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Positive Psychology

Goal Setting: Don't Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit

Low-hanging fruit is usually the last thing anyone should pick.

We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal. - Robert Brault

I spoke to a colleague a few weeks ago and mentioned that I write blog entries for Psychology Today. He asked about the topics I usually addressed, and I told him that most of my essays were about positive psychology. Then I added that occasionally I wrote about things I dislike, including certain clichés. He found that interesting because he had his own list of "ugh" clichés. Ever since, he has been e-mailing me the clichés he most hates, including "low-hanging fruit." My colleague knows something about fruit as well as life, and he dislikes this cliché in particular because low-hanging fruit is usually the last thing anyone should pick, literally or metaphorically.

Mind you, like many clichés, the message that this one tries to convey is a good one: All things being equal, do what is easy given available resources before doing what is difficult. Fair enough, except sometimes the easy things are not the good things.

In the case of fruit, if it is hanging low, it may be bruised or damaged by bugs or varmints. It is also less likely to be ripe. Experienced fruit pickers always start at the top of a tree, where the fruit is more ready to eat because of greater exposure to the sun. And because a picker places fruit in a bag slung over his or her shoulder, the bag gets heavier as the job progresses, and starting at the top puts gravity on the side of the picker.

This essay is not really about fruit but about how we approach any and all tasks in our lives. Sometimes expediency gets in the way of efficiency and often in the way of excellence. If I want to cook a good meal, or prepare a good lecture, or be a good friend, whatever is low-hanging (in my refrigerator, in my mind, or in my heart) is not where I should start. Sometimes I take the easy way out, though, and I often regret it.

But back to fruit. I discovered that in recent decades, the apple industry has tried to develop what are called pedestrian trees, shorter and smaller ones that do not require a ladder for picking because all the fruit is accessible from the ground.

So here is a metaphor worth heeding that is not yet a cliché: Lower the tree. In the words of Andrew Goldsmith (1997), who wrote about pedestrian trees, "That's thinking outside the orchard."

Reference

Goldsmith, A. (1997, October 31). Here's an idea that's not quite ripe. Document available on the Worldwide Web at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/11/cdu.html.

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