Programming Ideas by Mike Charlton

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Useful and Beneficial

How to do well at your job without getting used.


One of the major problems facing software teams is retaining talent. A familiar refrain is, "If I'm going to put up with this, I'll need more money." Even as developers' salaries increase, their satisfaction in their jobs doesn't seem to. This story from taoist literature shed some surprising light on the problem for me.

Long ago a master woodcarver and his assistant were walking along a road when they happened upon a huge tree. It was at least 1000 years old and was so large that it stretched from horizon to horizon. At its base, a shrine dedicated to the spirit of the tree was doing a brisk business catering to the many pilgrims who had traveled to see it.

The assistant stopped and looked astonished at the magnificent tree. As a man in love with his trade he could not help but to be moved by such an amazing tree. However, the master woodcarver continued along his way, scarcely giving the tree a second glance.

“How can you, a master woodcarver who has spent his long life working in wood, not be struck by such a sight?” the assistant inquired.

“That tree is not fit for carving. Its limbs are twisted and its trunk full of knots. A cabinet made from it would warp. A boat made from it would sink. It is useless!”

That night, the assistant dreamed of the tree. In his dream the tree spoke to him, “Humans are so blind. They look at me and don’t see the secret of my success. I am useless, but it is precisely because I am useless that I have survived to become great. Had my wood been useful for any purpose, I would long ago have succumbed to the axe and the saw. I would have died to satisfy the whims of others.”

The assistant awoke from his dream with new understanding, but one question still plagued him. Later that day he told the master woodcarver of his dream and asked, “The tree said that it could thrive because it could not be used. But doesn’t the shrine use the tree? Is the tree not being useful to the shrine.”

“What does a tree care if a shrine worships it? It is true that the tree is beneficial to the shrine, but it is not being used. It is free to be a tree and to live as it chooses. In fact, by being beneficial to the shrine, it receives benefit in return. The shrine, not wanting to lose the benefit of the tree, protects it from storms and waters it during droughts. In this way, the tree has learned to achieve ultimate success.”

I read a similar story many years ago as a struggling computer programmer in Canada. It is not a new story. It is a compilation of a few similar stories from taoist literature. It is at least 2500 years old.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of trying to be useful. We do what we are told to do and suffer through the many things which we don’t enjoy. But we risk becoming the woodcarver’s wood rather than the tree. We struggle to be useful but then resent the fact that we are used.

In every job there are countless ways to be beneficial. We can choose things that we, ourselves, value and do them independently. If we choose wisely these will be things that the people around us benefit from. The more we choose to benefit others by being ourselves, the more others will come to rely on our unique strengths. Instead of finding ways to use us, they will simply be delighted by our presence.

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