Guying a Tree Has Consequences

staked tree

On one of the toughest days of my childhood, a day that forged much of my world view, my father, as he often did, came up to my room to chat about my day. He offered some advice, some objectivity, and very little comfort. He wasn’t harsh; he was just brutally honest about my “very bad day” and his thoughts about what I could or should do to improve my situation. At the time, all I really wanted was a hug and a more powerful ally to go fix my world for me. What I got was sound advice about choices and ways to think about how to solve my own problem. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was one of the most formative days of my life.

Years later one of my children had a “very bad day,” and before I intervened, I thought to ask my father about why he chose his approach to my very bad day forty years earlier. He answered my question with this story. It was one of his best, and I’d like to share it with you.

    A young man with a new house in a beautiful suburb planted a tree in the middle of his manicured lawn.

    When the tree was just a season old, it started to shake violently in the winter wind and the man was afraid that it would be uprooted. So, he braced the tree with a guy wire. Just one.

    The next season, the tree was bigger, and the single guy wire was not really adequate to the task, so he rigged another guy wire with heavier cable and loops to let the tree grow. Now, it was braced against the wind and it grew straight and thrived.

    Several seasons passed. The tree grew bigger and bigger. And, as you can imagine, as the tree got bigger, it needed bigger, more complicated sets of guy wires – which the man dutifully set up. Each season, the tree was braced against the wind and it grew straight and thrived.

    After 21 seasons, the man looked at the tree. It was magnificent! It was big, strong, had deep roots, and looked perfectly healthy. He decided it was time to remove the guy wires. Surely the tree could now easily withstand the winter wind.

    That very night, a winter storm hit the area. The tree was almost instantly uprooted, and as it fell, it crushed the man’s house.

My dad loved to tell stories, and this one has resonated with me over the years. The lesson is always relevant, and while results vary, more times than not there are dire consequences to overprotecting anything or anyone – tree, child, system, process… anything or anyone.

I’m sharing this with you because I was asked what I thought about the Board of Education in San Francisco considering giving every student an A for the 2019/20 school year.

Surely, with respect to grades (and every other aspect of student life), the forced transition to online education should not only be taken into consideration, it must be the full focus of everyone involved with the status quo. For a wide range of reasons that are easy to imagine, not every child (including hardest workers) and not every educator was able to make a successful transition to online education. So, I applaud the discussion and hope that those in charge will arrive at an answer the meets the needs of their students.

That said, if we are brutally honest, it’s time to reevaluate the entire education system. Does k-12 even make sense now? What does it mean to be in a grade? What does it mean to learn? What is school for? What is a school season? What should day care be? Why isn’t school 12 months a year? Should a school day be a physical proxy for parents who have to work and can’t spend time watching their children? What is the proper balance between subject matter expertise and “age appropriate” social interaction? How should kids spend their days to become productive? And on and on.

How do grades help prepare you for the “real world” where success heavily relies on your ability to identify and solve problems? This is a perfect time to rethink everything. As for giving everyone an A? Guying a tree has consequences.

Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.

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About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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