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Asking Questions to Trees: The Power of Mindsets

Jean Hsu

Jean Hsu

Co-founder of Co Leadership, engineering leadership coach. Previously engineering at Medium, Pulse News, Google.

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A few months ago, I started working with a coach. I had seen her masterful coaching in one of the coach training courses I took, and I was blown away by the ease in which she expressed a range of emotions and helped everyone else process their own emotions.

She was everything my engineering-focused, logical, pragmatic self yearned to know more about — what does it mean to be in touch with what my body, heart, and soul wants? What does that question even mean?

In our very first session, she gave me homework to schedule a monthly Soul Date — time to myself to really feel into what my body, heart, and soul wanted to tell me.

Back then, I thought I'd have a few relaxing spa days, but I didn't expect that what I previously had thought to be spiritual woo-woo would teach me something about the power of new mindsets.

A few months into these soul dates, I was working with my co-founder Edmond, and asked him what I should do tomorrow for my soul date.

“Oh you should definitely spend some of it asking some questions to trees.”

He had mentioned this meditation practice before, and I was deeply skeptical. He continued with very specific instructions: “Nature holds a lot of wisdom. Find a tree that speaks to you. And then ask it an open-ended question about your life. And spend at least 15 minutes with it. You'll be tempted to move on, but as you stay with the tree, new answers will emerge.” OK Edmond...


The next day I found myself at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens. I wandered down some beautiful plant-lined trails, occasionally taking a break to read on a bench. I came across a funny looking eucalyptus tree.

Something about its twisted, unconventional, and asymmetrical body made me smile, and so I sat on the steps across the path from it, to ask it some questions.

Since having two kids, I hadn't felt very confident about my body. I wanted to have a better, more accepting relationship with it, but I also yearned for the body I had 10 years ago, effortlessly slim with a flat tummy. I missed being able to wear whatever I wanted, without a thought to what bulges would emerge when I sat down. My youngest is 2.5 years old, and sometimes I would think, “Well maybe next year my body will go back to normal.”

The impact of not being comfortable in my own body affected how I showed up as a leader as well. When I gave company presentations or spoke on panels, I felt awkward with my body, not knowing what to do with my limbs, and often ended up shrinking myself so as not to take up too much space.

So, sitting there on those steps, I posed this question to this tree:

“What do I need to know about my body?”

And then I did as Edmond had instructed me. I sat quietly as I observed this tree. In some places it was smooth, and in other places, it had strips of bark hanging off of it, adorning it beautifully. They reminded me of the stretch marks along my stomach, the remnants of carrying two large babies to full-term. I often looked in the mirror at these stretch marks with sadness and nostalgia for my pre-baby body.

But in noting this beautiful tree, it came to me that those marks were what made me unique and beautiful, and they marked the work my beautiful body had done in growing two humans. Like the different textures on the tree, there was nothing good or bad about them — they just were, and they added to the tree's beauty and uniqueness.

I walked away from that conversation with the tree with a sense of deep gratitude for my healthy body and all the work it had done. And gratitude to the tree for showing me its wisdom.


Earlier that morning, I had texted my friend Jen and said, “It's my soul date today. Gonna go to the botanical gardens and maybe ask some questions to trees.”

“Wowww,” she responded, “do you ever feel like someone has taken over your phone and life? I feel like the Jean I knew a year ago would not have said that.”

A year ago, I had been an engineering manager. I was known for extreme pragmatism and an ability to motivate a team to execute on difficult and tedious projects. I loved meetings with clear agendas, tactical next steps, and not a moment of wasted efficiency. The idea that I would be wandering botanical gardens on a weekday asking questions to trees was indeed laughable.

When I left my engineering management job to go into coaching, I had this idea that what I would offer was really a mix of coaching and mentorship — advice-giving when relevant, and focused coaching when appropriate, but none of the weird woo-woo spiritual stuff.

Through some profound coaching experiences in my coach training courses, as well as experiences such as this one speaking to trees, I've discovered the deep power of perspective in trying on different mindsets. As an engineer, I really leaned into problem-solving, efficiency, and tactical next steps, never really taking the time to ask myself, “What's the current mindset I have on this topic?” and “What would be a mindset that is more productive in getting me what I want?”

Carol Dweck has done decades of research around fixed vs growth mindsets. People with fixed mindsets believe that your intelligence, creativity, and other traits are fixed — that you're born with whatever you have. Those with growth mindsets believe that you can grow these attributes, which leads you to face challenges as opportunities for growth. Dweck says the growth mindset is “the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Choosing a mindset that most serves you isn't limited to this one choice of fixed vs growth mindset — though that's an extremely powerful one. Playing around with different mindsets about my body, I was able to shift my mindset from one of “My body is not what it used to be, but sadly, that is the inevitable result of child-bearing and age” to one of “My body is amazing and carries with it the unique and beautiful marks of growing humans.

When you choose to lean into a mindset that serves you better, changes appear in all sorts of situations. With my new mindset, I show up more at ease and confident in my body in all situations of my life — co-leading workshops, playing with my kids, play ultimate frisbee, and being confident and present for important meetings.

The core motivation of the work Edmond and I are doing with Co Leadership is to break down walls holding people back from the lives and careers they dream of. We're excited to help engineers and engineering leaders leave behind old mindsets and limiting beliefs that don't serve them, and choose to adopt new ones that do.

Start having the impact and influence you dream of

Join 12,000+ other leaders in tech. Start leading from where you are with our free 7-day Leadership Mindsets email course.

Jean Hsu

Jean Hsu

Co-founder of Co Leadership, engineering leadership coach. Previously engineering at Medium, Pulse News, Google.

Read More
Asking Questions to Trees: The Power of Mindsets
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