Life Lessons from a Tree Fort

The question is a standard one that I and other coaches ask clients when trying to help them unlock their life purpose and move to a more fulfilling present. It’s a question that’s intended to get at who we are inside, what we’re born with, what God or the Universe had stamped on our package – “No further assembly required” – before well- and not-so-well-intentioned parents, teachers, and others tell us in a variety of ways, No that’s not a worthwhile pursuit or outlook. You should….

What did you like doing when you were a child? Describe a moment and how it made you feel.

I asked the question and then I did what no self-respecting coach is supposed to do: I went into my heart and head just when she went into hers.

Oh, I knew why I was doing it. “Purpose” is something many of us instinctively investigate all throughout our lives, and at the moment, I am knee-deep in one of those personal archeological digs as I approach my 8th decade. Coaches – just like therapists – are not immune to diving into the deep end of what sometimes becomes a murky pool.

As my client paused to think, I started to watch and listen to a Super 8 video of my childhood playing on the screen in my head.

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And what appeared in the video was a tree fort. I had seen the tree fort years before in a dream, so I figured it was an important symbol for something. Here it was again: the castle my brother and neighborhood pals and I built in the old elm tree in the open field next to our house.

Building a tree fort should be a rite of passage for any youngster, but I’ve come to realize late in life that as it is with any rite of passage, we need to first hold a space for where we are before we move on. We need to listen to the lessons of “here” before we step “there.”

Late in life now, I realize the tree fort of my youth whispered plenty of messages about life:

1. Amid gallons of Kool-Aid, an assortment of candy bars, sawing and hammering, using “bad words,” and laughing a whole lot, the tree fort gradually took shape.

Lesson: Do something with friends, relatives, or colleagues where you can be inspired and laugh at the same time. There is something magical about using your collective hands and heads to envision and create something new – and have fun doing it.

2. For us kids, the necessary resources in the form of scrap boards and nails were available right in our immediate neighborhood. There always seemed to be a new home going up, and the carpenters were only too happy to see us haul away the scrap. And when they weren’t, we may have gone on night-time field trips.

Lesson: Realize that when you’re solving problems or inventing, all the resources you need are already at hand. In the world of innovation science, it’s called the “closed world principle.” Yes, it’s completely counterintuitive, because our first reaction is always to look “out there” for answers:

We need more funding!

We need more people!

We need more time!

But as the question above implies, the answers are already inside of us. We just lack the patience to uncover them.

3. Because we were using scraps of wood, the final product with its irregular angles and lines looked like Picasso had designed it. We were young, and outside in our domain, we didn’t have to listen to the Sirens of unachievable perfection.

Lesson: Screw criticism and the I-would-have-done-it-this-way advice of authority figures and know-it-alls. There is rarely, if ever, only one way to do anything.

4. The tree fort became our sanctuary. We could listen to music or a Chicago Cubs game on a transistor radio. We could look at magazines we shouldn’t look at. We could read “the good parts” in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and ponder life’s deep questions like “Why do people always smoke cigarettes after having sex?”High up and nestled within one of the tree’s triads of branches, our fort gave us perspective on the entire neighborhood. Dad driving up the street after work was a clear sign that dinner was at hand.

Lesson: Design a place just for you – a place where you can retreat and temporarily step off the moving sidewalk of life and unplug. No technology. (The closest thing we came to communication technology as kids was a string telephone. It works, and you get unlimited minutes.)Design your place so you can shut the door on all the noise and all the baby robins in your life. A place where you can quiet the monkeys dancing around in your brain and just detangle the hairball up there. Above all, make a place that affords you the potential for reflection.

5. And finally, I called it a “tree fort” and not a “treehouse” for a reason. A “tree fort” momentarily kept away the insidious enemy within:

You can do better.

He’s not living up to his potential.

He seems to daydream a lot.

You just have to study harder.

In the tree fort, you see, I was enough.

Lesson: In The War of Art, author and screenwriter Steven Pressfield gives that enemy a new name: “Resistance.” Resistance is that nagging internal voice and energy that keeps us from realizing our desire to uncover and live our purpose as a “self-sovereign”: an inspired and creative individual.

You want to do what? it whispers in that raspy voice. Ha! Surely you jest.

Resistance comes courtesy of the cat-o’-nine-tails words we received in our youth and from the words we wanted to hear, but rarely did.

Resistance is also biological, part of our DNA as humans. It was borne over millions of years as people lived together in clans for protection. There was no moving away from the warmth of the fire pit and the safety of the cave to explore and discover life as an individual. Do so and the saber-toothed tiger would become your tour guide.

Resistance is always working against us to fulfill our purpose, but what we gradually realize is that it has a volume-control button. And we can control it.

Yes, that old tree fort and its immediate environment were whispering plenty of messages about who I was: curious; creative; reflective. When you’re young, though, you unconsciously live the messages rather than recognize them for who you are – and sometimes wall them up.

But, hey, it’s never too late to learn.

As adults, we owe it to our self-sovereign selves to listen more – to steal away to our own tree fort, to listen to the music inside us so as to pull back the layers of the onion of our soul.

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I liked reading Nancy Drew novels. I liked writing stories in my journal as if I were the detective.


What about writing detective stories did you like?


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. After retiring from accounting, I have been finding it quite difficult to find my purpose in life. Perhaps your words will help me figure out my why. I remember so many enjoyable activities from childhood that it’s hard to pinpoint a singular moment. I do remember my sanctuary was often a sheet house in my bedroom. It will be interesting to see where this train of thought takes me.

    Thank you for such a thought provoking article.

  2. Thank you for this Jeff! Just lovely and thought-provoking. If more people could retreat to their unique tree fort and allow the imagination to foment an idea, who know what will come out of it. I appreciate this. Oh, yes, coaching and therapy often more than not navigate the same path.💖

    • Thanks for your read and comment, Darlene. I thought you as a therapist might find the parallel to coaching interesting. I try not to tread too much into my client’s past, but as a trained historian — an earlier life — it’s almost impossible for me not to be curious about context. And “context” is my #1 StrengthFinder strength! Ha!

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