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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)

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Business & Biology

The Noncompetitive Advantage

hunter_hunted

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)

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