Contemplating trees, out walking the dog last weekend, I was struck by a line of them that have been ‘managed’.

And the reason is evident lying on the ground – a great big one that fell last year on a windy day. Without having chunks periodically lopped off them, they’d get too big and too unwieldy for the park authorities.

I was struck by the fact that mighty as they are – each with the same impressive twisted pattern in their hefty trunks – they were all different shapes and had been chopped back in different places. The results were fundamentally not that shapely. They’re impressive and large, but a bit misshapen and not all that handsome in truth. And my eye was drawn to one that visibly had had a big bough lopped off it.

I felt a bit sorry for this tree. What had it done to deserve such a hacking with a chainsaw. And this set me thinking about life… looked at more closely all the older trees were misshapen. They all stood dignified and tall (except the big one now on its back sawn into pieces) but all of them had been trimmed, twisted and bent out of shape by park life.

There were smaller ones which were still perky and largely symmetrical (here’s one with the dog looking on)…

…but the big ones had all had branches which had been cut back and shapes distorted by arrested growth and long life.

And so with trees it seems to me with people. As I looked at the first tree that caught my eye, with its circled chopped bough, it made me think of my own career and life.

Lots of things I have branched out into have come to an end. Jobs and projects either outgrown by new activities or chopped off by life’s ever-active lopping shears. The odd big life branch has even been hacked off against my wishes like that chainsawed bough. My tree is getting more and more twisted and gnarled – but above all distinctive and different with the passage of time.

Big old trees are products of their environment; and when that environment includes people they get shaped, pruned, lopped, frustrated and ultimately felled. But the individual branches matter less over time.

Old trees stand as evidence of perseverance in all conditions. We may be less pretty as we age, but our many years of adaptation and growth, and the storms and setbacks we have weathered ultimately make us much more interesting.

A problem shared


Lots to learn and lots to figure out in my new job – I’m dreaming complex organisational structures most nights; and in truth, I’d rather not be. But the most important lesson of all is… even if not halved; a problem shared is a problem better understood.

Three people greatly helped me with my problems this week. Not by changing anything about the real world situation; but by taking time, listening, showing concern and helping me to describe what is happening. 

It’s a rare person indeed who is prepared to properly care; so I’m very lucky indeed to have access to a handful of exceptional people with great life experience and insight who really do. 

None of these people are ‘friends’ in the classic modern description: they’re not people I’ve known since schooldays, inflict my family on or go on holidays with. They’re all people I’ve met in a variety of work situations. 

None of them know each other – I don’t even know if they’d get on. But my life is enriched and any problems I have (and there are usually one or two) are reduced by talking to any one of them.

Someone I also saw this week – whose professional life went badly wrong once – asked me if I had anyone to talk to about where I’m at; any kind of support network? 

I smiled inwardly at that. The answer is an unequivocal yes. I have some very special people, who will always listen and help me to a better place.

A problem shared with these remarkable friends, really is a problem halved.



I found myself facing old demons this week – in a Ministers office with less than an hour’s notice and plenty at stake. But nearly everything gets easier with experience.

Nearly a decade on from this being my day job, I wasn’t rattled at all. When my time came to speak I was oddly calm, pretty fluent, affably persuasive and perfectly good-humoured.

Later as things were getting choppy, I instinctively waded in with a tide-turning point: ‘today’s good intentions risk tomorrow’s unintended consequences’; which helped keep some important foundations from being inundated. Then smiles, handshakes and off. Job done.

A quick summary letter, to nail the key points for posterity, and home for family and food.

So what made the difference? Experience; yes. Having the right arguments in my head; yes. But most of all keeping fear at bay: fear of ridicule, fear of being bullied, fear of failing, fear of humiliation and fear of consequences.

Just writing those fears makes my breathing shorten. But these days fears don’t prey on me half as much as they once did. Perhaps the greatest dividend from philosophy is a calmer and more ordered mind. It helps put many demons to rest.

Relevant Complexity 5) Age


Talking to someone at work, she said she’d been surprised that a very experienced chap in his late 50s had come on a training course.

We concluded that age shouldn’t matter in deciding who gets training. I know plenty of pig-headed twenty and thirtysomethings who’d have got less and will give less as a result of that training course – it’s openness to new ideas that matters.

It dawned on me that nearly all the people I most enjoy conversation and contemplation with, are at least ten years older than me. And many much older. When it comes to thinking about things, you can’t beat the right sort of older person.

Contemporary society glorifies youth. But younger people haven’t always got much to say. Of course there’s freshness and simplicity but relevant complexity in people takes time to grow.

Openness, curiosity and the experience of age are key attributes of the Aristotelian ‘friend in contemplation’. Aquinas’s ‘prudentia’ – practical wisdom – is not innate, it is learned. Wisdom takes time. Forget youth, when comes to interesting people – the oldies are the goodies.

Truisms i) A little knowledge can go a long way?

Friends of ours have Jenny Holzer’s ‘Truisms’ on the wall in their loo. Every time I read it I find myself agreeing easily with the first few I alight on – and then violently disagreeing with the next one I look at. Is this what she was trying to do? This makes me wonder if I’ve stumbled across a candidate truism of my own:

It is better to disagree violently than silently.

In my youth I might have agreed. Now I’d say not.

This is another feature of Holzer’s Truisms, a number of them I would once have agreed with – but half a lifetime’s experience now makes me disagree. This makes me inclined to go through them 1) to decide if I agree or disagree 2) to see if I’ve changed since my youth 3) to see if I change my mind in the second half of my life.

Here’s number 1:

A little knowledge can go a long way

I agree. I think I always have. Better to be a polymath than a specialist. It’s good to know a lot about some things, but mostly the things I know a lot about I’m boring and dogmatic about. A whiff of evidence combined with the strong scent trail of intuition leads to good conversations, new insights and friends in contemplation.

A little knowledge does go a long way I’m inclined to think.