Posted May 10, 2019 by Mark Perna
If you’ve ever heard me speak or read my book, you’re probably familiar with my branch-creak story and the metaphor it created. Long story short: I loved climbing trees as a child, but there was one day this fun hobby almost didn’t love me back. I was high up in an old oak, enjoying the breeze and feeling like the king of the world, when suddenly the branch I was standing on gave an ominous creak. (Like the kind of creak you don’t just hear with your ears, but feel with your entire body.) That little sound and that slight but terrible tremor under my feet brought me to the heart-pounding realization that if I didn’t act immediately, I might end up dead. Not a good feeling!
Many year after my terrifying childhood experience on that creaking tree branch, I’ve been able to break down the steps I took to reach safety: focus, plan, and take action. First, the seriousness of the situation caused me to laser-focus all my attention on the danger at hand. There was no room in my mind for anything except my problem in that moment. I was focused.
Next, my laser-focus helped me to start formulating a plan to mitigate the danger. Because nothing else mattered in that moment, all my energies were directed into planning my escape to safety. In this case, planning didn’t take long because it was immediately clear to me that getting to the trunk was my best chance of survival. I planned to move in that direction very gingerly, and even as the plan formulated itself in my mind, I moved into the next phase: taking action.
That day in the tree, I took careful but decisive action to extricate myself from danger. I moved slowly so as not to weaken the branch further with any sudden movements, and even as my feet inched toward the trunk, my hands were reaching out to grasp it. Thankfully, I did succeed in reaching the trunk before the branch gave way. You can imagine my relief!
I learned a lot that day. I learned that things can be going great until suddenly they’re not. I found out that I should test tree branches more thoroughly before trusting my weight to them. And I learned the three ingredients of positive change: focus, plan, and take action.
We live in an imperfect world and we’re imperfect people. Branch creaks are going to happen—and we need them. What if I didn’t experience that terrible sensation in the pit of my stomach? What if the branch creaked beneath me and I didn’t take the threat seriously? What if my response was not as sharp and serious as the situation warranted? Well, for one thing I might not be here writing this blog today.
Branch creaks don’t feel good, but the un-ignorable emotions they produce are invaluable in protecting us from further harm. No one wants to experience the terror of a branch-creak moment, but those crisis moments are essential to our survival. They produce an instant fear of loss that propels us to make necessary changes. Something valuable to us is at stake, and that gets our attention as few other things can. The experience feels negative, but in reality it can be a very positive force in our lives.
Of course, branch creaks aren’t just a metaphor for warnings of physical danger. They can happen in any area of our lives—in our family, in personal relationships, in our professional lives, in our online communities, and anywhere else that we function. We’ll be going along in life, oblivious to the instability just beneath the surface, and suddenly we hear and feel that creak, warning us of impending trouble.
The question is: what do we do with the branch-creak moment? Do we push it away and merely try to escape its discomfort, or do we focus, plan, and take action to save ourselves from the real danger that the creak is signaling?
Branch creaks can be powerful opportunities for positive change, as I learned that day high in the tree. We just need to view them that way—and use them accordingly.