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What the largest tree on Earth can teach us about reaching our full potential…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You should be part—and apart—of something.

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? The largest trees in the world end up that way because they are in a nourishing environment and aren’t constantly competing for resources.

The General Sherman tree, the largest tree on Earth, is 274.9 feet (83.8 meters) tall, weighs 4.1 million pounds (1.8 million kilograms), and is somewhere between 2,300 to 2,700 years old. 

Growing this tall and living this long is no easy feat. Of course, it’s the type of tree that grows quickly (and it is—it’s a giant sequoia), which is a start. But growing quickly isn’t all you need. 

You also need to have the right conditions. And the General Sherman does—it is tucked away in the Western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California with lots of water, good sunlight, well-draining soil, and some (but not too many) wildfires that help the trees regenerate.

Beyond the right general conditions, the General Sherman needed one more thing: community. With shallow but wide-spreading roots, giant sequoia trees need other giant sequoias nearby so that they can hold onto one another. Had the General Sherman tree found itself in the desert just a few hundred miles away, it wouldn’t have survived.

But being in a nurturing environment isn’t enough. After all, there are thousands of other giant sequoias in the same area. Few go on to reach their full potential.

Why? You can’t be a tall tree among short trees. Otherwise, you’d be the first to get hit by lightning. You also can’t be at the edge of the forest. Otherwise, you’d be the first to get cut down by loggers, as was the case in the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, you can’t be too close to other trees. Otherwise, you’d be spending your time fighting over resources instead of focusing on growing tall and strong.

But don’t take my word for it: As climate change threatens the giant sequoia’s livelihood, conservationists are actually cutting down trees. In a process called “restoration thinning,” conservationists clear some—but not too many—trees in a crowded forest to give the “‘exceptional” ones like the General Sherman the space to grow even stronger and taller.

So, the next time you find yourself wondering if you’re going down the right path in your career, remember the General Sherman tree, which grew because it was a part of something—and thrived when it stood out.

The Giant Sequoia in comparison to the Statue of Liberty. Though Coast Redwoods are taller, the General Sherman sequoia tree is larger than any redwood tree. Image via The Economist.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? You can go further, faster in your career if you are in a nurturing environment and aren’t constantly fighting for resources.

When I was walking among the giant sequoias, all I saw were trees—but all I could think about were people.

Surviving in the forest as a tree is like surviving in school as a student, surviving as an employee in a company, and, yes, surviving in this big scary world as a professional. You need to find an environment that helps you grow and an environment where you can stand out.

If you’re a student, you want to pick a school, a major, and even professors that will push you. But, you also need to make sure that you’ll stand out enough in class to land a recommendation letter that says more than just “so and so was a good student.”

If you’re an employee, you want to pick a company, a project, and teammates that will invest in your professional development and personal well-being. But, you also need to make sure that you’ll stand out enough to be labeled as a “high performer” and “high potential.”

Are you positioning yourself for success?

Ask yourself 2 questions:

(1) Am I in a “lush forest”?

  • In other words… “Does my current environment give me access to resources (exposure, learning, mentorship, and networks) to achieve my long-term goals?”

(2) Am I in a “crowded forest”?

  • In other words… “Is my current environment so competitive that the exposure, training, learning, mentorship, and networks are always going to somebody else?”

Like the General Sherman tree, you want to make sure you’re in a lush—but non-crowded—forest. You don’t want to be in a desert—unless, of course, you’re a cactus. And even if you are a cactus in the desert, you don’t want to be tucked away under a shady tree. You need sunlight—so go where there’s sun!

I know it because I’ve experienced it: I went to a competitive math and science high school and it was one of the best things that could have happened to me—not because I learned a lot of math and science, but because I realized that math and science were not my strengths.

Sure, I could try to get into a competitive STEM undergrad program, but would I really stand out enough to get into this competitive research lab and apprentice under that hot-shot researcher? Probably not. This didn’t mean I was hopeless—it just meant I needed to reposition myself for both my career and my sanity.

Find the sun!


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