Trees as Metaphors for Careers

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About the author:
Jon Briscoe is Professor of Organizational Behavior at Northern Illinois University. You can contact him at

Metaphors can rarely be applied flawlessly to our human and social realities.  Nonetheless, they can bring us to helpful introspection and pose provocative questions.  I’d like to write about trees as metaphors for our careers.  This is something I frequently think about when pruning trees, but I thought about it in new ways while walking in a forest setting (Monmouth State Park in Illinois, USA) recently with my son.

Most people enjoy the natural waterfalls in this park as did I.  But my eyes were drawn time and time again to trees.  Some trees had roots that had to cross paths, go down ledges and even combine with other tree root systems to find the nurturance they needed.  They fought to survive, and if they could speak, they would probably express satisfaction for this achievement.  This reminded me of various poor people around the world who I have interviewed whose “career success” could be described as surviving and being preserved in harsh environments.

In a forest, it is quite evident that species do not exist in isolation.  The height of surrounding trees, the availability of sunlight, the soil, the competing trees, and synergistic factors such as birds who deposit seeds around the forest all make a difference.  I believe that our careers are not so dissimilar from this.  We depend upon our genetic and socio-cultural foundations to get a foothold in life.  We hope for good soil and sunlight.  We are dependent upon a community of others who may or may not be visible from our vantage point but on whom we nonetheless might benefit from.  Stretching as high and wide as we can, we still may not be aware of how our precise locations both enable and constrain our careers and lives.

Trees in forests probably aren’t the best representation of modern careers.  Which kind of trees then, with what sort of goals?  Are we trees designed for maximum production yield, whose worth is defined primarily by economic utility?  Palm trees for oil, cherry trees for fruit, or Christmas trees for display?

Are we trees designed to provide protection and shelter?  Living in the Midwest of the United States, I often see farm houses surrounded on all sides by large trees—Eastern White Pines and Oak—amongst others, designed to protect the house from wind and to provide privacy.  In some ways a career can be seen as shelter.  This would be what C. Brooklyn Derr referred to as a “getting secure” career where we seek protection and predictability.

Ornamental trees are designed for beauty and aesthetics.  While their overall purpose is similar, they are wielded in dramatically different ways, with meaningfully different levels of insight and skill.  In my part of the world, one frequently sees a few shrubs placed around the corners of homes and by front walks as accessories.  More often than not are tightly pruned and shaped.  These might be akin to mainstream careers that are designed to be functional, attractive from the outside, but ideally not too much trouble.

Some trees, and some gardens, are designed more for the homeowner to enjoy and take respite in as much as to provide impressions to others or any sort of utility such as shade, or fruit.  This kind of tree is situated in a place and manner that is not necessarily out of the way, but very much in the way in the sense that the homeowner wants to intersect with this part of their life frequently.

Regardless of the type of tree and/or career one has, I believe that principles of sound pruning hold valuable analogies to our careers.  Shape is one consideration.  If the tree is designed to bear fruit, the branches will be pruned carefully, sometimes bringing them within hand’s reach so as to be able to harvest the fruit more readily.  When pursuing a career designed to produce money or other tangible benefits one should not confuse gross yield with net yield, producing massive amounts of fruit that go wasted, unreachable, and unused.

Crossing and “V” branches must be reconciled.  In an elegant crabapple or Japanese maple, crossing branches might complete the desired look and their complication and chaos could be a plus instead of a minus.  This might be true of a person who tries to have it all, not necessarily having a balanced life and career, but willing to live with certain compromises and sacrifices while projecting an attractive life outside and in.  More typically, decisions should be made about which branches to remove.  With the many crossing branches and suckers, branches which defeat other more important branches or don’t allow the ultimate shape of the tree to be achieved, should be removed.  A tree with two competing leaders may split in a strong wind.  One leader needs to be chosen, meaning in this case a passion or priority.

A final goal for most deciduous trees that might trump all the other goals is to let light into the tree’s canopy.  A canopy that does not get sunlight will not get the luminosity it craves in its heliotropic striving.  It needs light to live, to reach, and for new branches to grow that can be decided upon later.  Sometimes these new branches will form a new career possibility, sometimes they will represent an afterthought, or an interesting accessory, or they will be hewn away.  In any case the thoughtful caretaker of the tree will realize that the ultimate desired beauty and utility of the tree is developed over many years with thoughtful choices about what to nourish and what to cast aside.

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