Box of Crayons Blog


Personal Resilience: The Wisdom of Bamboo

This article was first published in our newsletter Outside the Lines.


Way back when I was a young boy living in Australia, we got into something of a feud with the Masons next door.

I’m not quite sure what the deal was, but I’m pretty certain the fact that I kept kicking a soccer ball over the fence into their back yard had something to do with it. I still remember the sense of dread I would have as I had to skirt around their house in a sort of commando crouch, creep through their gate, and retrieve the offending ball.

Fences started to get built, although it wasn’t entirely clear whether it was to keep out errant soccer balls or to increase a sense of privacy. And then fences had to be taken down, because they contravened various building codes.

My Mum, ingenious plotter and planner, came up with a solution – a natural fence. We planted a grove of bamboo, and within a couple of years had something that both afforded some privacy and was (largely) soccer ball proof.

But enough about my errant soccer skills. Here’s why bamboo is a useful metaphor for you and your work.

1. Bide your time

My friend Paul Shrimpling first told me this story when he explained why he uses bamboo as his company’s symbol. Bamboo takes two to three years to establish its root system, during which time very little bamboo growth happens ‘up top’. But once the root system is in place, the growth is extraordinary – it can shoot up more than 20 meters in less than four months.

The metaphor is obvious but no less powerful for being so. We can be driving so hard to get things done that we can miss the importance of investing fully in our root system. The cost of that is being fragile, less solid, not as well grounded. The challenge is that our root system is often the less sexy part of what we do. It is systems, relationships, processes. It’s also clarity about who we are, what we’re good at, what we’re focusing upon, what matters. In fact, it’s the kind of stuff that gets covered off in the first six maps of Do More Great Work.

2. Be prolific

Do you target one thing or do you try out many? This question matters, whether you’re juggling things in your role at work or are an entrepreneur in your own right.

It’s a tough call. On the one hand, there’s benefit in stepping fully into one project and avoiding SOS (“shiny object syndrome”), but the cost is you may be overly committed to something that won’t work. On the other hand, there’s value in keeping your options open and seeing what develops, but the cost may be that you never make real progress on anything as you dabble in many projects.

I think there’s something interesting in what bamboo does. Lots of shoots spring up everywhere, but soon enough it becomes clear which will grow and which will get crowded out.

I manage my excess ideas by having an ideas folder, or what David Allen would call a Someday/Maybe file. I throw all ideas and half-baked thoughts into that file, and regularly review it. So when I come to the moment when I decide what to work on, I can see I have a choice between a Great Work Meeting Kit, a Corporate Rebel Guide, a book of The Eight Principles of Fun or something else.

(By the way – please leave me your thoughts in the blog comments about which of those projects you’d most like to see – or tell me what you want if you’d like something else.)

3. Be resilient

As natural disasters seem to be only increasing in our world – yep, that would be global climate change – creating architecture that is able to survive earthquakes and hurricanes is critical.

In some cultures, bamboo is used as infrastructure. That’s because it has the flexibility to bend and move with the trauma, rather than being rigid, unyielding and ultimately vulnerable to an unexpected jolt and sideways shift.

Resilience is one of the three fundamental character traits you need to do more Great Work. (You can see the other two in our short Alchemy of Great Work movie.) The road along which you walk to do more Great Work is not a smooth and easy one. It’s confusing, uncertain and at times a little dangerous (and of course, exhilarating, exciting and full of adventure.)

That ability to yield gracefully, move non-linearly, give way rather than resist can be essential to you flourishing in the work that you do.

Don’t Take My Word For It

Smart people thinking out loud about resilience.

“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.”
-Japanese Proverb

“Be infinitely flexible and constantly amazed.”
-Jason Kravitz

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

“Write your goals in concrete, and your plans in sand.”

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
– Bruce Lee

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13 Responses to Personal Resilience: The Wisdom of Bamboo

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  • Molly Gordon, Self-Employment Coach

    Yummy, Michael. I particularly appreciate “bide your time.” So often Accidental Entrepreneurs judge themselves for lack of overnight success. Taking two or three years to lay the foundation results in a more resilient, sustainable business that succeeds over the long term.

    • Michael

      I love the fact – that I didn’t know – that bamboo once rooted in is impossible to get rid of. There’s a metaphor to be had out of that in some way. Any thoughts?

  • Bridget

    I love this bamboo metaphor! LOVE IT. And also, I’m going to plant some bamboo between me and my neighbor. 🙂

  • Kerry Hargraves

    I love the acronym SOS – a perfect description of the crow aspect of my personality. One further observation about bamboo, once it’s established it is nearly impossible to get rid of. I would like to believe that the same goes for the systems, relationships and processes that grow from that same sort of rooted system.

  • David

    Bamboo metaphor is excellent particularly in regards to the “bide your time” phrase you mentioned. Though from a business perspective it is hard to know when to hold them, and to know when to fold them, but you certinly cant give up right away.

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  • Dave

    ‘Bide your time’ was almost a relief to read, I’m always giving myself a hard time for not being further along than I am. I love the image of a healthy root system establishing itself underground. I’ll keep that in mind for myself.

    On the project–The Eight Principles Of Fun sounds, well, fun!

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