The Parable of the Fruit Tree

Imagine two farmers – we’ll call them Adam and Betty – living a couple hundred years ago. Toiling the land was hard work and it took all they had to work their forty acres of land.

Adam used all of his forty acres for wheat, and he was able to get 5 bushels of wheat per acre and he saved ten bushels for his own family’s food, so he would take 190 bushes to the market each year.

Betty did the same at first, but one year she saw someone selling apples at the market and thought to herself, “You know, if I gave over one of my acres of land and built an apple orchard, I could have many bushels of apples, for myself and for my family.” That fall, she bought minimal supplies at the market and saved some of her money.

The next spring, Betty planted one of her acres with apple trees using the money she had saved the previous fall. This was a bunch of additional work on top of the other acres, so Betty worked even harder and even later many nights. That fall, she only brought 185 bushels to the market, where Adam brought 190. Betty felt a bit foolish – she worked harder, but Adam came home with more money from the market? How unfair.

The next few years were a repeat of the same thing: Betty worked extra hours getting her apple orchard going with no production, while Adam actually earned a little more at the market each year.

Betty’s orchard slowly matured and required less work each year, until finally, one year, the orchard began to produce an abundance of apples. Betty took bushel after bushel of apples to the market that fall in addition to her wheat and brought home quite a lot more money than Adam, even though she had actually worked less that year.

Suddenly, it was Adam looking on with jealousy. Betty worked less than him this year and made more money because of her apples? How was that fair?

While Adam could certainly plant an apple orchard of his own, it would take him several years to start producing, during which he’d be working far more than Betty while earning significantly less.

What’s the lesson here? Invest in yourself, and do it sooner rather than later. Plant lots and lots and lots of apple trees in your own life. Invest a little time and energy and money now so that it will produce big returns later.

Don’t have any idea how to do this? Here are a bunch of ways to invest some of the resources you have right now – time, money, energy – to pay even bigger dividends in the future. It is well worth your time to spend an hour or so each day and some portion of your money in these endeavors.

Save for retirement. This is a big one, and it’s a perfect example of the idea. Contribute a little to retirement each paycheck and when you reach retirement age you’ll have a lot more resources at your disposal than you would have if you hadn’t saved. Social Security alone will lead to a very threadbare existence unless you continue to work in your old age, and even having a little put away will make a huge difference in your quality of life.

Help someone out in a meaningful way without expecting anything in return. This doesn’t mean doing someone’s job for them or continually doing someone else’s work without appreciation. It means things like showing up a little early so someone else can leave a little early, or helping someone move, or giving someone’s paper a look-over to see if you notice any issues and actually giving them good feedback, or giving someone a ride somewhere, or showing up with a meal in hand for someone who’s sick or for the family of someone who recently passed. Do these kinds of things consistently without expecting anything in return.

Build your professional network. Simply find people who are in your field and share advice and swap stories with them. You can do this online by seeking out groups on social media related to your career field on sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, or StackOverflow, depending on your field. Even better, seek out groups in your community. Get involved in your union. Seek out meetups or professional organizations related to your field and start going to them. If you ever have an opportunity to present your work, take it and, if possible, share the materials you present far and wide. Make sure to put as much polish on it as you can, too. Keep business cards on you with all times, with multiple avenues for contacting you, and try to accumulate cards as well from people actually in your field, then follow up with those people and keep the connection alive.

Build a skill that has professional application in your field. I used to spend an hour out of each workday simply working on learning a skill that I knew would be useful down the road. I’d learn a new programming API or a new data mining technique or very carefully study something related to the types of data I was digging into. You can do the same type of thing in almost any career path. Try to devote some time in each workday solely to develop a skill that you currently find useful or that you will find useful in the next step in your career path. This can be a technical skill, or it can be something like a people skill or a presentation skill.

Build a skill that makes you less reliant on paying others for services (and perhaps could build into others paying you). Pretty much any home improvement project falls into this category, as do things like cooking, baking, basic auto maintenance, basic carpentry, basic plumbing, and so on. Those are skills that many people pay others for that, if you can do them yourself, you can just pocket that money, and if you build them enough, you may be in a position to easily jump to a situation where others pay you for those skills. Practicing these skills for yourself is about more than just the immediate benefit (the meal or the fixed toilet). It’s about the skill you build and the confidence to apply it in the future.

Put effort into maintaining a relationship. Give your parents a call and have a meaningful, lengthy conversation with them. Call up a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Send someone in your life a handwritten note or a card – do you know how much a simple handwritten note stands out in a good way in today’s internet age? Send someone a text that you haven’t communicated with recently, just asking what’s up and letting them know they’re in your thoughts. Don’t make it about you – just ask about them, and listen.

Put a little extra polish into a project you’re working on. If you’re writing computer code, put in the effort to use sensible variable names and include good (but not excessive) comments. If you’re writing a report, let it sit for a day before turning it in, then carefully re-read it and edit it with fresh eyes. If you’re stocking shelves, look at the shelves again when you’re finished and take a moment to make them look neat and attractive. Putting in that little extra effort to polish your work is something that people subtly notice over time, and that usually builds into opportunity if you sustain that effort.

Show genuine and consistent appreciation to your partner. A good relationship is the result of a lot of thoughtful investment of time and energy. If you don’t pay attention to your partner, figure out what he/she/they needs in a partner, and then do your best to fulfill those needs, then you’re not going to have the strong long-term relationship that you want. Put in the time to figure out what your partner needs, then consistently put in the effort to be what they need.

Spend consistent quality time with your children. The same thing is true for the parent-child relationship: it’s going to be far warmer and far more open and far more supportive if you put in the time to really understand your child and support them in the way that they need. This involves time and attention in terms of keeping up with them and figuring out what they need, then time and effort applying that.

Listen! This is the single best seed you can plant in terms of human relationships. Authentically listen to people and respond to what they’re saying. Don’t make up your mind without hearing them out. Don’t use the time when they’re talking to formulate what you’re going to say next. You’re always better off listening meaningfully, asking questions when you want clarity, and then pausing for a bit to respond appropriately. That type of behavior is the foundation of truly strong relationships, whether familial, romantic, friendship, or professional.

All of these things boil down to being the proverbial Johnny Appleseed for your own future. The more time you spend planting seeds, the more likely it is that many of them will flower and grow. Not all of them will – you’ll give your time and effort to people who turn away from you and things that end up not helping you – but the value you get from those trees that do grow will far outshine the lost time.

Plant a few trees today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, and then keep it up.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.