The tallest trees have the strongest foundations

Once upon a time there was a young man who was fed up with his life. Nothing was working out as he’d planned and this frustration had reached its breaking point. In a last ditch effort he decided to go into the forest and seek out the guidance of an old wise woman who had a reputation for knowing the answers to life’s greatest challenges.

After searching for a few hours the young man finally spotted the lady and ran up to her saying — “Old wise woman, old wise woman, thank God I found you. I’m at the end of my rope and I’m hoping you can give me just one good reason to keep fighting.”

The old wise woman pondered the question and then turned to the young man and said, “One day I planted some seeds of fern and bamboo. I cared greatly for each of them. However, the fern grew faster and the first year their vibrant green leaves were covering the forest floor. But no matter how much I tended to the bamboo I never saw their sprouts.”

The young man stood in silence listening to the lady. But he couldn’t help but think to himself if he was wasting his time. He wanted the answers to one of life great questions and the old woman standing in front of him was talking about her plants. However, he didn’t want to be rude so he motioned for her to continue.

“The second year, once again the ferns grew quickly and no matter how much I prayed for the bamboo to sprout, nothing happened. The third and fourth year the same thing happened, but I still didn’t give up on the bamboo. Finally on the fifth year I saw some sprouts, but compared to the fern they looked very small and insignificant. However, on the sixth year something amazing happened: the bamboo grew up suddenly, towering over the ferns, reaching a height of over fifty feet.”

After finishing the story the old wise woman paused and then turned back to the young man and said, “You see young man, the bamboo needed time to grow the necessary roots that would serve as its foundation to not only survive in the forest, but to one day thrive. I know it can be frustrating, and you want to grow fast like the fern. But have you considered that during your lifetime, like the bamboo, you’ve been feeding your roots and any day now your efforts will bloom?”

The young man looked at the wise woman and was about to open his mouth but something about her face signalled to him that she wasn’t quite finished. After a long pause, the old wise woman looked the young man dead in the eyes and said, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy. Some days the morning greets us with happiness. Other days are hard, but they too hold value as they give us experience. Never forget young man, happiness may make us sweet, but pain keeps us human and our failures teach us to be humble.”

Then the old woman wrapped up her speech by saying something that shook the young man to his core — “If you don’t achieve what you crave, don’t despair — you’re feeding your roots.”

After taking in the wise woman’s words, the young man found himself standing a little taller. He was about to thank her and ask one more question. But by the time he had gathered his thoughts the old wise woman was back tending to her garden.

And it was in that moment the young man realised she had given him everything he needed to know.

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This past weekend I was talking to my wife about how fickle success can be. For years we can be doing everything in our power to reach our goals, but no matter how hard we try, life laughs at us. Then, in what seems like an instant, something changes and the world opens up.

After taking a moment to ponder this thought, in Yoda like fashion, my wife turned to me and said, “Some people get lucky and they grow like ferns. However, most people are more like pieces of bamboo.” Then she cleared my confusion by telling me the story above on the walk home from one of the better lunches we’ve had in a while.

The last few days I haven’t been able to get the story my wife told me out of my head. I’ve been thinking non-stop about not only my own journey, but also those of the people society deems successful. And the one thing they have in common is like bamboo, they first focused on feeding their roots. As a result they not only achieved success, but by making sure their foundation was strong they put themselves in the position to maintain it.

A few years ago it may have looked like Gary Vaynerchuk came out of nowhere. But don’t confuse Gary with a fern. For the decade before his name became household he was grinding it out. He worked long days growing his family liquor store. Then he spent longer nights filming videos on Youtube (when no-one was watching) and making the right connections. At first glance it may look like he grew quickly, but this is only because he made the conscious choice day after day to put in the work.

The same goes for Tim Ferriss. “The Four Hour Workweek” may have launched his career into the stratosphere. But like Gary, this is because he put in the sweat and made the conscious choice every single day to show up. Read the beginnings of most successful people and you will find the same theme. Today they may make success look easy, but this is only because they focused on feeding their roots.

The reason they were able to do this is because they embraced the delicate combination of persistence mixed with patience and made the decision to show up again. And again. And again. As a result the world has rewarded them with a view of the sun.

My wife is right, some people are like ferns and they grow quickly.

But I don’t know about you, but I think bamboo is much more beautiful.

So the next time you see some by all means marvel at its height — just don’t forget to also pay homage to its foundation.

And then get out in the world and feed your roots with as much knowledge and as many experiences as you can.

You never know — one day too may begin to sprout.

“Think about your hero. Do you think of this person as someone with extraordinary abilities who achieved with little effort? Now go find out the truth. Find out the tremendous effort that went into their accomplishment, and admire them more.” — Carol Dweck

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This article first appeared in The Startup (Medium.com)

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