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The Best Time to Plant a Tree Was 20 Years Ago, No Matter

Take the advice contained in an old Chinese proverb and start planting today.

It's easy to believe that life has passed you by. Your past can seem littered with bad choices and squandered opportunities. Now it feels like the end game, the downward stretch toward an utterly failed life. With your face pressed up against the glass, you see a parade of happy people doing happy things.

I like the inspiring wisdom found in this old Chinese proverb:

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

Let's take a more specific example. Imagine that you have just recently discovered the joys of reading great fiction. But you're over 40, even 50 (any age, in fact), and there are so many books. At a recent gathering of highly cultured folks, your ignorance seemed palpable. What's the point in even trying to catch up? You find yourself wallowing in self-pity and envy.

Well, start reading. Forget about all the books you haven't read and enjoy the one you have before you.

Think about it this way. A college degree takes four years, but, if you major in English, maybe less than half your courses will actually be English courses. Plus, many of the books you read will have been assigned to you, and, many, you may not actually get around to reading anyway—college life being what it is. I'm figuring that you could acquire the equivalent of an English major's reading in fairly short order—and you will have total control of the selections! My figuring may be way off, but this is not the point, is it?

I repeat:

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

There is a huge amount of wisdom in these lines. I am sure most people have heard variants of this advice from other sources. Remember, in the Lion King, when Simba is moping about the past, and Rafiki hits him over the head with his stick?

Simba says: Ow! Jeez, what was that for?

Rafiki replies: It doesn't matter. It's in the past.

Simba says: Yeah, but it still hurts.

Rafiki continues: Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or... learn from it.

Let's return to the reading of fiction. These days we have the option of listening to great novels using electronic devices. What a fantastic option, especially for those of us who have lengthy commutes or who like to walk or run. But is this reading? The writer, Pat Conroy, who has written a book on his experience as a reader, resisted audiobooks until it struck him that fiction writing emerged from oral traditions anyway. I agree. I find that a great novel told by a great narrator is hard to beat. Now, I look forward to my commute.

Listen, start reading.

One more time:

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

Further Readings:

Carver, C.S, Scheier, M.F., & Segerstrom, S.C. (2010). Optimism.

Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 879–889.

Conroy, P. (2010). My reading life. New York, NY: Nan A. Talese.

More from Richard H. Smith Ph.D.
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