The Curiously Tragic Case of the Bonsai Tree

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” – William Rudolph

When I was growing up, one of my family’s favorite exhibits at the County Fair was the Bonsai Tree collection. Our community had a strong group of Bonsai Tree Lovers that met regularly to refine their craft. Each year, at the County Fair, the group would come together to display their art. The exhibit would typically feature over 100 Bonsai trees. They came in various sizes, shapes, and colors. Some were pretty to look at and some not so much, but the exhibit was always guaranteed to draw a large crowd.

Being young, I always assumed Bonsai trees were special trees that only grew really small. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned these miniature trees are no different than any other tree – left on their own they would grow into full-sized trees (much like the trees that composed the forest around our home). But rather than being allowed to reach their fullest size, Bonsai trees are planted in miniature pots, their roots are stunted, and their branches are pruned incessantly. As a result, Bonsai trees never grow to their fullest potential.

And while I completely understand and appreciate the art displayed in the meticulous work of maintaining a Bonsai tree, there is still a piece of me that senses a curious tragedy in this scenario. This tree designed for a great and powerful future has been stunted in its growth.

Yet, this tragedy pales in comparison to the similar tragedy that plays out in so many of our lives on a daily basis. We were designed to accomplish great things. Our lives are unique and perfectly prepared to become something special. We are called to make a significant difference in this world and in the lives of those around us. But far too often, our life’s full potential is stunted.

Of course, our growth is not stunted by pots, soil, or pruning. Instead, it is hindered by…

  • Unhealthy habits
  • Short-sighted pursuits
  • Misplaced pride
  • Excessive consumerism
  • Unintentionally in relationships
  • Crippling fear
  • or Clinging too tightly to the past.

Your life… our lives… hold great potential for this world. Each in our own way, we are designed to make a significant difference. May we intentionally evaluate them. And find the strength to make the changes – both big and small – needed to realize it.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

Follow on TwitterLike on Facebook


  1. says

    Very inspiring. I don’t feel like I could ever have Bonsai Tree now…

    I feel that I have often been the source of my own pruning. I can easily hold myself back from my own potential. I want to create my own yoga practice, but I don’t let myself practice everyday.

    I love the imagery of a bonsai tree compared to us as people, stunted in our own pots. Interesting post!

  2. says

    Funny, after reading the first paragraph I thought the bonsai tree was an amazing example of minimalism and intentionality in action. So many people allow their lives to sprawl out unchecked, resulting in the growth of collections and larger houses. But through careful planning and “pruning” or taking away, we can shrink our proportions to a more pleasing and peaceful state!

    • says

      Nice. And don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Bonsai trees and appreciate the art.
      I just thought there was an interesting parallel that could be made… apparently, so did you.

  3. says

    I like this metaphor. I think that we should “prune” ourselves, in a conscious way. The things that hold us back are often unintentionally done, or just so habitual that we don’t realize we are doing them. By being conscious of our thoughts, words, and actions we can take an active approach to pruning by cutting out the bad, and allowing the good to flourish.

  4. Rae says

    Interesting analogy. One I can relate to. When I was a kid, I saw a documentary of how bonsai trees are made. I always felt sad for bonsai trees.

    Now, I just enjoy the art.

  5. says

    So much to think about in this analogy. On one point, no one wants to be stunted in their growth. Yet, we often stunt the growth of everything surrounding us- our children, our pets, our jobs, etc. In order for each “root” to grow, a different root must suffer. However, the more roots and deeper the roots grow, the stronger the tree. The only way for this to happen is for all the roots to share and compromise. Each root may not reach it’s full potential, but by doing so, it allows the other roots to coexist and strengthens the tree overall. Same goes for the branches. In the case with branches, they can actually lead to the detriment of the tree. Too many branches in one area, and the tree topples over. I think in the question of the bonsai tree, is stunting the branches and roots truly harming the tree? If we let the roots and branches grow and grow and grow, would it become too much and end up leading to the tree’s demise? Likewise, if we meet our full potential in each way, will it be too much? Can we win everything? To me, it seems like the bonsai tree is a great analogy for compromise, moderacy, and finding a way to strengthen our tree with a strong root system and branches that may grow, but not to a point where they kill us.

    A lot to think about…thank you for that!

  6. says

    Interesting. I guess I never new the reason for the Bonsai tree’s small stature. I just assumed they were tiny trees, not realizing the whole story. But what do you expect when my entire Bonsai tree education comes from Karate Kid…

  7. says

    There are a few other things that get in the way of us reaching our full potential:

    1. Pain
    2. The people who as children told us we never could, and as children not knowing any better and believing them.

  8. Lisa says

    You should search out the song by Susan Werner called “Like Bonsai”. Very thought provoking and on topic here. Her music is fantastic in general.

  9. says

    Beautifully written. This analogy has been on my mind for the past couple of months (actually creating a course on this), and this is a big problem for a lot of us. It seems that a Bonsai life…packaged as comfortable, popular, and even chic…has become the “norm”. Here’s to a non-Bonsai existence!

  10. Brian says

    An interesting view. I have been working with Bonsai for about 12 years now, and I’ve never heard this perspective.

    Practicing this art takes years, and most of the plants used for it are not ones that would grow very large anyway. You could not take a regular pine tree seedling, for example, and stunt the growth into a 12-16″ size tree.

    What the art can teach you (as it did for me) was about appreciating the plant world and patience. As I said, it takes many years for the “tree” to form, and therefore you must wait for the results. And while you are stunting the plant, Bonsai still produce flowers and fruit, and lose their leaves seasonally.

    Good topic Joshua!

  11. says

    The only way for this to happen is for all the roots to share and compromise. Each root may not reach it’s full potential, but by doing so, it allows the other roots to coexist and strengthens the tree overall. Same goes for the branches.

  12. says

    Interesting to see the parallels drawn here and, after a bit of thought, I find I agree. I particularly liked Megyn’s point and can see where Bonsai might represent moderacy and compromise when viewed in that cntext. It’s good to see an interest that takes so much time and practice offering some inspirational insight.

    Nice topic and nice site!


  13. A. Frank says

    Bonsai are not “Stunted.” They are highly cultivated pain-stakenly cared for trees that out live their earth bound siblings because of their exceptional health. The root systems are pruned to created significant fine branching which greatly increases the ratio of root/soil and is largely responsible for the longevity of these trees. Ignored, they are known to push themselves out of a pot, or grow roots through it’s drain holes into earth below and thus ‘escape’ the pot. However, they retain the phenological ability to do this, unlike stunted children who, when rescued from their neglect never achieve normal stature.

  14. Reba says

    I am amazed at the variety of the perceptions. Interesting, is it not, that we have such diverse interpretations?

  15. says

    I had this exact realization a couple of years ago.

    While I like the aesthetics of the bonsai – the fact I know that growth of these trees has been stunted makes me feel pity at the same time.

    Pity for all that are not allowed to reach full potential.

    And though we tend to think that plants/trees do not emote – when I am around a bonsai sometimes it seems like I can sense sadness (as unlikely as it seems).

Sites That Link to this Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *