Squirrel or Oak Tree?
In the previous essay, I talked about the Jeremy Bearimy of business. If you're not somebody who watched the TV show, The Good Place, and if you didn't listen to (or read) that episode of Simple Prospering, so that you know what I'm talking about,: It’s a metaphor.
In the case of the TV show, for the winding looping nature of time. And in the essay and podcast episode, more specifically to being self-employed, it is a metaphor for how running your own business is rarely as straightforward as we all think it should be; To expect that there will be plenty of discovery as you deeply listened to both your clients and yourself over the years.
Today I want to follow up on that a bit and talk about what I call squirrel energy versus oak tree energy. It helps with discernment around when things are in a Jeremy Bearimy loop, meaning when something is maturing and changing, (other entrepreneurial spaces would call this a pivot, which you've probably heard), or are you in squirrel mode, which is different than the maturation process of a pivot (or a Jeremy Bearimy loop).
Let me define the squirrel or oak tree terms, because it's an important concept for any business owner to be aware of longterm. It is also something that I personally am totally nailing 100% of the time. I'm kidding… I came up with the particular squirrel/oak metaphor because this is my weak spot. I can be in squirrel mode an awful lot, and so I often need to ask myself if I'm in an oak tree place or a squirrel place with my work activities. We teach what we need to learn sometimes!
To defining what I'm talking about in the first place: I live in the Northeast of the United States, which means that I have a lot of squirrels running around, especially at this time of the year in the fall. The squirrels are busily running around and collecting the acorns that the Oak trees drop and burying them in secret stashes under the ground to keep them fed through the winter. So good for them! Way to plan ahead, squirrels!
What I'm referring to is more the quality of how they do this: They run around very frantically, grabbing whatever acorn they can get and rapidly burying it somewhere seemingly random.
Sidebar: There is an urban myth that squirrels forget where up to half of the nuts they find are buried, which would make my metaphor way juicy-er: You’re running around and grabbing all these things and burying them and then you don't even utilize them or know where they are! But, in deciding not to be lazy myself I Googled to see if that was true for this essay and turns out it's probably not true, or at least only partially true.
In case you're interested. Encyclopedia Britannica tells me: “Surely some squirrels do forget where the nuts are buried. The forgotten nuts and acorns grow into trees, so squirrel absentmindedness produces some ecological benefits. [Thank you, squirrels!] It’s almost certain that squirrels indeed forget some subset of the nuts that they bury over the course of a nut-burying season. But it is not clear whether these are truly forgotten, or simply abandoned in favor of food that is easier to recover. Food storage is a serious business and squirrels don't bury nuts randomly. They are organized and they carry out a plan.”
Thank you Encyclopedia Britannica, I have been corrected. And apparently, again according to Encyclopedia Britannica, they're also capable of “spatial chunking” their caches as well. So that's fascinating.
My respect for squirrels grows with every web search, but this is not a podcast about squirrels per se! So let me return to that magical place of metaphor: Squirrels look like they're running around like nervous wrecks, grabbing any acorn they see and absentmindedly burying it somewhere in a pretty paranoid fashion. They give off a vibe of fear and scarcity by hoarding as many nuts as possible to make it through the winter.
Now for all I know internally squirrels feel entirely relaxed about their lives and they happily eat their acorns from well-planned stashes through the winter, but for the sake of this metaphor, I'm talking about the tendency to think that we, and this is where this episode gets out of squirrel-land and into self-employment, need to keep gathering more acorns in order to make it.
What this often looks like is launching more offerings, training in more modalities and getting more certifications (so that we can have a larger list of services for clients). It could be seeing clients at any old time they want to see you meaning always saying yes to work even if it's 10:00 PM on a weeknight. Nervously checking your own calendar to see if you've harvested enough nuts, i.e. seen enough clients in any week or month.
And then if you discover that things are slow, instead of paying attention to growing what you already do the focus is on more offerings, more services, more locations (I know people who've taken on multiple cities as a way of gathering acorns), more certifications, even new business models entirely. For example, adding on an online course to a private practice.
The trouble with this is that any new thing that we deliver, especially in small service-providing businesses, requires time and energy. Time and energy to create it, to launch it, to market it, and to deliver it.
When we keep just piling on more acorns, it's like choosing to have triplets or octuplets instead of one baby- it's just a lot more work! If we go this route, we often wind up feeling very twitchy and squirrel-like. And we don't wind up accomplishing what we set out to do in the first place, which is having that secure feeling of knowing where the acorn cache is: Having a robust, sustaining business.
So, what is the alternative to squirrel like energy? Feeling very oak tree-like. And the reason why the squirrel/oak metaphor, besides the fact that they obviously do have a reciprocal relationship, is that an oak tree is one giant living organism.
It requires a lot of nutrients from the soil, the sun, rain, oxygen… But the oak tree does its thing. It stays put and takes in those nutrients and transforms them into the robust tree that it is. (And, bonus, acorns which produce more trees… and feed squirrels through the winter!)
When I'm using the inquiry for myself and am asking if I'm in squirrel-mode or oak tree-mode in my own business it's a way for me to feel into the difference: Oak trees feel more Zen, and everything is going to feeding one thing. As opposed to piling on the acorns.
It's also for me a way to think about what my one core oak tree offering is. Which, as we all know, can change and shift and evolve over time. That's what a pivot, or a Jeremy Bearimy is.
Our businesses do mature; We do get other certifications and change up how we deliver our services. I'm in no way saying that we can't do that. It's more about how that is happening. Are we thinking about what's our one oak tree offering is and what might need to shift, change or mature in that offering? Or are we just desperately trying to create the biggest pile of acorns we can because we don't feel like we have enough acorns to get through the winter.
To clarify: an oak tree offering - and I'm going to keep this really simple here- Is one that reliably pays the bills.
This means that what we're thinking about with the oak tree offering is whether it is what's bringing in the vast majority of the revenue in your business. For example, if you see clients one-on-one delivering a service, and that accounts for 90% of the revenue that comes into your business, but you also run an online course maybe once a year which brings in that last 10% of your annual income, then your oak tree offering is your one-on-one work.
In this case, I'm not talking about what your main purpose is in life or from the point of view of your calling or your passion as the defining source of the oak tree. I do think there's a place for that, but if I'm being honest, I think it's a smaller place than we've been conditioned to believe. That's a topic for another essay. But I did that already! You can read (or listen to) Workism, The Passion Principle and Frankenstein if you’re interested!
For the sake of focus, and for the sake of feeling sustained by our businesses over the long haul, the oak tree offering is what does, and can continue to, pay the bills.
You may have smaller side offerings that are very meaningful to you, in which case keep them! Or you may have smaller side offerings that you picked up and tried out when you were in squirrel mode at some point, and now you feel like you either can't let it go because people expect you to offer it, or you shouldn't let it go because it might turn into something big eventually.
To the first point, if you're holding onto an offering because people expect you to have it, I give you official permission to prune that branch so that more nutrients are available for the oak tree.
To the second point. If you're holding onto an offering in the hopes that it will become a more robust income stream, that’s great! And think that through strategically: What would it take to get there? Why do you want to prioritize that? What is the maturation of the business if this is becoming the priority?
Lastly, are there any shoulds that aren't yours?If there are, consider the pruning shears. If instead this plan, as you think it through strategically, looks promising and feels good to you, then it's probably not squirrel-mode, it’s a pivot in process (otherwise known as the Jeremy Bearimy!)
I began this essay with the intent of clarifying when something is a pivot, meaning the way that the you and your business are evolving, and when something is instead a frantic collecting of acorns.
In my previous essay I said: “In reality, if you're really paying attention and course correcting along the way, you will encounter your fair share. Of Jeremy Bearimy twists and turns. I don't believe in muscling things forward at all costs. And I think, particularly in the first two to three years of any new venture, it is really about deep listening, mostly to your clients, and the willingness to be humble enough and brave enough to course correct when you see that you need to.”
To conclude this essay: Deep listening, the willingness to be humble and brave and to course correct when you see the need to- these are the things that indicate you are probably in an organic maturation process of your business.
If you feel like you are running around frantically adding more acorns to the pile, you're probably in squirrel mode.
If it helps you, like it helps me, you can take these inquiries with you: When I'm confused about the next steps of my work, or when I'm feeling nervous that things aren't working out how I want them to I ask myself, “Am I in squirrel-energy or oak tree-energy?”
Usually I'm asking because it's squirrel energy… At which point I can ask, “What would. oak tree energy do right now?”
For me, that brings to mind questions around how can I shore up my resources to feed the one dynamic organism that is my business, rather than depleting myself chasing acorns.