If We Were Like Trees

Tree TabooIf trees could read, would they? Or would the fact that books have been printed on mulched up tree guts for centuries be a barrier to literary exploration? And while books may last for years, what would trees think of magazines? As silly as personification is, this line of questioning leads us to the real topic of today’s discussion: If we were like trees, would we live our lives differently?

Most of who we are is invisible. Humans are visual creatures with as much as two-thirds of our brains associated with vision. We use this ability to observe our three dimensional world, yet there’s a fourth dimension—time—that makes up the majority of who we are. Our experiences, our long years of life—the more diverse these are, the larger we “grow.” But it can be difficult to sense the enormity of a large life.

If we were like trees, we could stand in awe of the expansive lives of one another. We could marvel at the large trunks and broad canopies of our elders. We could see one another—our branching, our scars, our history carved into the physical embodiment of our years.

As much as we try, the material world does not provide an accurate representations of who we are. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have, the photos we post—these are poor substitutions for the real thing. Even our bodies don’t tell the whole story. Wrinkles, blemishes, thinning hair—these might give away our age, but to accurately tell our life story? Impossible.

Unable to directly observe the experiences of others, we settle for sensing the shape of a person’s life through indirect measures—their demeanor, their stories, their stuff. Material wealth is often (mistakenly) used as a proxy for life worth. If we were like trees—if our bodies were a physical representation of our experiences—there would be less need for ancillary metrics. Just by looking, we would see the complexity and worthiness of even the poorest among us.

Also, unlike humans who reach a mature size a fifth of the way into our lives, trees continually grow larger over time. And not only that, they actually accelerate their growth as they age, meaning older trees are better at being trees (i.e. removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). Imagine a life where your years of “peak performance” are always ahead of you, a life where you’re always getting better.

As humans age, our bodies become frail, small, and insignificant. There is no visual representation of all that a person has accomplished, all the people they’ve influenced, loved, and touched. The vastness of their experience is easily overlooked and under-appreciated. Yet the lives of our aged population are like the trees—enormous amounts of time and energy to be marveled.

We must be careful not to under-appreciate our elders—those people we call parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. We may not be able to see the immensity of their time here on earth, but we should be able to sense the scale of their lives and what they provide us.

When an old tree dies in the woods, it falls to the ground. It lies there like a giant among new growth, leaving a large space for smaller trees to fill. It decomposes providing nutrients for the next generation. That’s the circle of life. And the larger a tree’s life—the larger, physically, that tree was—the more it provides after death. To quote Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Perhaps humans too can embody the grand scale of a long life. We cannot see it directly, but it is still there, like the massive size of a fallen tree.

Many of us fear death, because it represents the end. We are afraid of regret, afraid of not having done or experienced enough. But what if we were like trees? Perhaps death would be seen as just the beginning—our large lives giving back to the small, the young, the future.

Stephenson, Nathan, et al. “Rate of Tree Carbon Accumulation Increases Continuously with Tree Size.” Nature 507.7490 (2014): 90-93. (Source)

Business & Biology

The Noncompetitive Advantage


Have you ever been chased by a bear? Heart racing, adrenaline pumping, looking for the nearest tree to climb to avoid almost certain death? Yeah, me neither. And that fact—that lack of being chased or having natural predators or competition—is precisely why humans have such long lifespans, and why some companies dramatically outlive their peers.

For years, biologist have made the simple observations that “bigger animals live longer lives.” The idea is that the bigger an animal becomes the more efficient they become. It’s a fact of biology, which extends into the world of business, urban planning, and organizational ecology. As theoretical physicist, Geoffrey West, puts it, “This might also explain the drive for corporations to merge. Small may be beautiful but it is more efficient to be big.” As with all rules, however, there are exceptions. But before we discuss the anomalies, let’s examine our options for survival.

There are three main strategies for small animals, organizations, businesses, cities, or powerless individuals to survive in the world of Big: (1.) direct competition, (2.) indirect competition, and (3.) noncompetition.

Direct competition is the easiest to understand, but is also the least effective (lowest survival). This is like turning toward that grizzly we talked about earlier and fighting back. There’s a chance of survival, but it’s not great. And at what cost? In business, small companies that use this strategy are labeled sustaining entrants. They compete in an established market against powerful incumbents by making some improvement to mainstream products.

As Clayton Christensen noted when developing the theory of disruptive innovation back in 1995, in the case of “the disk drive industry, only 6% of sustaining entrants managed to succeed.” And this makes sense, right? To directly compete for high-end or mainstream customers in an established market is going to draw attention from much more established players who have the ability to either defend (kill us) or acquire (eat us). Either way, survival and longevity are limited.

Indirect competition is a different game. We can view this as the dog eating food scraps that have fallen from the dinner table. While direct competition between small, young entrants and large, established incumbents is inherently unfair, indirect competition serves customers that are of little interest to large incumbents. Young firms appeal to low-value customers by providing lower quality products outside the mainstream market. This type of business calls less attention to itself, because it serves customers that would be a “waste of time” to larger incumbents.

Noncompetition is the anomaly in our discussion. This strategy is exactly what it sounds like—not competing. It’s finding or creating a niche that insulates us from hazards and outside competition. In business, as you might have guessed, noncompetition is rare.

In biology, it’s extremely rare for small animals to live for long periods, but birds and bats seem to break all the rules when it comes to life expectancy. Despite being small and having rapid metabolic rates—both significant indicators of short lifespan—birds and bats live 3-3.5x longer than animals of a similar size. In a world where corporate life expectancy is decreasing, many in business would be happy with a three-fold increase in survival.

For birds and bats, it’s a matter of flying. They’ve taken themselves out of the terrestrial equation, out of reach of countless potential predators and hazards. They’ve developed a mechanism to explore the sky, a niche above us land-based creatures. Their competitive advantage is simply not competing. They just fly away.

When we look at businesses that have defied the odds of survival, our view turns east toward Japan, where a handful of companies are over 1,000 years old. Just as flying has insulated birds and bats from harm below, older Japanese companies benefit from insulation. They are often small, primarily serve Japanese markets, run on values beyond profit-at-all-costs, and operate in a culture where acquisitions and mergers are avoided (compared to the West’s seeming love of M&As). Thousand-year-old Japanese enterprises are much different than the S&P 500, like the difference between earth and sky or mammals and birds.

Google, Amazon, Apple—These are the big game animals, the predators, the bears chasing us up a tree. Perhaps we (and our businesses) can thrive for decades without becoming or competing with giants. Humans transcended the law of the jungle; birds and bats transcended the limitations of land. In order to be exceptional, we must strive to be an exception, no matter how small. Rather than competing head-on in an unfair fight, why not learn to fly?

Christensen, Clayton M., Michael E. Raynor, and Rory McDonald. “Disruptive Innovation.” Harvard Business Review 93.12 (2015): 44-53. (Source)

Daepp, Madeleine I.G., et al. “The Mortality of Companies.” Journal of The Royal Society Interface 12.106 (2015): 20150120. (Source)

Munshi-South, Jason, and Gerald S. Wilkinson. “Bats and Birds: Exceptional Longevity Despite High Metabolic Rates.” Ageing Research Reviews 9.1 (2010): 12-19. (Source)

West, Geoffrey B., and James H. Brown. “Life’s Universal Scaling Laws.” Physics Today 57.9 (2004): 36-42. (Source)

Business & Biology

Between Growth & Maintenance

time_to_drankImagine a city with an infrastructure problem (I know, it’s hard to imagine). The problem is this: Roads are breaking down faster than they can be repaired. As the city’s population grows, road workers cannot work fast enough to compensate for the additional traffic. Each road closure for repairs means more traffic on alternative routes and, therefore, even faster decline. Eventually, the few alternative routes that are open no longer connect to one another; construction crews can no longer get to the roads that need to be repaired; and ultimately, the system shuts down. Death by growth.

This is the basic idea behind the classic S-curve of growth (below), which is said to be so ubiquitous. From cities to cellular biology to Fortune 500 companies, most systems follow a similar pattern. They must balance between growth and maintenance.

Understanding which phase we’re in—whether high-growth, high-maintenance, or transition—can be advantageous. It can help extend the life cycle of our products, businesses, bodies, personal lives, and relationships. But when we refuse to acknowledge this shift, that’s when problems arise.

In business, this refusal is called the denial phase. As one Harvard Business Review article puts it, “[R]etailers often go through a long, painful period of denial before they acknowledge that growth has ended and it’s time to switch strategies. […] Consequently, they keep expanding until their chains begin to collapse under their own weight.” The article is referring to a study of 37 U.S. retailers—all with over $1 billion in revenue, all with top-line growth rates slowed to single digits. But while several of these historic giants were collapsing “under their own weight,” many had found a solution to the stagnation.

Companies like Macy’s, Home Depot, and McDonald’s have extended their lifespans by focusing on the maintenance phase. They thrive by creating efficiencies in their existing stores rather than opening new ones. In other words, they transitioned from a strategy for rapid growth to one of maintaining their large size.

This is not to say that growth is negative. Pure growth and pure maintenance are not what creates life. It is the in-between where we exist. As the Harvard Business Review authors explain, “this is a low-growth, not a no-growth, strategy.” Where the successful companies grew was in bottom-line revenue rather than top—shifting their focus, in order to achieve life-bringing growth.

But when growth goes unchecked, it can be devastating. We call it cancer in the body. And before we can prescribe treatment, we must have a diagnosis. Whether we label it a midlife crisis, a corporate denial phase, or an infrastructure problem, we must acknowledge mismatched reality, in order to move forward. Otherwise, misalignment can accelerate decline.

With our imaginary city, it’s a balance between population growth and infrastructure maintenance; with our bodies, it’s a balance between biologic insults and cellular repair; in life, we shift from a growth-heavy childhood to a maintenance-heavy adulthood, including more doctors visits, taxes, and responsibility. It’s this transition from growth to maintenance that creates the S-shape of life, and it’s a delicate balance—easily misunderstood and mismanaged.

It may seem simplistic to minimize the life cycle of so many different topics into only two sides of the same coin. In fact, it is simplistic. While simple sometimes means limited understanding, it also can serve as a practical model for an exceedingly complex world. So take a moment and think: Am I spending too much time in growth phase? What about maintenance? Is this a transition? Where are we?

growth-maintenance graph

Fisher, Marshall, Vishal Gaur, and Herb Kleinberger. “Curing the Addiction to Growth.” Harvard Business Review 95.1 (2017): 66-74. (Source)

Evans, David S. “Tests of Alternative Theories of Firm Growth.” Journal of Political Economy 95.4 (1987): 657-674. (Source)


The Cliff of Care

too muchImportance is the worst thing to put on art, comedy—creativity of any kind. […] If you think this is important, you’re screwed before you write the first word.

—Jerry Seinfeld, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee with Lewis Black

What is the difference between caring too much and not enough? Sometimes it’s just one last straw—one final incident that pushes us over the edge. We see this at our workplaces, contrasting an excited intern with the embattled veteran clocking in and out like a robot. We see it with new parents who trade fashion for durability. And we see it in politics when the news creates such a piercing noise that we simply go deaf to the din.

Like eating or drinking too much, our care has a breaking point. A gluttonous night out can force our stomach from too full to completely empty in an instant, and it is this momentary purge that exemplifies the Cliff of Care. With so many names—outrage fatigue, clarity, burnout, calm, apathy, patience—it can be difficult to know whether the valley beyond the cliff is a safe place to be. As with any journey, it depends on how we got there and our attitude along the way.

Once we reach the cliff’s edge, we can either walk off gracefully, landing softly on the ground below, or get pushed, kicking and screaming, breaking bones on the way down. This is the difference between coming to peace with our situation or becoming apathetic in our resentment. The graceful among us land on their feet through the power of perspective. These are the people who after battling illness, divorce, violence, bankruptcy, discrimination, and many other hardships, still find the positive in each challenge, putting them into perspective. They are calm and kind despite every reason not to be. And they serve as inspiration to “get over” whatever small annoyances we face in life.

Unfortunately, the less gracious cliff jumpers—the ones who bitterly or hopelessly give up the will to care—also exist. Fortunately, the Cliff of Care is not a standalone phenomenon. We may tumble off the cliff and become apathetic to the politics of our world but safely detached at work, no longer wrapping our self-worth in what our boss thinks. This is where awareness can be helpful. Just by knowing about the difference between being on the cliff and being in the valley can help us safely navigate our way.

Detaching emotionally is not something we can will ourselves to do (at least, not immediately). Stepping off the cliff allows us to leave behind our emotional baggage, but first it requires a gradual climb of frustration. This is why telling someone they need to just “get over it” rarely works. Seeing the cliff for what it is can make us come across as callous or cold-hearted when dealing with those who have not yet moved on. Brushing off their emotional concerns as unimportant is seen as dismissive. Rather than pushing them off the cliff to a painful, bitter landing, we must try to remember what it was like to be atop the cliff, empathize, and help guide them down safely.

Conversely, when we’re stranded on the peak of care, pulling our hair out, and wondering why no one else gives a shit, it is difficult to see our position for what it is. We don’t have the perspective. Holding on to what feels important can be blinding. Whether it’s the cleanliness of the kitchen, quarterly sales at work, or death of a loved one, not everyone is going to understand our level of care. And while intense care can motivate us to act, we shouldn’t expect others to follow. When we find ourselves in isolation in a sea of seeming apathy, it may be time for self-reflection. It is immodest to think that we are the only sane people in a world full of crazies.

cliff of care_graph


Rock-Paper-Scissors: Body, Heart, Mind?

heart-beats-bodyI’m hurt, no doubt about it. I’m not worried about the pain. I don’t care about the pain, don’t even feel it. I’m not even worried about hurting myself anymore than I already have—no, I’m worried about hurting the team.

—Ray Lewis, former NFL linebacker, I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game, and Glory

Rock-paper-scissors is a hand-gesture game played to settle childish disputes (or so I thought until three days ago). As it turns out, the millennia-old game helps explain a lot in the world. Rock-Paper-Scissors is surprisingly well represented in academic literaturealternative male-mating strategies in lizards, antibiotic-mediated antagonism, protecting public goods from the tragedy of the commons, and that’s just getting started. The New York Times even has an online version of the game to play a computer, which pulls from over 200,000 previous rounds (p.s. It will probably beat you). But why is this simple game so ubiquitous?

We often think of win-lose games in terms of two teams battling head to head; however, nature (including human nature) rarely works in such a direct way. An action in one area often has unintended consequences in another. Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game of checks and balances. And with only three variables, it is the simplest version. If the goal is, for example, to reduce the amount of Scissors in the world, then Rock should be thrown time and time again. Throw a lot of Rocks and we’ll get rid of the Scissors, but with less Scissors, more Papers survive—leading to trouble for all those Rocks we threw. This is the basic premise for what scholars call “circular dominance,” otherwise known as Rock-Paper-Scissor dynamics. And this concept helps explain much of the human experience.

While we all have different personal motivations, there’s a universal internal tug-o-war—a motivation triad—that can either get in the way of or optimize our goals. The balance between our physiologic needs (Body), our emotions/feelings (Heart), and our logical reasoning and processing (Mind) are what create the diverse range of behavior we see everyday. Being human may not be simple, but let’s take a closer look at a simple game to see if we can improve our performance:

  1. Body—like Rock, it’s solid, dependable, strong, and can be used like a weapon.
  2. Heart—like Paper, it can be written on, read, shared, crumpled, or torn.
  3. Mind—like Scissors, it’s sharp, precise, specialized, but can be dangerous.

Heart beats Body. What motivates a person to push through the pain, in order to run one more lap in practice? What about staying awake all night to finish a project with an impending deadline? What possesses a person tstart a fight despite obvious physical danger? Or to charge into enemy territory, bayonets at the ready? Human emotions can push our bodies beyond comfort. They transcend our normal physiology, creating adrenaline rushes to push through the pain, get passed the tired, or forget the hunger. Depending on the circumstance, this can be an advantage or disadvantage. Professional athletes, like Ray Lewis (quoted above), use their “pumped up” emotional state to achieve a high level of physical performance. But there are instances when emotions can put our bodies in jeopardy—like fighting for pride, love, or anger. And we can all relate to those sleepless nights, tossing and turning over emotional stresses at work, arguments with a significant other, or any number of other feelings.

Mind beats Heart. When we’re up at night, working ourselves up into a sleepless, emotional frenzy, only a calm mind can put our anxiety into perspective. Emotions can cloud our understanding of the big picture, making us feel like the emotion we are experiencing at that moment is the most important thing in the world. By adding context and perspective, our Minds can neutralize our irrational side. This concept of primitive and evolved brain is represented in different ways throughout the literature; the  Heart/Mind dichotomy goes by different names—Think vs. Blink, System 2 vs. System 1, Analytical vs. Intuitive—but essentially it’s this: We all have an immediate reaction brain (Heart) that is fueled by basic emotional needs (ex. love and respect), and when we feel those needs are in conflict or under attack, we tend to react. Only our level-headed Mind can defeat the negative side of emotions.

Body beats Mind. Obviously, the Mind does not always beat the Heart, but perhaps it’s because the Mind has already been defeated. Graduate education is rife with unhealthy study behavior—caffeine binges, all-nighters, a diet consisting of power bars and skittles. But the lie of this type of behavior is thinking that the Body doesn’t matter—that if a student can cram for one more hour at 3 A.M. then he will perform better on an exam. There is an eventual breaking point, a point where our minds starts to get cloudy, our work starts to slip, we begin to forget things, and have trouble sayings words. That point is when the body is forcing a shutdown. Being chronically fatigued, having insufficient nutrients in one’s diet, even physiologic sexual frustration can all play a role in how clearly our thinking is. Being deprived of physiological needs wears down our willpower and pushes us from a mind-deciding person to an emotion-deciding one. And taken to the extreme—extreme hunger, extreme thirst, extreme sickness—we become physiological-driven creatures.

It is helpful to recognize the interrelationship between the three parts of ourselves—Body, Heart, Mind. Knowing how they interact, we can buffer known problems. For example, after starting a business, launching a product, or quitting a job, there are a lot of unknowns; the task at hand has just begun. That reality can be an emotional time, but it’s a known emotional time. To get through challenges like the stress of not yet finding a new job, we require clear thinking about the big picture, and doing so requires our bodies to be well fed, well rested, and somewhat active. And that’s just one example.

Body-Heart-Mind dynamics are as important for interpersonal relationships as they are for self-improvement. Often, we are not able to see our crazy while we’re in the crazy. That’s why it’s important to recognize it in others—friends, family, spouse, colleagues, etc. Reacting emotionally when faced with someone that’s emotional is rarely the right course of action—”Don’t fight fire with fire.” Instead, helping an emotional friend see the rationale side of a situation, a different perspective, and adding some context to an emotional and confusing time is what will help. Knowing ourselves and others—having an awareness of what’s going on—that’s the first step. What we do with that information is up to us.

Semmann, Dirk, Hans-Jürgen Krambeck, and Manfred Milinski. “Volunteering leads to rock–paper–scissors dynamics in a public goods game.” Nature425.6956 (2003): 390-393. (Source)