Some of our most powerful rituals occur near year-end, including the rituals of reviewing the past year and planning for the new one. Whether it happens at the boardroom table or dining room table, this process is an investment review in the truest sense, evaluating resource allocations of time, money, and energy.
Despite my love of these rituals, in recent years they have taken on new complexity. Like many of us, my professional network now spans a wide range of individuals across a broad continuum of organizations: nonprofit groups, for-profit social ventures, traditional corporations, academia, and investment firms of all stripes and sizes. Trying to connect across all of these networks has become an exercise in systems thinking and multidimensionality, and assessing risk and resilience for these varied contexts can be a challenge.
As I was pondering these new complexities last year, I took off on a series of hikes through the woods—the coastal redwoods of Mill Valley, California, where I studied biomimicry with the Biomimicry Institute. Asking biomimicry’s essential question—“What would nature do?”—as I explored the woods illuminated a different, more creative set of answers than I would have found in my notes or spreadsheets back at the office. In this forest setting, I found remarkable insights on risk and resilience—both personally and professionally.
The first insight came from the redwood tree itself. The wood of this tree is not very hard, but the bark is thick and the tree is rich in tannins, which help to resist rot and disease. Redwoods also have an interesting regenerative feature: After a major disturbance like a forest fire, the trees can sprout either from the root crown or from buds on higher branches. This dual-mode of recovery has been top of mind for me in my work as a board member for Last Mile Health, an organization building a system of frontline health care workers in Liberia. Clearly it’s been a challenging time in Liberia due to the Ebola crisis, but the crisis—a wildfire of sorts—has highlighted the important, more chronic crisis that lies beneath: the absence of a strong underlying rural health care system throughout Liberia and much of the world. As Liberia recovers from its current challenges, there will certainly be effective branching-out from buds on “upper branches” as peri-urban and urban clinics and centralized care improve. Most encouraging is that organizations like Last Mile Health are also enabling recovery from the roots, training local professional health care workers who will serve their own communities, village by village. Hopefully the health care system in Liberia will come to resemble the redwood more and more: a resilient, long-lived system with many layers of protection for patients, and multiple paths to growth and regeneration when challenged.
The second insight came from the Pacific madrone, sometimes called the “refrigerator tree” due to the cool sensation we feel when we touch the smooth, thin bark. This bark doesn’t offer much protection for the madrone, but the seeds of this tree are unusual: They have barbed hooks that attach easily to passing animals, allowing wide dispersal. Also, the seeds can stay dormant for many years, germinating only when conditions are just right. Comparing the attributes of both bark and seeds of the madrone tree has helped inform my own research work with Honeybee Capital. The company is still pretty new and fragile in some ways; like the madrone, we have only thin bark to protect us, but because I often research creative, newly developing areas, we have the benefit of sending lots of seeds—in the form of connections or ideas—out into the world. Some of these will never germinate, but many have patiently waited until conditions were just right and sprouted at sometimes surprising times. The madrone tree teaches us that risk in one area—like the thin-barked risks of a newly hatched company—is often counterbalanced by protections in another—like the ability to send far-flung seeds out into the world.
The third insight came from the knobcone pine tree—one of my favorite organisms. We find this tree at slightly higher elevations than the redwoods, where vegetation is sparser and conditions are more rugged. Unlike most pine trees, which have cones that open within a single season to disperse seeds, knobcone pine tree cones are sealed shut, sometimes for decades. In fact, the cones open only in extreme conditions, when temperatures approach 400 degrees Fahrenheit—during forest fires. The cones seem like an inefficient vehicle for dispersing seeds in normal times but prove essential in times of distress. For many years I invested as aggressively as possible with my own portfolio, but I have begun to allocate funds to “slow money”—both the literal Slow Money movement and other investments, such as land and certain social enterprises, that are more like those pine cones, patiently providing something more important than immediate return: long-term redundancy and protection. The knobcone pine teaches us that the elements that help us most during crisis are not always the same ones that serve us well in sunny times. It’s not a question of either/or, but and. We need systems that function well in normal circumstances, plus back-ups for when times are tough.
Planning for the future is always an imprecise exercise, and it can sometimes raise anxiety around risk and uncertainty. Reconnecting with our own personal ecosystems and investing as the forest does—with diversity, redundancy, and resilience—puts us a step closer to creating endeavors that thrive both short term and long term. When the planning gets tough, the smart planners ask, “What would nature do?”—and go for a hike.