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10 Feb 2014

Emotional Self-defense for Sensitive People (Pt 9): Oak & Apple Trees

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Emotional Self-defense for Sensitive People

Sensitive-People-e1306636760781The difference between oak and apple trees fascinates me. Oak trees produce many acorns surviving squirrels and insects; however, few apples of wild trees survive. Yet, apple trees produce tastier fruit if we care for them. Could similar differences exist in people?

I first noticed this early in my career. A productive co-worker’s performance deteriorated with a new boss more critical than our previous one was. While everyone adapted, it was harder for him, and eventually he was let go. I began thinking he was like an apple tree, easily crushed but produces well if cared for properly.

Years later, I ran across David Dobbs’ article, “The Science of Success” (The Atlantic, December 2009 edition), citing the work of Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg (Leiden University) and the works of Bruce Ellis (University of Arizona) and W. Thomas Boyce (University of California Berkeley):

The Swedes, Ellis and Boyce noted in an essay titled “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” have long spoken of “dandelion” children. These dandelion children—equivalent to our “normal” or “healthy” children, with “resilient” genes—do pretty well almost anywhere, whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden. Ellis and Boyce offer that there are also “orchid” children, who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.

Thus, I ran across the orchid-dandelion hypothesis which Dobbs explains:

. . . that some of the genes and traits generating our greatest maladies and misdeeds – depression, anxiety, hyper-aggression, a failure to focus – also underlie many of our greatest satisfactions and successes.

When explaining this, I still use trees, finding them more acceptable than flowers are, especially dandelions (“Are you calling me a weed?”). To business professionals, I describe it as risk-return: oaks carry less risk, more predictability while apple trees carry more risk, require more work but have greater return potential.

Still, no matter how we slice it, we need both in our businesses . . . and our lives, so let’s provide the help each requires.


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