we entered September, the implications of being the groundskeeper at a place called “Motel in the Woods” hit me like a ton of bricks. Or, in this case, like a ton of leaves. From that point on, for the next few months, it seemed as if my entire life, seven days a week, revolved around leaves.

Raking leaves. Blowing leaves. Bagging leaves. Climbing up on ladders and rooftops to clean leaves out of gutters. Adding mesh to gutters to keep leaves from building up in them. Fixing gutters that were bent out of shape or unmoored by the weight of wet leaves. More raking, more blowing, more bagging. Every day. Day in and day out.

No wonder then that I started dreaming about them. When you’re doing one thing all the time, without a break, it starts to feel as if that thing becomes your life.

It’s been thirty years since I had that job (which I left that winter to embark on a trip across the country in a U-Haul truck). Yet as I was raking and blowing the leaves in our yard this weekend, I could remember every bit of it as if it were yesterday.

Ironically, in this case, dealing with the leaves was a welcome distraction from working. Because just as I did back then, I’ve been putting in quite a few seven-day weeks for months now. It’s rare that I take a day off for the weekend, much less two. Such is the life of a solopreneur trying to build his business up.

And yet even as I performed this seemingly menial task, I chuckled to find that I still wasn’t turning my brain off and letting work go entirely …

As I pointed the leaf blower at some stray leaves and directed them over to the large pile I was creating, I thought, “These leaves are like all of the tasks I have on my plate right now. Or maybe they’re like the jobs and clients I’ve been taking on one at a time over the past year. Considered separately, they may not seem like much. But when I see them in a big pile, I understand how they fit into the big picture of my business.”

So there I was, doing it again. Thirty years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about leaves, even in my down time. And now I can’t stop thinking about what I do for a living — writing and marketing and storytelling and crafting analogies and finding clients. I see it everywhere, in everything I do. In little brown birds and paddle boards … and leaves, apparently.

This should be a good thing, right? I’m “in the zone” as they say. I’ve probably never been more on my game in my life. Never more confident than I am now that a new level of success is just around the corner if I continue to dig deep, put in the work, and pursue my vision. I’m right on the cusp of transforming my business into something exciting and new (and utterly terrifying), and I’m taking the steps to make it happen.

But at what cost? Because I’ll admit, I’m feeling somewhat burnt out. Some days, I don’t have the energy to push ahead. And I do anyway … but to be honest, I resent it a little. I think back to two years ago, when I had a job I hated, but also had the ability to sometimes “check out” for a day and indulge myself by doing nothing productive whatsoever.

I miss that sometimes. And yet I wouldn’t trade it for what I have now.

If you’re waiting for me to whip up another analogy here that ties everything up in a neat bow, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint. Sometimes, life is just about keeping one step ahead of the leaves. You can have the yard looking perfect, and then one day it gets cold or windy or rainy, and next thing you know, you’re out there raking again. Lather, rinse, repeat. It doesn’t end until the tree is bare and the days are short and you’re wondering how long it will be before the rake is replaced by the snow shovel.

Still, the falling leaves and snow, however backbreaking and tedious they may be, bring with them something else … the implied promise of spring.

So again, I won’t lie. It’s hard right now. The days are too short and the work never ends. But there is something waiting on the other side of the solstice. As Nina Simone crooned so hauntingly, there’s “a new day … a new dawn … a new life for me.” So all I can do is focus on that. Let the vision of what’s ahead for my business, for myself, guide me there, to a world where something other than leaves are the building blocks of existence.

If I close my eyes, I can almost see it. Smell it. Feel it.

Nina knows what I mean …

“Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don’t you know
Butterflies all havin’ fun, you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done, that’s what I mean
And this old world, is a new world
And a bold world for me.”