Martin Melaver  @  ChelseaGreen

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In Praise of Late Bloomers

Posted on Saturday, March 28th, 2009 at 9:24 am by Martin Melaver

It’s already spring in my hometown of Savannah, GA. Partiers have already blown in and out of town to celebrate a raucous St. Patrick’s day. The tourists are in full swing, enjoying a three-week music festival and the annual tour of homes. And, of course, there’s the early bursting onto the scene of azaleas, the photogenic poster-child for travel magazines capturing my historic city framed by the whites, pinks, and orange blooms.

It seems I have spent my life amidst the hustle of fast-growth, early-blooming activities.

Decades ago, back in school, it seemed I was surrounded by classmates all certain of their trajectory in life. They were off to law school or to study business or medicine while I was still, in that somewhat patronizing phrase, “discovering myself.” In the ensuing years, businesses grew exponentially, executive salaries ballooned, and last year’s crop of built-to-last companies got replaced by fast company wannabees. Meanwhile, my own company, founded in 1940 by my grandmother, was still trying to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up.

It’s taken much of my professional life to get comfortable with the notion of slow growth. After all, the role models all around us evoke what the financial scholar Joseph Schumpeter once promulgated, a culture of creative destruction: “the perpetual cycle of destroying the old and less efficient product or service and replacing it with new, more efficient ones.” It’s been a generation of Schumpeter triumphing over Schumacher, the global over the local, the fast-moving invasive species over slow, native plantings.

It’s taken much of my professional life to get comfortable with the notion that it takes perhaps a lifetime for the parts to cohere. To create a business culture in which individual value systems gel into an overarching sense of meaning and purpose. To learn how to leverage the activities of a small business to shape change in a community. To be part of an overall movement where all of our major social sectors ─ civic organizations, government, faith-based groups, academia, and businesses ─ join forces to shape a more sustainable way of life.

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with a class of graduating high-school seniors in my hometown. My own alma mater over thirty years ago. I was curious about whether the current downturn in the economy was shaping their thoughts about college and beyond. Were they suddenly finding themselves forced to think more pragmatically about their choice of a major, their selection of a profession, of making a living? Did they find themselves thinking linearly, getting themselves “on track?” Did they feel they had the luxury of time to explore? Where were their dreams in all of this?

Their answers varied widely. Some seemed as fast-track focused as classmates of mine thirty years ago. And others didn’t have a clue? I found myself wanting to reassure this latter group, to let them know that our culture needs more than ever later bloomers.

So as the azaleas run through their gaudy display in my hometown, I find myself looking forward to seeing signs of low-growing vines like the dwarf smilax. They aren’t the sexiest-looking plants, are evergreen, have these simple red berries in the fall and winter, and are so common as to go unnoticed. I’ve never seen them glossing the pages of a travel magazine. And yet there they are, year after year, providing needed ground cover for my region.

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