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Commentary: Personal growth and lessons from a bonsai

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  • Chief Master Sgt. Paul Strazz, 419th Fighter Wing command chief

“Don’t be distracted by criticism. Remember, the only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite out of you.”  -- Zig Ziglar

I came across an online ad for bonsai trees. Have you ever seen a bonsai tree? You know, they look like little replicas of big trees. I’d seen them before but never really gave much thought to why they’re so small. Actually, the first time I remember seeing one was in The Karate Kid. Do you remember that movie? No, not the new one, the best one, the original one from back in 1984. Well, remembering that, I decided to do some research on bonsai trees. Contrary to my original thought, they aren’t some engineered seeds that grow really small trees. I see you shaking your head as you read that, but in my defense, we have engineered seedless watermelons. [Side note: I did research on that topic, too, and found out there’s such a thing in this world as a watermelon breeder – true story.] Here’s what I found out about bonsai trees. Bonsai is a Japanese art form which utilizes cultivation techniques to produce small trees that mimic the shape and scale of full-size trees.

A bonsai tree is grown from the same seed as a tree of the same species out in nature. They’re genetically the same, they’re only small in size because that’s how we want them to be. So, by constricting the root growth to a small container and routinely pruning the foliage, the tree stays small. The research also showed that bonsai is all about taking care of the tree, and cultivating it to grow strong. The caretaker spends countless hours ensuring that the tree grows in a very particular and aesthetic manner. So the caretaker limits the space in which the tree has to grow and that inevitably forces it to adjust. Bare bones version: they put this seed in a small pot and significantly limit where its roots can grow. Then, by caring for the tree over the long term, they’re able to guide the growth. Pretty cool, right?

Well, when I apply that line of thinking to personal growth and setting a vision for ourselves, it presents an interesting comparison. You see, we all started life with big dreams and goals for ourselves. I remember I wanted to be an astronaut, Spider-Man, and Steve Austin (dated reference to the bionic man, not the wrestler) at one time. However, somewhere along the line someone told us we couldn’t do something and we were sold on that idea. We in effect create the very pot that will constrict our roots and limit the space we have to grow. We keep ourselves from growing because that’s what our critics want us to do. They are like the pot and force us to adjust.

OK, now back to The Karate Kid. Remember the scene… [Reader’s note: if you are saying “I haven’t seen the movie” every time I say “remember,” you really should see the movie.] Anyway, remember when Mr. Miyagi was pruning a bonsai tree and he used it to teach Daniel about mindfulness and creating a personal vision. He told Daniel to wipe his mind clean and close his eyes and picture how he wants the tree to look. Then he told him to open his eyes and start working on the picture he had in his mind. Daniel asked, “How do I know if my picture’s the right one?” To which Mr. Miyagi responded, “If it comes from inside you, it’s always the right one.” 

The point is, just like the bonsai, we are all of the same species – and if we followed the bonsai caretaker principles of spending countless hours, not on a tree but on our own cultivation, we would experience unlimited and deliberate growth through focus, dedication, and discipline. If you’re passionate about the picture of your future, then it must be right because it came from inside you.

You see, the growth of tree roots is all about their search for nutrients. If you educate yourself and chase your dreams, you are feeding your roots. The roots of wild trees can grow up to several meters long because there are no restrictions. So GO WILD and watch your VISION of the best YOU grow.