The Tree, the Soil, and the Fruit

I love looking for connections between the books I read. When I see common themes in otherwise unrelated books, my ears perk up. To see unconnected authors’ paths cross seems to validate what both are saying.

As I look back on the books I read over the past year — which varied in theme from running to farming to motorcycle maintenance— I noticed a few common threads emerge.

Today, I’d like to pull on one of those threads (with apologies, this post is rather long-winded…).

Let’s begin where any good conversation should: with food.

Reaching for Gold

Ray Croc knew what it takes to win. In the 1950s he grew McDonalds from a little family restaurant in San Bernardino, California, to a global franchise. But Croc’s relentless appetite for business success flew in the face of the values around which the original Golden Arches stood for. The 2016 film The Founder depicts this tension been the modern “winning mindset” on which the American dream was built and the more conservative character-driven approach to business that the McDonald brothers valued.

One heated telephone conversation in the film encapsulates this tension well. At this point in the story, the McDonalds franchise has grown throughout the US, but the McDonald brothers are having their doubts about the means Croc is willing to use to succeed:

Ray Croc: “I wanna win. And you don’t get there by being some “aw shucks” guy sap. There’s no place in business for people like that. Business is war. It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat. If my competitor were drowning, I’d walk over and put a hose right in his mouth. Can you say the same?
Mac McDonald: [pause] I can’t. Nor would I want to.
Ray Kroc: Hence, your single location.

And, because we’ve all eaten a Big Mac at a McDonald’s outside of San Bernardino, California, we know that it was Croc’s aggression that beat out the McDonald brothers’ conservative mindset.

But was this really a win? Was spreading the good news of McDonalds food around the world worth the sacrifice of Kroc’s marriage and relationships with the company’s founders?

And what about those of us who aspire to a life of character deeper than “success at any cost”? Are nice people destined to finish last? Can compassion and competition co-exist?

Chris McDougall, for one, believes that they can.

Love and running

In his book Born to Run, Chris McDougall studies both the Mexican tribe of super-runners called the Tarahumara and the elite athletes in the world of ultra-running. He notices a surprising trend among the best runners in the world:

The best runners were also the most loving and generous people.

…there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you’ve got, being patient and forgiving and… undemanding…maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that getting better at one could make you better at the other.

As McDougall pointed out in his TED talk, this trait was exemplified perfectly in Derartu Tulu’s winning run in the New York City Marathon.

In 2009, the accomplished 37-year-old Ethiopian marathoner returned to the sport to race the New York City Marathon. Just over halfway into the race, Tulu was running alongside the heavily-favoured Paula Radcliffe when Radcliffe pulled up in pain, nursing her hamstring.

This was Tulu’s chance to break ahead of her rival and take a commanding lead! And yet she did the unexpected.

“Come on,” she said to Radcliffe, “we can do it.”

This was a heart-warming display of sportsmanship, but we all know that nice people like Tulu don’t have what it takes to win, right?


As the race progressed, Radcliffe stopped a second time in pain. Again, Tulu stopped to encourage her competiton to continue. At that point Radcliffe said, “I’m done,” and let Tulu run ahead.

And run she did. Not only did Tulu manage to catch back up to the lead pack but went on to win the race!

Tulu is an example of someone who didn’t sacrifice compassion for the sake of competition. In fact, it might have been her depth character that also made her a great runner.

Often it’s easy to believe that we can excel in one area of life at the expense of others.

We can sacrifice our sleep or diet to find success in our work.

We cut other people down in a fight to the top.

When we vote, we think that a corrupt person will make a nation prosper.

But bad tree can’t make good fruit.

This principle has proven true in more places than the running world.

The perfect painting

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig becomes obsessed with Quality. He discovers that the characteristic of Quality isn’t like a coat of paint that you can throw on at the end to give something Quality. Quality must be built in from the beginning. Even before plans are drawn, Quality must be developed. It must start at the core of the maker’s character.

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together.
The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or they fall away from Quality together.

Picasso echoed this when he said, “It’s not what an artist does that counts, but what he is.”

If we hope to be great in any arena, whether art or running or business, we must embark on the long journey of cultivating depth of character in all areas of life. Despite what our culture tells us, there are no shortcuts to quick success on one day of the week, to borrow Pirsig’s words. For as he says:

It all goes together.

Tending the soil

Wendell Berry has become a favourite author in my bookshelf. His writing comes from a place unruffled by the tossing waves of today’s concerns. He draws from a deeper stream, and I’ve gleaned a lot from his perspective.

In his book The Unsettling of America, Berry emphasizes over and over the value of soil. Obviously soil is important for growing any crop or garden, but it’s far more than just the “dirt” seeds are planted in. Berry talks about the importance of particular crop rotations for returning nutrients to the soil, and minimizing tillage to avoid breaking up the bacterias and composition of the soil before planting. Now, the particulars of this are a conversation that finds this hobbyist gardener far out of his depth, but the principle rings true in many areas of life.

To grow quality fruit, take care of the tree. To take care of the tree, take care of the soil.

For this reason, the discussion of soil for Berry isn’t just about farming. Because the health of our soil affects the quality of our food and the health of those who work the soil. These affect the health of our towns and cities, and the health of our culture as a whole.

Because everything is connected.

This is why, if you want to take great pictures, you don’t start by getting a fancy camera.

And if you want to start a business that does great work, you don’t start with a killer logo or website.

And if you want to raise great kids, you don’t start by sending them to a great school.

No, to produce any fruit of good quality you need to start with the soil. (And that soil, by the way, is you).

Looking back at the example of McDonalds, you could argue that the franchise’s “fruit” — the food you eat at any of their restaurants, but also their impact on our health and communities, both the good and the bad — could be traced back to the “soil” of its founders’ character, which first nourished its growth.

Because bad soil can’t produce good fruit.

It’s all connected.


There’s a scene in How to Train Your Dragon that keeps coming to mind (forgive me, as a parent I don’t get out much these days). The feeble son of the king isn’t seen as “future king” material. He’s small and lacking confidence. Any time he presses a critic on what precisely is wrong with him, he gets this kind of sweeping finger-point at his whole self.

“You just pointed at all of me.”

It’s the season of New Year’s resolutions, as we all hope to make the upcoming year better than the last. When you think about how you’d like to improve, you might feel like Hiccup. The finger is pointing at “all of you”.

Where do we begin?

If you were to ask the motorcycle-enthusiast Pirsig where to start, he would point at all of you, but in an encouraging sort of way.

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then word outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.

Berry, too, points encouragingly to the hope of small steps. If everything is connected, then the smallest changes, the simplest acts of love and generosity, will affect everything else. (In fact, simply acknowledging these connections is also a step towards health. Berry writes, “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.”)

How you treat your fellow runners affects how well you yourself run. What you eat affects how you run your business. How you listen to your kids or your friends affects how you do your work.

It’s all connected.

As you turn your calendar to a new year, consider the health of your soil. Aspire to become of person with depth of character.

Because if your soil is good, your fruit will also be good.