The Role of Chance in Production Arboriculture

Jessica Cofer Blog

First a definition:

Chance:
verb
1. do something by accident or without design
– (chance upon/on) find or see by accident
2. informal do (something) despite its being dangerous or of uncertain outcome

There are many ways to view chance or circumstance. Some may call it outright luck. After over two decades in this field, I fully admit that some days it is better to be lucky than good. Many times, even with careful planning and as much precision as one can muster through training, education and experience, “things” just simply fell my way. The fence was spared, the roof not damaged, the injury avoided.

There are also many cliched ways to avoid the stigma or transfer the element of chance into something more. As Eliyahu Goldratt, an Israeli businessman, once quipped, “Good luck is when opportunity meets preparation, while bad luck is when lack of preparation meets reality.” There is an element of truth in there.

However, in an industry that experiences fatalities at a rate of one every two days or so in the United States, the element of “chance” or “luck” must be viewed differently. Furthermore, the very tree workers most likely to get killed or injured are typically not the men and women with little to no experience. Severe incidents tend to happen to those highly experienced or with a moderate level of experience in the industry. Again, this is a trend with many reasons beyond the scope of this single article.

What I intend to address is the rising sense or tendency I have noticed over the last few years in my trainings and travel. Specifically, the mistake of interpreting an outcome due mostly to chance, as skill.

Misconceptions

The Chimera goes like this. A relatively experienced tree worker (for argument’s sake let’s give this individual 2 years decent experience) embarks on a task at the limits of his/her skill set. That is to say, he/she is capable of the task in general terms, may have even performed similar tasks, albeit under different circumstances or localities.

Because of this perceived familiarity, he/she moves ahead with little to no planning. If he/she realizes an increased risk, it is either dismissed or misjudged. To be clear, this worker rarely starts with poor intentions. He or she fully believes themself to be fully capable. Some of this is based on similar past experience and if he or she is honest at the moment, there are elements of the Dunning-Kruger effect in play.

Regardless of past experience, or perhaps the nagging voice in the head, the worker moves forward with the task. The intended plan, if there was one, falls to the wayside. The cut does not go as expected, the piece falls in a different direction, or any number of un-calculated, unanticipated things happen. However, the end result is fine. No injury, no damage. “No harm, no foul” the saying goes.

The misconception comes in when the worker chalks the result up to skill and not chance. The trap is allowing the ends to excuse the means. The most sinister detail is, once chance or fortune is perceived as skill (the end was desired, so the means must be acceptable) the cycle will repeat, often in a situation with more risk, more dire circumstances. An upward spiral of increased risk and consequence can result if not checked.

The Dichotomy and Question

The dichotomy is simple. Most times a tree worker engages in risky behavior with no regard to safety or protocol the result is… nothing. Most unsafe acts result in no injury, no damage. The other side of that coin is the nature of the consequences. We only get to die on one job. Everything stops bleeding… eventually.

The question then becomes this; in a professional field where risk, both the mitigation and acceptance of it, is intrinsic to the work itself, where often the consequence of action gone awry carries serious if not fatal consequences, how do we deal with a situation where mere chance is the guiding force and main driver of, albeit a safe outcome, not a planned one?

Philosophy and a Matter of Experience

As with so many things in life, our locus of control is limited. To fall to the hubris of thinking or believing we can and do control all that happens is as foolish in tree work as it is in life. Yes, we do make choices. Yes, those choices influence outcomes. We do have control to an extent. What we don’t have is a crystal ball!

For our purposes today, I want to strip it down a bit more, take a pure philosophical outlook for a moment. Ultimately, I believe we “control” only two aspects of our lives; attitude and perseverance. How we chose to see our world, and how hard we are willing to try in it, are well within our abilities.

How does this philosophical concept apply to production tree work? If we admit to the element of chance in our work and actively plan to minimize it, then we gain experience even if the plan fails or chance takes over.

This is an attitude we must adopt. Yes, things may not go as expected, but one should choose to plan and prepare to avoid that possibility. By staying the course, learning as we go, gaining valuable insight and experience into our work and the inherent risks involved, we persevere or try hard to get better.

As I was told so many times during my time in the military, “Go to the range and aim at nothing and you will hit it every time!” Even if the best laid plans fall apart on execution, we at least have a basis for correction. We at least aimed at a target so we can tell by how much we missed, glean insight on how to correct the next shot.

Solutions

Not all lessons need to be hard ones. By learning and becoming familiar with the incident rates and trends in our industry, we can learn from other people’s hard lessons. When new situations arrive, ask for other’s experience or at the least their input. Decisions with life altering consequences will always benefit from additional, well thought out, reasoned input. Don’t go it alone. Tree work is teamwork.

Yes, it is often better to be lucky than good. The problems arise when the luck goes unrealized or runs out. As noted above, we can combat this with an eye to learn, to grow, to become more experienced. However, even this needs a deliberate direction. Often tree workers will get a marginal skill set, just enough to know they really like this work. From there, the tendency is to jump rapidly ahead to the new, the latest, the shiniest idea, equipment, technique.

Avoid this throughout your career. Take the time to learn the basics, the fundamentals of this work. Don’t start to learn rigging by reviewing vector force charts. Start with knots and the properties of wood and how trees keep themselves upright. Don’t fall for the advanced until you have a firm foundation upon which to judge its validity, not only for you and your work style, but validity in general.

Not only must you learn the fundamentals of your craft, you must constantly refine, them and reinforce them through consistency and review. Be forthright with yourself. When something goes awry, but no ill effects are suffered, take an honest look and figure out what went wrong. Admit the element of chance. Strive to change it next time around.

Be careful in your word choice. Begin to call your mishaps not accidents, but incidents. When something goes wrong, call it what it is; a near hit, not a near miss. There is a difference in responsibility, interpretation and thought.

One of my favorite quotes speaks to this nicely. Attributed mostly to Ghandi, but the advice is ages old.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

Conclusion

Our work as production arborists is not easy. If it were, many of you would not be reading this, you would have chosen a field that challenges you, pushes you as arboriculture can and does. Our days in the trees are valuable and the work we do worthy, but more so is your life and the lives of your crew.

My hope for all those new to this field is to give yourself time to learn and grow. I see so much impatience to be the best, the main climber, the go-to man or woman on the crew. The excitement of the work, the thrill of the action overtakes. Yes, enjoy the work. Be excited, but avoid the tunnel vision of constant striving for achievement. Being the best is a blend of skill, experience and ultimately wisdom. Advance, but know that it takes time, effort and grit. Today more than ever, there are a plethora of ways to learn, to grow as a production arborist. Take the time to pick and choose wisely your sources of information. Just because it is on the internet does not make it valid or correct.

Learn or relearn the basics well. Listen, deduce and strive, but with patience and scrutiny. Words, books, stories can only tell you so much. This, unlike so many professions, must be learned by doing well, again and again.

I hope even those running the ropes and making the sawdust for decades also continue to lean and grow, to review and reinforce the foundational lessons learned long ago. Embrace them, then pass them on accurately. Take a scrutinizing look at how you as an experienced worker accomplish tasks and how important your personal safety is and what example you pass on, intentional or not.

Stress the fundamentals in all aspects of our work. Look at habits, look at how they influence not only your work, but the work of others around you. Eschew complexity for the sake of complexity. Focus and learn from mistakes, yours and others. Admit that while chance can be a great ally, it is always unpredictable and unreliable, making it a fearsome foe as well.

-Article written by Anthony Tresselt, NATS VP Instructor and Curriculum Development