The Forest for the Trees


Do you know that saying: “He can’t see the forest for the trees?”  This one used to really confuse me when I was a kid.  It wasn’t just the phrasing, but the meaning was confusing as well.  “Who couldn’t see a forest because the trees were in the way?” I’d ask incredulously. 

Okay, maybe I didn’t know words like incredulously (I even had to check my spelling when I typed it in the last sentence), and truth is I didn’t often ask questions about things I didn’t understand (a very dumb thing for me to do), but it’s a confusing colloquialism anyway.

Then I went to college.  While I was getting my B.A. in History I realized from listening to all those college professors and their protégés what that saying really means!

History professors and history students say really “intelligent” things like this: “It’s so great being a historian in this modern age!  We can understand so much more about the past then people did centuries ago.”

Now, I have to admit, that I didn’t see anything wrong with this the first couple times I heard this.  Then it started to dawn on me that what they were saying, and the saying about the forest and the trees were connected.  It hit me one day while I was listening to a professor talk about medieval farming practices, or something of that sort.

Modern historians believe that they understand the past better than the people who lived in the past.  I suddenly couldn’t believe what I was hearing!  That’s the equivalent of someone standing right in front of a billboard being told that you can see it better than them from a mile away!  OR: It’s like being from Florida your whole life and telling others what it’s like to live in Alaska!

Why should others opinions and experience be made less because we think we have a greater perspective, especially when we’re further from the actual event or truth than they are?  Doesn’t it make sense that people who’ve lived through something and experienced it first-hand would know better than people who are merely reading what others said happened?  Since when is second- and third-hand information more accurate?

When we strive to learn something, to better ourselves in business, our relationships, and in life in general it pays to listen to experts: people who’ve worked with others to accomplish, or have already accomplished what you want to accomplish.

This is called the pursuit of “best practices”.  No one would hire a personal trainer who’s 400 lbs., but knows all the theories of physical fitness.  Why, then, do we listen to people with no experience in what we are dealing with?

What do you think?  Is there any reason to take advice from the inexperienced?  How much can mere education be accepted without practical application and experience?


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