What Growing Oak Trees Can Teach You About Building a Career

Being remarkable and making a difference is no small feat. Our expert offers his advice on doing just that.

Published on Mar. 07, 2024
What Growing Oak Trees Can Teach You About Building a Career
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There is a hill behind my house covered with eucalyptus trees.

Many things that I love come from Australia, including Canva (online design), Cochlear (cochlear implant), Rode (podcast equipment) and Espresso (portable monitors), but eucalyptus trees are not one of them.

Scientists estimate that eucalyptus trees use several hundred liters of water per day, and they are highly flammable because of their oil content. They also shed their bark, which adds to the supply of combustible material.

Having become stoked about oaks, I learned that growing oaks is not a trivial task. In many ways, the process is a model for personal growth and preparation for a remarkable life. For one thing, I had to face my mortality: I may never sit under the shade of any of these trees because of my age.

The metaphor of planting acorns is perfect for making a difference and being remarkable. That is, you must collect, prepare, plant, tend and wait. It is as simple to describe as it is difficult to accomplish.

5 steps to plant an oak tree

The gist of the process for populating a hill with oaks is this.

  1. Gather hundreds of acorns from the ground beneath existing trees. Acorns are free, abundant and barely noticed by most people.
  2. Identify the bad acorns by dropping them in water. If they float, they are rotten or dead. If they sink, they are healthy. (The analogy to life breaks down a little here.)
  3. Place them in a refrigerator under damp paper towels for a month or two. This is called stratification — it simulates the exposure to cold that acorns experience in the wild that prepares them for germination.
  4. Plant them an inch below the surface in the field. Water and feed them. Watch what happens and eliminate the weak ones. Most will not sprout. Forget “plug and play.” This process is “plant and pray.”
  5. Water and feed them, then wait for twenty years. Then behold what a magnificent tree can grow from a tiny seed.

Keep growing your careerHow to Become the Best Candidate for a Promotion

 

Trust the Dots

Less than a year after I planted my acorns, I’ve already learned that it’s impossible to predict which ones will sprout. This reminds me of a quote from Steve Jobs’s Stanford commencement address in 2005.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something, your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever, because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path and that will make all the difference.”

If we knew which acorns would grow into mighty oaks and which dots would connect, then we would tend only to those. The futility of this wishful thinking is Steve’s point.You have to plant many seeds and trust that things will work out later.

Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to get Jane Goodall on your podcast. Here is how the dots worked for me.

  • 1967: An elementary school teacher in a low-income part of Honolulu convinces my parents to put me into a college prep school.
  • 1972: I matriculate to Stanford, where I become friends with Mike Boich.
  • 1978: I begin work in the jewelry business and learn how to sell.
  • 1983: Mike hires me into Apple as the second Macintosh software evangelist.
  • 2018: Ronit Widman-Levy, executive producer of TEDx Palo Alto, invites me to interview Jane Goodall.
  • 2020: Jane Goodall accepts my invitation to be on my podcast.

I did not know Ronit. She only knew “of me” because of my work at Apple. Thus, all the dots that led to a career at Apple led to getting Jane Goodall on my podcast. I hope that you don’t think that any of this was planned.

In Silicon Valley, we throw ideas against the wall, see what sticks, paint a bull’s-eye around the winners and then declare victory. At most, we are making intelligent guesses and hoping for the best. The best practice is to plant many seeds because the more seeds you plant, the more oaks will grow.

More career adviceSometimes, Careers Need a Little Freedom

 

Get an Education

There are few better ways to plant seeds than to get a formal education — in any subject, really, because an education can beget so much goodness.

 

Exposure

Education opens new worlds — ones that you may not have encountered without schooling. Many people on my podcast mentioned how early education opened their eyes to new subjects.

 

Critical thinking

Schools don’t teach you only facts. They also help you learn how to think, judge and decide. You can always use technology to retrieve facts. Critical thinking is harder.

 

Social skills

Schools force you to interact with teachers and other students. Making a difference is seldom a solo act.

 

Technical and manual skills

I define education broadly — from computer programming to auto repair, carpentry and cooking. Lots of knowledge is necessary to make the world go round.

 

Relationships

Even if you don’t start the next Apple, your classmates are likely to plant many seeds in your life. As mentioned, I got my job at Apple through a classmate.

 

Credibility

Like it or not, people ascribe credibility to educational degrees. I’m not saying they are necessary or sufficient, but they can help.

When I interviewed Joe Foster, the founder of Reebok, I learned that he and his brother went to college to learn about the shoe business even though they were third-generation shoemakers. I’ll let him explain the “off the books” benefits that he gained.

“Obviously working at the family business, we knew how to make football boots, rugby boots, soccer boots, whatever. But we became friends with a lot of people who knew the answers to a lot of questions. Where do we get this machine from? Where do we get this material from? How do we do this? What are different techniques?”

Think Remarkable coverAlas, a formal education is a privilege that not everyone can exercise. I wish this were not true, because of the benefits listed above. However, there are at least three additional ways to get an education.

First, there is reading. This can occur before, during and after formal education. For example, Stephen Wolfram, the youngest recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (aka, genius award), told me this:

“I kind of started reading books about physics and so on, and I discovered this amazing fact that you could just go to a library and find all these books and started learning stuff.”

Second, there is online education in forms such as courses, classes and videos. Anyone with access to the internet can obtain an education with some effort. Like reading, online education can lack many social aspects, but it still beats ignorance.

Third, there are apprenticeships, internships and training programs. Some individuals may not consider them formal education, but that is their semantic problem. If you are learning something, it’s education.

Formal education is neither a prerequisite nor a capstone to learning. Regardless of how it is obtained, education increases the seeds in your life. Remarkable individuals obtain an education and then never stop learning.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Think Remarkable: 9 Paths to Transform Your Life and Make a Difference by Guy Kawasaki with Madisun Nuismer. Copyright © 2024 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.

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