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Be That Ecstatic Awe Chaser and Beat Burnout

Newsletter – January 23th, 2024

Be That Ecstatic Awe Chaser and Beat Burnout

Newsletter – January 23th, 2024

The antidote to burnout is not downtime. It’s awe.

The absence of joy amid a weekend engenders restlessness. We can languish while staying low. Vigor arrives only with meaningful activities.

What, then, is meaningful work then? The answer is rather subjective. The very same career can elicit very different emotions depending on if you register moments of awe. Imagine, for instance, your job is to raze a forest. That was Suzanne Simard’s path at twenty. She came from a family of loggers. But she loved the forest, and she remembered how her grandparents never cut down everything, instead logging selectively. They picked trees by size, health, and type. And the tallest, most mature ones were often left standing, while the young ones grew underneath.

That old practice was opposite to what modern logging is about. The industry emphasizes removing old trees to let the sun in, helping saplings grow. They spray herbicide to kill off the weeds. But Simard saw that, after clear-cutting, those saplings were dying instead, season after season.

Her love of the forest led Simard to work at the British Columbia Forest Service in Canada. There, she observed how saplings of pine grew healthier alongside a so-called competing species, alder. All these observations set her on a path toward decoding the secrets among trees.

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Then she happened upon an obscure scientific article. It said fungi underground among their roots connected alder and pine trees, moving nitrogen and water between them, that a clear-cut ground with sunlight only means barren soil for pine trees. She sped through the pages in the library, shocked. She realized if she could replicate this nitrogen passing among roots, right here in her forest, she could tell the world the truth: killing alders was pointless.

Science takes time and effort. Simard earned a master’s degree, and then she got married. But the old forest kept calling. She hauled gear—first, an infrared gas analyzer the size of a car battery with a see-through barrel chamber and, later, gas cylinders of carbon-13 and a Geiger counter—to hear the forest floor sing.

She caught the underground sound with the Geiger detector. Carbon was shown passing even between birch and fir. Turning up the dial, she heard “strings and woodwinds, brass and percussion exploding as one, flooding my ears, the movement allegro and intense, concordant and magical,” she wrote. “I was enraptured, focused, immersed.”

Later, while working on her Ph.D., she ran statistics, calculating how birch and fir trees were trading carbon nutrients. The birches, again thought of as a pest—the demon weed—were actually feeding the firs through underground fungi. She was so shaken when the results came back from the lab that she had to lean against her office wall. “Roots didn’t thrive when they grew alone. The trees needed one another,” she realized. “The sharing of energy and resources meant they were working together like a system. An intelligent system, perceptive, responsive, and cooperative.”

We would like to think that this happy discovery would then propel Simard to become a scientific environmentalist—as Jane Goodall is for chimpanzees, Simard would become for ancient trees. But life threw her curveballs: the devastating loss of her brother, who died in an industrial accident, while also experiencing the joy of becoming a young mother. She went through a marriage breakdown and eventually a divorce while trying to find her footing at a tenure-track university, all the while asserting her scientific findings in the seas of skeptical male colleagues who thought any talk of trees cooperating was just one woman’s nonsense.

It was the piercing scent of fir-needle resin that kept her going. In the forest, she forgot about the years of difficult work and bouts of frustration. And that’s how she carried on, enduring the mastectomy because of breast cancer and soldiering on through chemotherapy. More than a decade later, she was still walking with her daughters through the forest.

Simard’s greatest work was uncovering the role of big trees. She revealed that larger, older ones—the Mother Trees—serve as central hubs in a vast underground network. In this intricate web of mycorrhizal fungi, chemical signals pulsed from tree to tree. The Mother Trees nurtured their saplings and, in times of distress, sacrificed their own resources, sending to the needy members water and nutrients through the fungal lifelines.

Her work changed how we see forests. Her TED Talk enthralled millions on YouTube. Her theory, once a scholarly subject—and one met with skepticism at that—vividly came to life in popular culture and found echoes in the movie Avatar. And this is the irony: Simard was never seeking fame and fortune. She was simply chasing awe in the middle of the Alpine Forest in British Columbia. It’s the “infinite wonders of nature” that have sustained her.

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To achieve something of real value demands quiet, relentless effort, day in and day out. Life often cruelly throws obstacles that derail even the most dedicated. What, then, allows some to persistent? It’s always the sense of awe. It’s the moment of “oh my God,” a chill running down our spine, our little hairs standing on end. To follow the wow, you must:

  • Observe:

When something stirs you, or brings you to tears, hold onto it. Notice the physical sensations. Resist the temptation to rush away. Remember, awe is subjective. Wonder exists all around us. We are all wired differently to see things others cannot.

  • Take Note:

Detail the nature of the interaction or the event. What exactly happened that caught your attention and evoked awe? Was it during a meeting, while working on a project, or in an interaction with a colleague or client?

  • Acknowledge:

Reflect on how those moments impacted your day and mood. Reinforce this learning by expressing your appreciation through a thank-you note or a simple mention in a team meeting.

What you are doing is cultivating a habit of recognizing the extraordinary in the ordinary. “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful,” French physicist and mathematician Henri Poincaré wrote. “He studies it because he takes pleasure in it, and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful.” Recognize your inner feelings. Seize upon the wow moments, regardless of whatever career ambitions you have—for chasing awe is the only method that sustains us. The basis of persistence is not the power of will but the sustenance of awe.

Until next time, keep finding the extraordinary.