Survey a Large Field, Cultivate a Small One

5 Principles of Personal Growth in Agrarian Wisdom

There is an old saying, “Survey a large field, cultivate a small one.” Like many aphorisms, we don’t know who originally said it, nor the specific context. That’s also part of its strength.

Rules can be applied only in a very specific, narrow context. Principles, on the other hand, have broad application. It’s the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law—when you understand the spirit, you can usually apply the letter pretty accurately, and with less memorization. It just takes judgement.

I don’t work on a farm. You probably don’t, either. But there are principles in this saying that we can apply in our daily lives. It’s just as relevant to us as it was our agrarian forefathers.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / flownaksala

  • Keep the big picture in mind. No action is taken in a vacuum. Every choice we make affects not only the people around us but the choices that we can make tomorrow. The best choices make more choices instead of taking them away. Think about how what you’re doing today fits into the bigger picture you have for your life. This helps with your inspiration, your motivation, and your direction.
  • Focus on your circle of influence. You have a large degree of influence over the field you’re cultivating. That’s your reponsibility. There will be outside factors that influence it—you can’t control those. You can’t make the rain fall or cause the sun to shine, but you can prepare, plant, and nurture—and enjoy the harvest.
  • Less but better. You can do anything you want but not everything. Since you can only cultivate a small portion of the field, why not pick the best spot to work with? Seeking challenge for the sake of challenge just wastes your time and drains your energy. Pick the very best spot and plant the very best crops.
  • The best work is created mentally before it‘s created physically. Note the implicit order: you only begin to cultivate the small field after you have taken the time to survey the large one. You study your options, plan your farm, and then go to work to make the farm happen. When you begin without an end in mind, who knows what you’re going to end up with? You can keep yourself busy, but you’re not going to create the kind of results you know you’re capable of.
  • We need margin. We cannot produce output all day, day after day, week after week. We need margin—time to rest, relax, and recover. Farmers do this by rotating crops and letting a field lay fallow for a season. This keeps the land healthy and strong. If we don’t regularly change things up and give ourselves a break, we’re going to exhaust ourselves and deplete our capacity to produce.

When you learn rules, you have a lot to memorize and you still won’t cover every situation. When you learn principles, you’re prepared for anything.

Question: What other principles can you distill from this saying? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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