Why We Sometimes Can’t See the Forest for the Trees or the Trees for the Forest

Sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest.

Sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest.

I believe everyone has heard the proverb, “He can’t see the forest for the trees.” It has been around since before 1546. March up to any forest and count the number of trees you see. Whatever number you come up with will be short the total number of trees in the forest.

If it is a dense forest you may only be able to count the first few rows of trees. There will always be more trees in the forest than you can see at the edge at ground level.

Now, imagine going up over the forest in a helicopter to around 250 feet. You find you are able to count even more trees in the forest at a higher altitude than before. You feel your accuracy has improved but you look into the distance and see the forest extending out further than you thought, further than you can count trees.

But, though it is a large forest and you still aren’t able to count all of the trees, you begin to notice other things which at first you couldn’t appreciate. You see large rock formations, a footpath, a road, a stream and a river. Landmarks you couldn’t see from your previous vantage point at the forest’s edge.

Now you soar up to 1,000 feet and the view is spectacular! You see more landmarks and count even more trees but you still aren’t able to view the entire forest. Frustrated you fly on up to one mile high, hovering over the exact center of the forest below.

At last you can see the boundaries of the entire forest. But, something curious has also happened. You notice there is much less detail available now. Individual trees do not stand out anymore. They all seem to blend together making them impossible to count. Previous landmarks have faded into the background and are no longer visible.

You can no longer see the stream, the footpath or make out any of the rocks formations. Yes, you can see the entire forest from one mile high but your picture of the entire forest is now just as incomplete as when you stood at the forest’s edge.

Too close and there was insufficient detail. Too high and there was, again, insufficient detail for a clear picture.

After bouncing around down and back up in altitude a bit you find there is a good balance point at 1,500 feet. Although you can not see the entire forest, there you can count the maximum number of trees possible and still see most of the detail of the forest’s floor at the same time.

You have struck a balance with better clarity and focus.

For many years I wondered why I failed so many times with business ideas and money management. It was because I lacked a balanced view of my needs, goals, desires and dreams. When I did fail it was because I didn’t possess the balance, clarity and focus necessary for success.

I would often start out energetically with an idea and half a plan and throw myself into execution without fully considering all of the nuances and details involved. I would start out too close to the forest without a clear picture of the landscape to determine exactly where I was going or what I should be doing to get there. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

At other times I would ruminate on the prize, the end game, or the goal without any proper action plan, knowledge base or earnest effort for that matter. In my mind, I was surveying all I had accomplished before doing any of the work.

My plans were sometimes grandiose but without any preparation or consideration of the work involved. I would be flying too high above the forest where details were strikingly insufficient. I couldn’t see the trees for the forest.

Ideas are great but they are weightless and meaningless without a proper plan for execution. One that strikes a balance for the work involved versus the outcome desired. With clarity and focus, a proper and sustainable balance can be achieved. 

Have there been times you couldn’t see the forest for the trees or vice versa?

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