“Putting trees in your field”


So, this happened …

I was 9 years old, sitting in the lounge with my dad, who was explaining to me that the next day I was going for my first IQ test.

“Test?” I panicked. “Oh no, then I should be studying!” But my father explained that an IQ test is different, you can’t study for an IQ test. My 9 year old brain was struggling to understand what he had just said, in the context of my limited world experience, and so I was asking for examples.

My father got a notepad and a pencil, and drew a square on the page.

“This is a field,” he said. Then, making crosses on the two opposite sides, he went on, “and these are gates on either side of the field. Imagine a farmer wants to lead his prize horse through the field, from one gate to the other. What’s the shortest route through the field that he could follow?”

My father looked up from his diagram and from the black dots on the page where he had been hitting the page to make his point. I was a smart kid, so surely “a straight line” would have been an easy concept for me, even at 9 years old. But I was frozen, I didn’t say a thing, I was just staring at the page.

“Come on Greg,” he said. “This is easy. What’s the shortest route from one gate to the other?” Still I was frozen, I didn’t say anything. He became a little frustrated (and looking back I don’t blame him). “Here,” he said drawing a straight line between the two gates, over and over again, the pencil making angry noises with each additional line. “Isn’t that obvious?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Of course I can see that.” And I really could. “But,” I said, looking stressed, “what if there is a tree in the middle of the field?”

“What?” he said a little exasperated.

“A tree, Daddy, in the middle of the field. Then he wouldn’t be able to lead his horse along a straight line between the gates. He’d have to find a way around that tree, wouldn’t he?”

“There is no tree!” my father said, stabbing the field with his pencil. “There is no tree in this field. Stop putting trees in your field!”

Simple Definition

Putting trees in your field: This is when you over-complicate a situation by adding obstacles or imagining problems that really don’t exist.

Discussing what it means

As we know from the basic premise of #HashtagYourLife, the first step in improving your life is being able to quickly and effectively identify what situation you’re in, and the next step would be responding appropriately to that situation.

For those finding themselves in a situation where they’re experiencing “negative thinking”, it’s important to be able to identify which of the three main types of negative thinking being experienced:

  • The first is where you’re creating obstacles or adding complexity that doesn’t exist – this is “Putting trees in your field”
  • The second is where we contemplate too many possible outcomes and plan for all of these – which is called #[What if I get on the wrong bus?]
  • The third is general pessimism where we simply assume things will go wrong – which we call #[Just put your name in the damn hat]

Remember, though, that in this chapter we’re only talking about the first one of inventing stuff, the others will come up in later #hashtag-stories.

So when you do find yourself “Putting trees into your field” (when you’re creating imaginary hurdles and non-existent complications) then this #hashtag should immediately come to mind. And once this clarity is obtained – that you’re inventing stuff – then you have the chance to let all the details and justifications and rationalizations fall away, allowing you to see your field again for what it is: empty, without those trees you imagined.

I remember waking up one morning, and as I opened my eyes I caught myself locked in a stare with my girlfriend, who was already awake. What could have been a romantic moment at the start of the day, suddenly set my heart racing: she was looking at me angrily. Oh no – what’s wrong? After a few minutes she told me coldly that I had cheated on her in her dream, and she was upset with me. We both knew it was just a dream, there was nothing else actually bothering her, but in a sense she had planted trees in her field during her dream, and it took a couple of hours for those imaginary suspicions to fade away.

Or when I was speaking to one of my friends who, in spite of living in HK longer than I had, was #[Still not learning Chinese]. In his mind, he missed the chance to begin learning as soon as he had moved here, so had come to the conclusion that it was “too late” to begin now. Can you see he was merely Putting trees into his field?

If you had a really good first date, but you’re worried he won’t call, then that’s just general pessimism. But if all signs are that he had a good evening with you, but you’re starting to imagine he hated it and was just pretending, then that’s Putting trees in your field.

If you’re quite good in client meetings, with a number of successes under your belt, but you always begin meetings defensively because you imagine these prospects will probably dislike you and your offering, then you’re Putting trees in your field.

Indeed, this is one example of the kind of thinking that makes up Imposter Syndrome!

Notice when you’re doing it, flag it as “Putting trees in your field”, and then stop that negative thinking right then and there.

Making it personal

Of course we tell ourselves that we would never do something as silly as “Putting trees into your field”. I mean, sometimes we’re a little pessimistic, but actually inventing stuff that doesn’t exist? Nah, that’s not us.

Until it is.

And your challenge now is to identify those times when you have in the past, or indeed currently are still, Putting trees in your field. Don’t rush this one – the sooner you start to appreciate you’re not beyond inventing stuff to justify your mental framework, the sooner you can start to dissemble this and start doing what you should be doing, what you want to be doing.

Picture me as the 9 year old boy, preparing for my first IQ test, too frozen by my invented problem to even draw a straight line from one side of the square to the other. Sometimes, that’s you.

Learn to let go of that thinking. Well done on being creative enough to invent problems & obstacles that don’t exist, especially when there are already so many real worries to deal with, but that doesn’t serve you. Learn to flag it, and then let go.

Related stories

#[What if I get on the wrong bus?]

#[Just put your name in the damn hat]

#[Still not learning Chinese]

#[The dog on the rusty nail]