Finding a Place to Plant Roots

Steve LudwigLife Stuff1 Comment

a lone tree growing out of rocky ground

Embarking on an Amtrak train journey across the Western United States, I was struck by three distinct aspects that made this trip unique.

  1. It is slow. The United States is behind most developed nations when it comes to rail infrastructure. The California Zephyr, the train that travels between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, is not what anyone would call high-speed. My trip between Reno, Nevada, and Denver, Colorado (about 1,000 miles/1609 km) took 28 hours. Via car, it’s about a 15-hour and 20-minute trip. There was something immensely satisfying to give up the illusion of control and rushing. The train took as long as the train took. You are just along for the ride.
  2. The land is vast and mostly empty in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. You can’t understand how truly vast and empty it is until you travel through it. In Nevada, there is an average of 26.8 people per square mile (11.7 per square Km2), compared to the US average of 93 (37 per Km2).
  3. The scenery is unbelievably spectacular. Pictures can’t do it justice. It is something to behold.

While the railroad occasionally follows major roadways, it often passes through areas inaccessible via automobile, including canyons carved over hundreds of millions of years.

Looking up at one of the canyon walls, I noticed a single tree growing from a rock outcrop.

It shouldn’t be there. It’s on a rock face where nothing else is growing. No moss, no grass, no weeds, nothing. How could there be enough soil and water for a tree to take root and grow there? It seems impossible, yet there it is.

There are two ways to look at this as it relates to your career.

An individual with Pathfinder characteristics is a person who finds the way forward for a new market, leads a new team, helps develop new strategies, etc., and finds ways to overcome obstacles.

We might think the tree is the perfect example of a Pathfinder—finding a way when the way seems impossible. But a Pathfinder creates a path for others to follow.

If this were a podcast interviewing important people, they might extoll us to be the tree—nothing can stop us, not even impossible odds; you can grow no matter where you are planted; it’s all up to you and your frame of mind, etc.

Which is fine, I suppose. Nothing wrong with getting a bit of encouragement from nature.

However, we need to be honest—it is nearly impossible to create an international company if you are trying to launch it from Mogadishu. The same goes for building a successful movie acting career in Minot, North Dakota, or being a cattle rancher in downtown London. While a positive attitude is critical, there are clearly other things at play more than proper thinking and grit.

The tree in the rock outcrop is spectacular and inspiring. It is successful.

But it is a one-off.

Nothing else can grow there because it can’t. The buzzword here would be—that the tree has a scalability problem. It will never become a forest.

Our tree would likely be thriving—taller, with more branches, and fuller—if it were in a conducive environment with a supportive ecosystem.

It’s often hard to admit that we have tried to put down roots in the wrong spot. It could be a job, a relationship, a key client, a product, etc. Sometimes, the best thing to do is quit, walk away, and try again elsewhere.

In other words, pivot.

One of the skills of a Pathfinder is learning from mistakes. So, how do you take the information from a situation that didn’t work out and use it to your advantage?

  • Analyze the Situation: Break down what happened into different components. What were the expectations, what was the reality, and where did they diverge? What were some assumptions that you made that didn’t work out? What information were you missing? What could you have anticipated but did not?How did the personalities and/or the culture impact your outcome? What would have made this work? What was missing that could have helped you thrive?
  • Identify Your Role: Understand what parts of the situation were within your control. What decisions did you make, and how did they impact the outcome? Just as important, what was out of your control?
  • Spot Patterns: Look for any recurring themes in this and other past experiences. Are there common factors in situations that don’t work out for you? Does any of this look familiar?
  • Gather Feedback: If possible, ask for feedback from others involved in the situation. External perspectives can provide insights you might have missed.
  • Adapt and Implement Changes: Integrate these lessons into your approach. This might mean changing your strategies, improving your skills, or adjusting your goals.

We all need various support structures to thrive at work and at home. If you seem stunted in your career or on a project, perhaps you are a tree on an outcropping—it looks good, but it is not truly thriving. If so, you might be ready to ask yourself, “Is it time to pivot to a place where I can thrive?”

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