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Opinion: Making life-changing decisions

Published 1:02 am, Friday, June 18, 2010
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Author's note: This is a story of one man's search for more meaning in his life and discovering that the timing for making those changes coincided with one of the deepest economic recessions in the recent history of our country.

Sometimes timing is everything. Making a decision to change one's life is certainly exciting but, let's face it, it is frightening as well, especially when you have, as I did, a family, a home, and a certain lifestyle to support.

The years since 2001 have not been good for the magazine industry. I was an art director for Business Week magazine and at some point I felt this decline would become a death spiral for my magazine*, for the industry as a whole, and that, consequently, my professional future would be endangered. I saw only a downside to remaining in the magazine world.

This reality gave me the courage to push myself to change. I didn't want to find myself on the street with no prospects for employment. Besides, I had reached that age when you need to figure out what to do when you grow up.

It's not that I didn't enjoy designing magazines, but it had never ignited an internal fire that made me forget time and live only in the present. It was imperative to discover how to connect my business life with my passions in life. I needed not only a career change, but a life change as well.

I reviewed those interests that had excited me throughout my life and checked them off, one by one, on an internal reality meter. Could I pursue, at my age, a career in this or that? My days of dreaming of becoming a professional hockey player, obviously, had clearly passed me by.

As I pondered my options, my thoughts returned, again and again, to nature. I remembered the pleasure I got as a teenager planting and transplanting trees and bushes at our family's summer cottage on Long Island. Our property was overrun by thickets of wisteria and poison ivy. I felt as though I was taming the land by removing large areas of weeds and replacing them with a more civil environment of juniper and bayberry. My memory of the sense of satisfaction I got altering the landscape resonated within me, and showed me a direction for the future.

In college (Middlebury), I had studied the natural sciences and art, a mix of the analytical and creative. After graduation I became an art director designing covers and layouts for large consumer magazines for the last 25 years. After evaluating my talents, skills, work experience, education, and interests, I concluded that landscape design was the perfect bulls eye where all those ingredients intersected. I could capitalize on my design skills to visualize solutions that not only solve complex spatial problems within a property, but also assist me in creating landscapes rich with patterns of color, texture and form. My drawing skills could be utilized to clearly present these ideas to clients. My natural science education, coupled with my horticultural interest, gives me the reservoir of knowledge I need to use the right plant in the right place. My magazine experience taught me about project management, budgeting, deadlines and coordinating staff.

By 2006, I had decided in my mind to eventually start a landscape design company but I knew I needed more education, which I got at the New York Botanical Gardens Continuing Education Landscape Design program.

Then, what I assumed would happen, did happen. My magazine had an upheaval in the editorial leadership, leaving my job at risk. Faced with being out of work in a very down market, I prepared for the eventual end of my magazine career. When the ax finally came down for me I was ready to start my design business.

Since 2007 I have enjoyed working on a number of challenging projects ranging from landscaping wetlands with native plants to designing formal gardens. Designing landscapes is similar in many ways to designing a magazine if you understand the elements of what makes impactful design.

My new work has freed me from a desk and has brought me into the outdoors, back to nature, and that is where I have always belonged.

Jay Petrow is presently Vice President of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, Connecticut chapter. He was recently featured on the cover of Connecticut Nursery & Landscape Magazine. For more information, visit www.petrowgardens.com.

*BusinessWeek was sold last year and much of the staff was let go.