“You can’t see the forest for the trees.” How many times have you heard that expression through the years? Of course it generally refers to someone who has trouble seeing the “big picture” in business or even life in general because they are too focused on the details, the risks, the possible pitfalls.
My mind has been obsessed with this concept lately, and I have decided there are really two types of people. Those who can’t see the forest for the trees, and those who can’t see the trees for the forest. I am the latter.
The temptation, of course, is to imply that one of these is better than the other. In fact, I would argue that it is critical that we have both types in any business or decision making group, because their strengths and weaknesses are both necessary and very complementary to one another.
I am very much a “big picture” person, so much so in fact that it makes it difficult for me to understand why or how I know to do things. I just do. Keep in mind, there’s always a chance I’m NOT on the right path; but at any given time I will be fully convinced that I am.
So this sounds like a great situation, right? I mean, who doesn’t want to be the big picture guy or gal? It certainly sounds like the better option of the two. But I have found there are strengths and weaknesses in both types. Let’s dive in.
The Person Who Can’t See the Forest for the Trees:
The person who can’t see the forest for the trees gets a bad wrap in general I think. As with most things, this personality trait can be positive or negative depending on how you act on it. If you think about it, we need these detailed people in our lives and in our businesses because they have what we sometimes lack which is the ability to focus… the ability to master deeply. Someone who clearly sees the trees may be a brilliant and highly compensated engineer or medical researcher or computer programmer. These people can focus on the one critical task at hand and move a project forward.
Or they can suffer from paralysis by analysis. They are much more likely to be overwhelmed easily and completely paralyzed by the breadth of tasks involved in a project because they don’t easily see the end goal, the final result. Seeing every tree takes up all their time and energy. What if that tree has oak wilt? What if this tree isn’t getting enough sun? Is that a vine that’s growing on this tree? Could all the trees end up savaged by Kudzu vines?
The Person Who Can’t See the Trees for the Forest:
This person sees the end result so clearly, and is so convinced, he is on the right path that he doesn’t see the need to dissect the forest and study each tree. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. I think it is one reason I sleep well at night. It just seems instinctive to me that if I “keep on keepin’ on” I will continue to reach the goals I have set for myself. I believe worrying about each and every tree causes tree watchers to lose a lot of shut-eye!
This person can be a fearless leader, a great inspirer, a motivational maven. Every company, every group needs at least one person who believes in their DNA that their mission is right. That the end result for themselves and those they lead WILL be stellar. We all want to be led by someone who truly believes we can change the world, or at least our little corner of it.
The challenge, or the pain point, for this person is the difficulty we have reverse engineering. I just see the forest so clearly, and am so convinced in my gut that the path I’m on is right that it makes it hard to remember what got me there… which can sometimes make successes hard to replicate. We are often far too impatient to break down the pillars upon which we are building our legacy… which can make following us confusing and even scary to those we lead. When we don’t take the time to explain, or even understand, the WHY or the HOW of what we are doing… we had better have some very loyal followers because we are basically asking them to jump off the cliff with us.
I think of Gary Vaynerchuk and how often he will say, “I just know,” or “I just knew I would be successful in this effort… 100%.” He often points out that the “creative” is the variable in building a personal brand, in marketing, in business in general. And he is also forthcoming that he isn’t positive how much of that ability comes from our DNA as opposed to learning. As he says, he can practice basketball and become a better player; he can’t become Michael Jordan.
I am rarely at a loss for words or less than confident about my ideas and opinions. The only time you will get a “deer in the headlights look” from me is when you question me about the real nuts and bolts stuff. Give me some time, and I will sharpen my pencil and break out a pretty good outline. But it’s uncomfortable, and I don’t like it. It’s a pain point for me.
It really wouldn’t matter whether I can explain WHY I am doing something or how I KNOW I’m right about something if I lived and worked in a bubble. But I don’t, and this weakness can hinder my ability to lead, coach, teach, or inspire. And those are things that are important to me. So I have to work to sharpen this area of my thinking, my DNA.
Advice for the Tree Blind:
One thing that is absolutely required for this type of leader, and usually in short supply, is quiet, peaceful time to think. Time without distraction, time without new shiny objects to chase. People who are in this position typically find this difficult for many reasons. First of all, you typically got to be in this position by being involved in many different things. Odds are your fingers are in a lot of pies which can make extricating yourself from everything you have going on for even a few days extremely difficult. The only way to succeed is to have people in your life, your tribe, who believe in you endlessly, almost without question, AND people who are highly competent at what they do to keep the needle moving in your business even in your absence.
I have also found that people of this type need to avoid relationships, either personal or business, with people who don’t understand the value we bring. Justifying your actions, or your focus to “the questioners” does two things, neither of them helpful. It wastes your time, that most valuable of resources, time that you could be spending articulating and clarifying the trees. Time you could be spending creating duplicatable systems, process, principles that can be replicated and scaled.
Beyond the wasting of precious time, however, it drains your soul. Working with people who believe in me or in the direction I’m taking us… even though I may not be able to justify or articulate the entire plan at that moment… fuels me. It infuses me with energy and excitement, which are contagious. When I surround myself with people who do NOT believe in me or what I’m doing… I find it is a massive drain on my energy, my creativity, and even my sense of happiness and well-being.
Not everyone is going to follow me blindly, of course. And maybe those people will be right, and I will be wrong. Time will tell. But what I do know for sure is that the only chance I have of both fulfilling the goals I have and of being able to reverse engineer the steps to help others is to surround myself with those who “get it.” I emphatically do NOT mean yes men. I love a good devil’s advocate.
As long as my tribe knows in the end, I’m going to follow my gut, and that I need their support 100% … we are all going to succeed. Those are the people I am proud to surround myself with. Those are my ride or die’s. The only way I succeed is if they succeed. They get that and they know my heart is in the right place to build something great for all of us. I simply don’t have time any longer to spend on people who don’t believe.