Tough Trees and Growth Rings

The late Dr. Alex Shigo, author of accessible books on trees and former Chief Scientist of the U.S. Forest Service, described trees thusly:

“Trees are superior survival organisms. They live longer, grow taller, and become more massive than any organism ever to inhabit earth.” 

Dr. Alex Shigo

In short, trees are tough. Street life for a tree involves air pollution, yard sale signs, climbing kids, tire swings, knife carvings and car accidents. In the woods, trees endure drought, floods, fires, deer stands and enumerable pathogens. Regardless their environment, trees document their travails in their annual growth rings. These concentric increments, made of light and dark cells, indicate the amount of wood added in one season.  

The mechanics of trees, so orderly and resilient, fascinate. Let’s take a moment to peel back the bark and appreciate what comprises a tree and its growth rings:

  • Bark: this outer layer protects the tree from extreme temperatures, certain bugs and diseases, and even fire.
  • Phloem: also called the “inner bark,” the phloem transports sap produced in the leaves down and throughout the tree. Compare this role to that of the sapwood (xylem).
  • Cambium: amazing layer of thin cells that produces inner bark (phloem) on one side and sapwood (xylem) on the other.
  • Xylem: sapwood conducts water and necessary nutrients up the tree, versus the phloem which transports ready sap down the tree. When looking at the cross-section of a tree, the relatively youthful sapwood is lighter, partly because it has more water than the…
  • Heartwood in the middle of the stem, which is comprised of older, inactive cells that provide structural strength. 
  • Pith: central core of the tree and in twigs.

In most of North America, the growing season for trees starts in the spring when the cambium produces larger cells with thin walls that form lighter-colored “springwood” or earlywood. Growth slows later in the summer when trees produce the smaller and thicker walled cells that for the “summerwood” or latewood that is the darker part of each annual growth ring. 

How to Read the News and Articles

When reading anything, we want to prepare our mind. Mindless reading is like mindless eating. Be intentional and discerning in reading and application. Consider this simple approach for assessing the quality, credibility and relevance of what we read: ScanRead and Relate.

  • Before reading, scan the article or white paper to check its title, source, date, author name and bio (if there), figures and picture. This gives a sense of the rigor and shape of the article. It also answers, “is this current?”
    • I scan books, journals and magazines, too, and check the table of contents. This gives me a better feel for the material and its potential relevance.
  • While reading, focus on the theme and main ideas. Where does the supporting evidence come from (e.g. data, research, interviews, opinion)? 
  • After reading, relate the “value” in the article to your interests or objectives. Ask, “how is this relevant to me or my firm?” 

We don’t need perfection in our reading. However, we do benefit from intention and discernment. If we’re chilling on the porch with Beaverball or Family Circle, that’s one thing. If we’re reading a national newspaper, a proposal or a white paper, we gain time and advantage with a systematic approach.

Managing Businesses that Rely on Creative Activities

This post introduces an essay with ideas on coordinating different types of work.

Aside from the entrepreneurial artist (e.g. Andy Warhol) or writer (e.g. James Patterson) or inventor (e.g. Dean Kamen), most individuals that live off of their ideas operate within some type of organization. How do we corral “creative” activities like writing and research within manageable businesses?

Click here to read the essay.

Brooks on Books: Recommendations on Recommending

Books have been a hugely important part of my life. As a kid, when Mom took us to the mall, I loved going to B. Dalton bookstores and Waldenbooks. [I’d get so excited that, within ten minutes of walking the aisles, I’d need to pee.]

For my twelfth birthday in Cockeysville, Maryland, my parents hosted a group of my friends for roller skating and pizza at Skateland. Most of my friends gave me books as gifts. We had a leaning stack on the table that included favorites such as “Catch Me if You Can” by Frank Abagnale, “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien, and “The Stand” by Steven King.

Some older kids walked by and Mom heard them say, “shoot, that kid must really like books!” 

To this day, I still have most of those books, and I enjoy swapping favorite book titles with others. When people ask me for book recommendations, I have found myself following an informal set of rules. 

First, I only consider recommending books that I’ve read. Would you write a recommendation for a person you’ve never met? Would you recommend a restaurant you’ve never eaten at? Yet, on dozens of occasions, I’ve fielded suggestions anointed with “I’ve heard that it’s great…it’s supposed to be good…” Anyone can look up the best seller list.

Second, I recommend books that I’ve reread (or would read again). Which books do I actively revisit, for whatever reasons? For me, this includes a novel I read last year, “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. Recently, I spoke with a woman who had read the book and we spent a joyous few minutes sharing our love of the book. A colleague of mine overheard this and said, “I really need to read that book.” [I loaned it to her.] Another friend of mine, a retired professor, said he cried the day he read the last page because the book ended, and he wanted it to last longer. 

Finally, I recommend absorbing page turners. Like a great movie or concert, a satisfying mystery or adventure takes you on a little trip. When I read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Steig Larsson, it carried me right through the night. A gripping thriller.

What books do you recommend? Why? I welcome your comments below.

Managing Yourself

This post introduces an essay with ideas and resources on personal productivity. It is the third in a three-part series on entrepreneurship. 

Like other business owners, I learned along the way and grew into my role as a CEO. Possibly the biggest lesson has been the importance of rigorously, even ruthlessly, managing my time and energy.

In practice, we tend towards self-indulgence and do the things we like to do, or want to do in the moment, rather than those things that help us achieve our goals. Having clear priorities and a sensible approach to managing time has helped me tremendously, and will help you, too.

Click here to read the essay.