#TBT: Dealing with the Difficult Stuff: The Erroneous Imagery of “Low Hanging Fruit”

As year-end reflection leads to summer action, many education leaders are looking for areas for growth and change.  It seems as though each district and/or school has some "low hanging fruit" to pick off, address, and put away until the fall.  In this week's #TBT post from November 2012, Nate Eklund warns about those fruits that might not be as easy-pickings as once thought.

Recently we were leading a group of schools in the Chicago area through their data from our School Workplace Satisfaction Survey. This is always a great moment as we watch people confirm hunches, learn new things about themselves, and celebrate successes. One of the core principles we try to espouse when reviewing data is to seek areas both for immediate improvements as well as long-term growth.

When encouraging them to look for short-term, immediate areas for attention and growth, one of the attendees said, “Oh. So you want us to look for low hanging fruit.” I agreed.

But then I didn’t.

The imagery of picking low hanging fruit implies plucking an item and biting into it with the reward of sweet nectar and bursting flavor. It’s colorful, sugary, and altogether enticing. Yum!

Unfortunately, while attractive in its language, I think the phrase “low hanging fruit” rarely is accurate in depicting the actual experience of dealing with immediate opportunities for growth. So instead I told the group that they were more likely looking for “low hanging coconuts.” The reality of picking a coconut is far more accurate in illustrating what change probably looks like.

Inside the coconut awaits sweet milk and tasty flesh. That we know. But surrounding the sweetness within is an unattractive, ludicrously hard to open shell.* You need to really hammer on the shell to break it open, often needing a tool of some heft or sharpness. Once you even break through the outer shell, you’re not done yet. Then you need to crack through and peel the corse shell within the shell. And THEN you’re to the coconut. Which you again need to break through before enjoying the literal fruits of your labors.

Nope. This ain’t pickin’ peaches.

The imagery of the coconut really does closely reflect how we navigate change that is sitting right in front of us. It will likely require patience, resilience, rigorous effort, and repeated exertions before the change is effected. But of important note here is that at the end of that laborious process is indeed sweetness and relief. We are willing to go through the effort of opening a coconut because we know what’s inside. Sometimes viewing change in this manner is more difficult because we do not always have the assurance that something good awaits us. I’d like to make a guarantee on that but I can’t. Sometimes even after the rigorous effort of dealing with immediate concerns we aren’t rewarded in the ways we hoped. But sometimes we are. Most times.

So whether it’s looking through data or simply looking outward towards the day ahead, I do think we should pick the “low hanging fruit” in front of us. I just don’t want to be discouraged that the fruit itself might not be as ripe and juicy as we’d like.

* I’d like to apologize again to St. Olaf College. When I was an 18-year-old freshman, I really had NO idea that trying to crack open a coconut shell on a porcelain drinking fountain would result in an unopened coconut and a shattered drinking fountain. Really sorry about that.