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Plans, Trees, and Fruit.

Imagine . . . you are plucked out of your ordinary life and transported to a new land. Perhaps you live in Kansas and a tornado sweeps you away. Or something like that.

At first you’re completely bewildered. “What the heck just happened? Where am I? What should I do next?”

Eventually you realize that this is really happening and you’re going to have to start figuring things out.

As you explore the new land, you come across a town. It’s about the same size as your home town, . . . but it’s very different in many ways as well.

Since there’s no food in this town, and you’re getting a bit hungry, you travel along a road in search of food. About 10 miles later, you come across another town. And, interestingly, it’s about the same size as a town in your land that’s about 10 miles away from your home town.

Noting the similarity, and realizing that there’s no food in this town either, you venture to hope the similarities extend even further. And you reason, “In my land, there’s a third town 5 miles down the road from the second town, and that town has the finest cheese in our land. So maybe . . . just maybe . . . if my luck holds true . . . there will be another town 5 miles from this town, and they, too, will have the finest cheese in this land.”

You travel on, and, indeed, there is another town about 5 miles further down the road. There is no cheese, but the folks in that town do have the finest salt pork in all the land.

After praising your good fortune, and gorging on salt pork, you dig around in your backpack and find a map of your home land. And you start to wonder, based on your experience so far, just how well the map might help you get around in this new land.

After some exploration, you discover that 5 of the towns in this new land are connected in the same order, and by the same length roads, as are 5 towns in your home land, and they have similar trading relationships. Much of the new land is very different, but your map is working surprisingly well, considering it was designed for an entirely different territory.

Things are looking up a bit.

When you first arrived you were overwhelmed and disoriented by the new land. But the similarities you’ve found between your home land and the new land make you feel a little more at home, and allow you to get around more easily than you otherwise would have.

The surprising (yet not perfect) utility of your map has somehow turned nightmare to adventure.

This story should sound a little familiar, because it describes the way analogies work.

Analogies are like having a map of one land that works unreasonably well in a new land.

And, yes, this story is an analogy analogy :)

Analogies, Plans, and “Fractal Awareness”

Plans are like trees.

Or, more specifically, while trees and plans are different in many ways, they are also very much alike in some important ways.

A tree has a trunk. And from this trunk spring heavy branches.

Likewise, with a plan, you have a main outcome you’re trying to achieve. That main outcome is the “trunk” of your plan. But your outcome is complex and will require many otherwise unconnected actions to achieve it. So you have to break your plan (branch it) into parts that are easier to get your head around.

And, just as the tree keeps branching and branching and branching until it gets to its leaves, so your plan can keep branching and branching and branching until it gets down to tasks that are so simple it doesn’t pay to break them down any further.

If you were to take all those smallest tasks and jumble them up and do them in a random order, you would get lost. And someone watching you would have no idea what you were trying to achieve. But when you connect all those actions through a tree-like planning structure, your actions suddenly make sense, and are able to add up to something important.

So our understanding of trees helps us understand plans. Our tree-land map works in plan-land, too. At least as far as we’ve investigated to this point. And perhaps, if we use our tree-land map to further explore more of plan-land, we’ll find it works in other ways as well.

For instance, if you take a branch from a tree, and graft it into a different place in the tree, it might be able to grow there, too, and might serve your purposes better. And, when you do this, all the leaves on that branch will come along with it, and will still be connected in all the important ways, both to each other, and . . . ultimately . . . to the trunk. This works with plans as well.

The analogy between trees and plans runs surprisingly deep.

But plans are not special in this respect. Understanding trees can help you understand many things in life. The tree-land map works in many, many other lands.

For instance, it helps us explore evolutionary biology, economics, and the history of technology. It helps us model mountains in cgi algorithms, to structure web pages, to sort lists, and on and on.

The tree structure, it turns out, is a master analogy maker. It’s a master map. It’s not our only master map by any means. But it’s definitely one of the most useful maps we have.

And being aware of this fact allows you to understand much more of the world than you otherwise would. If you run across something that can be understood better with a tree analogy, and you pull out your tree-land map and start exploring the new domain, you’ll very quickly gain surprising insight into that new domain — faster than you could if you didn’t use your tree-land map.

Do this enough, and you’ll start to see tree-like branching processes everywhere. You’ll see them in the way cities grow. In the way ideas grow. And so on.

It might even help you find a better algorithm for shoveling your driveway after a heavy snow :)

If you go through life ready to pull out your tree-land map whenever it looks like it might be useful, we can say you move through the world with “tree awareness”. Whenever you’re thinking through problems, you might even find yourself locking your vision onto the nearest tree and using its shape to help you think through the problem.

Now trees are a kind of fractal, and it’s the fractal structure of trees that gives them some of their most interesting properties. Because of this, when I wrote “Clear Mind, Effective Action”, I used the term “fractal awareness” to describe the ability to notice the tree-like processes and structures all around you.

All that is fascinating. But our main concerns here are to use fractals for planning and executing our creative projects.

And, with that in mind, I think I found a neat way to extend the analogy between tree and plan.

The extended analogy is between a certain kind of tree and a certain kind of plan.

Extending the Analogy Between Trees and Plans

When we plan, we break our projects down for many reasons.

Two of the main things we aim for are these:

  1. We aim to discover all the simple actions we need to do to create the finished product.
  2. We aim to discover any physical or logical conflicts between the parts that remain hidden at lower levels of detail.

And if we’re building a house, or a business, structural integrity is one of our main concerns.

For the purposes of structural integrity, it works very well to just let the plan unfold naturally, the way a tree would grow. We branch the project into parts that will add up to the whole. Then we ask, “How do I do this part?” And we break that part into sub-parts that will add up to the bigger part in a way that helps the bigger part contribute to the whole. And so on.

Along the way we notice tensions. And the resolutions to these tensions lead to new tasks that must be done to create the finished product. They are essentially just new, unexpected parts of the project that were hidden from view when conceiving the project at higher levels.

When we start to build our product from our plan, we might find that some things need to be done before other things. So we rearrange items a bit to create an orderly construction story.

With some things structural integrity, or logical coherence, is enough.

But sometimes we want more.

Sometimes we want to share our creations with others. Sometimes we want our audience to get something special from our creation. Sometimes we want to wow the public.

And that’s where we need to extend our analogy between trees and plans.

In cases like these, we are not just growing any old tree. We are growing a FRUIT TREE.

And, if the analogy holds pretty well, we’ll be able to ask many of the questions a horticulturalist might ask about how to get better fruit, and we will discover ways to make our creations bear better fruit as well.

Here are some of the questions we might ask, for instance, when writing an essay:

  1. What fruit am I growing? (What do I want my audience to take away from this essay?)
  2. Does some of the structure obscure the fruit? (Do I spend too much time addressing questions my audience doesn’t have?)
  3. If I lop off structural branches to make the fruit more visible, does it make the fruit appear spoiled to some people? (What if I fail to address questions my audience does have?)
  4. Is the fruit too high to reach? (do I take my reader through too many layers of abstraction, or too many levels of dialectic before getting to the main point?)
  5. If I decide to lop off some structure to make the fruit more accessible, what can I do with the prunings? (Arguments you choose not to present might serve to give you depth as an expert, because you’ll be ready if and when those questions arise. They might also be the source of future essays.)
  6. And so on . . .

I am still in the process of exploring this analogy.

I plan to write some posts in the future on this, exploring questions raised by the analogy.

I want to invite you to explore this analogy with me, and together we might be able to use it to engage in more and more effective acts of creative expression, guided by a map that works surprisingly well — especially for folks who, for the most part, aren’t even fruit farmers.

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  1. Paula Martin
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Jim: Your fruit-tree analogy makes sense to me. As a culture, we even talk about a plan “bearing fruit.”

    Thanks for the fractal-fruit extension: It helped illuminate much of the tree for me. This can be used right from the start to ask “Why am I doing this? What fruit(s) do I want to produce?”

    In my work and in my personal life, I look for ways to retain or re-purpose “prunings.” It seems silly to waste thoughts and research, plus there are audiences who could benefit from some of this. Some prunings may root themselves into new trees. And sometimes you just need to play tree surgeon and toss the stuff.

    More analogy: Roots.

    I believe that depth (having much more than is showing above ground level at any given time) can create its own fractal roots (if those roots didn’t help drive the creation of the tree in the first place), which can act as secure anchors and/or as ways to seek inspiration or renew motivation (e.g., seek out nutrients). Bonus: Some roots move sideways unseen and produce new trees in unexpected places.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Paula! I like the idea of extending the analogy to the roots. The tree is there to organize all the work you have to do — all the specific actions that will add up to the finished product. And the roots of a tree help support the tree. So the roots of your plan should be the things that support the plan.

      As you suggest, the roots could represent your branching set of reasons and motives. They could represent the things you do to make sure you have energy for your work. They could represent the extra reading and research you do to give yourself a deeper understanding of the issues involved in your project.

      Some additional distinctions might be useful (do the roots support the execution of the plan, or the structure of the plan?), and our answers might depend on how tight we want the analogy to be, and on what phase of our project we find ourselves in.

      Clearly a “fruitful” suggestion!

  2. Natalie
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    How cool is it that just thinking about trees could get me organized by breaking down all of my projects that overwhelm me? ‘Between working 2 jobs, home and kids- I like the idea of breaking it down until it “doesn’t pay” to break it down more. We didn’t have a lot of snow where I live this winter but maybe next year I’ll get back to you on your snow-shoveling strategy.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      Haha. Yeah, maybe I’ll write a snow-shoveling post next winter :) I think the algorithm comes close to minimizing effort (though probably not by a lot over other common strategies), and it makes it easier to keep my head in the game and not get discouraged about occasionally having to shovel the same snow more than once.

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