When I first saw the lone Wanaka willow tree, three thoughts popped into my mind, almost simultaneously. The first was, “Wow, how beautiful.” The second was, “How is this thing still alive?” And the third was, “How sad!” And when I thought about it I realised that this is pretty much exactly the way society looks at entrepreneurs.

At first, from the outside, entrepreneurship may look glamorous and exciting. “Wow,” we think, “look at them… out there, doing it… how amazing!” Then, when you scratch a little deeper and look behind the facade to see what the entrepreneur has really gone through, you think “Jeez, I can’t believe they’re still standing!” And finally, when you realise that often they’re still standing because the only alternative is financial, emotional and/or mental ruin, you think, “How sad!”

So to me, #thatwanakatree is a fantastic metaphor for the spirit of the entrepreneur. Here’s why.

1) It didn’t start off that way.

Believe it or not, apparently this amazing tree actually started off as a fence post some 70 odd years ago. Just one part of a fence to prevent livestock wandering. It didn’t start off as an awe inspiring, world famous subject of photographic geekdom – it had to work at it! From humble beginnings to world fame… it had to fight for survival every step of the way. It’s “overnight success” took decades to achieve.

2) It shouldn’t exist.

There’s a reason why it’s known as ‘the lone Wanaka tree’. It’s alone! That is to say, most sensible trees are smart enough to know they have no right to expect to live out there in the lake. Collective tree wisdom says, “Well for a start you’re a fence post. Who are you to think you could be a willow tree? And besides, it is far safer to grow here on the bank, safe within the surrounds of all the other trees. Venturing into the lake is a fool’s game and you are sure to drown. In full view of all the other trees, no less! That is why there are no trees in the lake.”

3) It does exist.

Against all odds, it gave it a crack anyway. “Screw you,” says #thatwanakatree, “I know I’m just a fence post and that trees can only grow safely on the bank with all the other trees. But you only live once, pain is beauty, and glory is forever. So I’m going to give it a crack and whether I make it or not, the other trees will remember me as the one who dared to try, for better or worse. And when I do succeed, I will create wealth and happiness that will benefit many, thus inspiring future generations of fence posts and trees to advance our species beyond the banks, into the lake where once we feared to venture.”

OK, I’ll admit that may be taking the analogy a little too far. So let’s bring it back to more pragmatic terms.

Who knows how many tourists #thatwanakatree has helped attract to Wanaka over the years? Who knows how many dollars those visitors may have spent with local businesses while they were here? Who knows the wealth created purely because one ordinary fence post was too stubborn to accept it’s lot, and instead set out to fulfil it’s potential as a willow tree no matter the circumstances.

Depending on how you look at it, #thatwanakatree is either a stark warning of how lonely, vulnerable and dangerous ‘going out on your own’ can be. Or it is an illustration of how beautiful, inspiring and rewarding it can be when you dare to venture out, and use the cold waters that would drown you, to instead feed, nurture and grow you.

Regardless of where you live, strive to be a ‘lone willow tree’ for your town, neighbourhood or community. And seek out other lone willows to inspire you. They might actually be a willow tree, but most likely they’ll be a landmark, person, group or local legend that stands for optimism, strength and bravery.

Seek them out. Get to know them. Reflect on what they can teach you and use them as motivation to venture out into your own lake, whatever it may be.

Richard Liew is the founder and Editor of NZ Entrepreneur

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