The Prometheus Tree

When I was last in Denver my speaking agent, Katrina Mitchell, took me into the Rocky Mountains. We drove higher and higher, past the tree line, until we reached a grove of Bristlecone Pines. While these trees look small, gnarled and unassuming, they have deep roots, character and power. Like old yogis and hermits they have learned the ways of the world and can survive in the coldest and most inhospitable of climates.

There is a story about a forestry student who in 1964 was researching the age of these trees. He picked out a very old looking one to study. But every time he tried to remove a core sample from its trunk, the wood was so dense his drill bit snapped. So with the help of a ranger he secured a special saw blade, cut down the tree and took a slice of the trunk back to his laboratory to determine its age. When he put the sample under the microspope he discovered, to his amazement and horror, he had just killed the oldest tree in the world, later named by the scientific community as the Prometheus Tree. It was 4,862 years old!

What makes a successful life?

While most people reading this will live for 70 to 80 years, an accident or unfortunate illness will take some of us out earlier. Whatever happens, compared to the Prometheus Tree, even the longest human life is short. So what can be achieved in such a relatively short time? And how will we decide if we have lived a successful life, given whatever years we have?

While I’m often reminding my team to look at the big picture, this is one question where the parts are more important than the whole. Our lives are made up of thousands of projects and thousands of encounters with all types of people — clients, colleagues, family, friends and strangers. Each project and each encounter, no matter how small or brief, is an opportunity to make a difference. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher, expressed this sentiment elegantly in the following poem:

To laugh often and much,
To win the respect of intelligent people,
And the affection of children.
To earn the appreciation of honest critics,
And to endure the betrayal of false friends.
To appreciate beauty,
To find the best in others,
To leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch,
a redeemed social condition, or a job well done.
To know even one other life has breathed easier,
because you have lived.
THIS, is to have succeeded.

Using Emerson’s definition of success, even the smallest act of kindness or the shortest life can be filled with meaning and significance. Coming back to the Bristlecone Pines, as a business owner I find their deep roots, rock solid character and dogged determination to survive, an inspiring reminder of what it takes to sustain a healthy, enduring business.

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