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What trees?

March 07, 2023

Or: Why I don’t do things anymore

I don’t know if it’s getting older or the experience of running businesses and having to make all of these meta-decisions all the time, but somehow I’ve become a “forest” person. You know how people criticize other people for not being able to see the forest for the trees? I’m the opposite of that.

I have become suspicious of trees. Whenever someone says “Oh hey, this tree is a problem,” my instinct is “Hold on. Zoom out. We can’t know that this one tree is a problem until we look at the whole forest. Also we need to talk about the meaning of life.”

I didn’t used to be this way. I used to take care of problem trees all the time. It took a lot of energy, which luckily I had. I don’t have that same energy now, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. When I look back at all the trees I spent months and even years trying to fix, so much of it was fruitless (yes that was a tree pun). Either nothing would have helped those trees, or they took care of themselves in the end. Sometimes my intervention made things worse.

Some things I do now as a forest person

Pester people with questions

“What do you really want?”
“What do we really want?”
“What do I really want?”

These are my favorite questions. Generally, I don’t like to jump into fixing something until I know the answer, or at least part of the answer.

Part of really knowing the answer is asking the follow-up question, “And what does that look like, feel like, taste like, smell like? What would be happening differently on the day that you got that thing that you really want?” Sometimes when you know the answer to that question, you know the answer to the first question is different than you thought it was. Or that it meant something different than you thought it meant.

I’ve been told this can be a bit much. Someone once told me (after reading my first book which to be fair was mostly questions), “Well, sometimes you just have to get things done.” Sure, okay. I get it. Move fast and break things; ship now, iterate later; get those things checked off that list and then do it again tomorrow, forever. You go ahead and do that. Then call me back in a decade or two and tell me what you think then.

I don’t mean to be cranky. I swear I’m cheerful in real life. I just have a different kind of enthusiasm than I did twenty years ago. I’m enthusiastic about doing the right things, the things that only I can do. I’m not okay with spending weeks, months, or years of my life chasing the wrong ones, only to discover that this is not what I wanted, at all.

Assume there’s more to the story

One thing I’ve learned as a bona fide adult is that my brain is spectacularly clever at telling half-truths and believing it’s the whole truth. It loves to come up with reasons for things. “This happened because of this.” “I’m feeling this way because of that.” It can’t stand the fact that most often, I do not know why a thing is the way that it is.

The world is more chaotic than I give it credit for. Its systems are more complex. Whatever reasons I have in my head are half the story, or less than half.

Sometimes a thing I do in response to this is find out what the other parts of the story are. This is a good strategy. This can help me do a better job of figuring out business problems, for example, and not creating unintentional problems with whatever solution I’m proposing.

But sometimes the best strategy is to know that I don’t know. Sometimes why doesn’t matter. (I’m thinking about during an argument or when I’m wondering “whyyyyy am I saaaad all the sudden?“) Sometimes trying to figure out why gets in the way of actually doing the very simple thing that needs to be done (saying I love you, here’s a hug, I’m sorry; going outside for a walk).

Make slow changes that integrate into the systems I’m a part of

Most problems are not the actual problem. Most problems started long, long ago, in a generation far, far away. And evolution is happening all the time, on every level. The things that “work” in any given system are the things that survive.

I learned this most concretely in a very boring (but interactive!) onboarding video on child safety—a pre-requisite to volunteering in my kids’ Scout troop. I remember one thing from that video: if you care about any number of societal ills, you have to care about child abuse. Child abuse on any level is a significant factor in everything from gun violence to the national depression rate to problems of housing.

Not to get too dark too soon, but the problem behind the problem is usually the one I try to focus on. This is even true in much lighter scenarios, like the problem of not eating lunch regularly (it’s lunchtime, so this is the example that is most naturally occuring to me). I could just make a recurring task called “eat lunch” and have it go off at noon every day. I may or may not have the willpower at the moment to listen to it, because I may or may not be working on finishing this piece of writing, which may or may not be almostfinishedjustafewmoreminutesplease. By which point I may or may not have forgotten all about lunch.

Of course I will eventually remember when my stomach starts protesting (that system is designed very well!), and I will look forlornly in the fridge for something to eat, and there will probably be a cheese stick sitting there, and that’s what I will choose because at least it’s got a little bit of protein and it’s not a bag of chips.

I’m not going to go into the details of how to impact the system that perpetuates this scenario. There are many ways you could do it. But some basic principles I like to remember are:

  • Pleasure. Any change that has pleasure at the root of it is going to perpetuate itself more easily than one that has pain or fear at the root of it. Read some Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, and/or pretty much anything adrienne maree brown has written for more on this. Don’t get me wrong, pain has a pretty solid function (think hunger vs. the pleasure of eating), but I’ll leave figuring out pain-based systems to someone less likely to screw that up. Even if you have god-like powers and are confident you know what you’re doing, removing the pain or fear in an already-established system is very hard; best start with pleasure.
  • Agency. Any change that gives its participants agency to do what they want to do is going to perpetuate itself more easily than one in which the participants do not have agency.
  • Slowness. Any change that is introduced slowly is going to perpetuate itself more easily than one that changes quickly, and all at once. (Biologically, we’re all wired against change, even people who consider themselves spontaneous risk-takers. Read The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner for more on how this works in relational systems.)
  • Non-intervention. While introducing change may require some intervention to begin with, it should require little to none in the end. In any case, a bias toward non-intervention helps curb the ill effects of “naive intervention,” a tendency pretty much everyone is susceptible to, where we unintentionally make things worse just by doing a thing—even and especially a thing we have expertise in. (Read Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for more how this works; it may make you re-think going to the doctor quite so often.)

I’m sure there’s more to being a forest person than this cursory overview, but it’s a start. In any case, the next time someone asks me to fix their tree problem, I can not only ask them “What do you really want?” and get a blank stare as a reward. I can also point them to this post, so they at least know what they’re in for.

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