In the spring, when the weather is (hopefully) warm and wet, a tree will grow rapidly, forming large, porous cells known as “earlywood.” Later, as the weather cools, it will grow in smaller, more tightly packed cells known as “latewood.” You can spot the difference when looking at a tree’s rings: earlywood appears as light-colored, usually thick, bands, while latewood shows up thinner and darker. What doesn’t show up in the rings is the dormant period—the winter season, when the tree doesn’t grow at all, but waits patiently for spring.
I think this is a useful metaphor for thinking about how we grow, too. There are times and seasons when the conditions are right for earlywood—for big, galloping growth, where you learn a lot in short order. This is often the case when you first step into a new role, or take on a new and challenging project, or start at a new organization. But those periods of rapid growth are often (and ideally) followed by periods when the growth is slower, more focused, moving in short and careful steps instead of giant leaps. These latewood periods are when the novelty of a new situation has worn off, and the time for reflection and deep-skill building arrives.
Woodworkers prize both earlywood and latewood for different applications. Earlywood is flexible and bendable, while latewood is hard and strong. Both have their place. Both are useful.
Likewise, periods of rapid growth are energizing; they build momentum, they teach us about improvisation, collaboration, adaptation, rolling with the punches. While periods of slower, sturdier growth are about introspection, integrating lessons learned, becoming attuned to the details, and acting with intention.
Our seasons of earlywood and latewood are less dependable than those of trees, for many reasons, chief among them that we have become disconnected from natural cycles. But that doesn’t mean we cannot ask ourselves: are the conditions right for earlywood or latewood? Which type of growth do I need right now? Which type of growth does my organization want from me? How long has that been the case? Is it time for the seasons to change?
And we must remind ourselves that growth occurs in intervals: there are times of growth, and there are times of non-growth. The latter isn’t a failure so much as a necessary period of rest. Dormancy isn’t stagnant; it’s potentiating. It’s patient. If you’ve grown a lot in the past however many months or years and now feel that growth coming to a close, don’t fret right away. Wait. Reflect on what you’ve learned. Look for signs of spring. Move to where there’s water, if you need to. But don’t rush. There will be time again for running and jumping, when you’re ready.