The meaning of can’t see the forest for the trees

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Kevin Mangelschots

Ever got so caught up in the details of an interesting story you were reading that you forgot what the main plot of the book was?

That’s what we call being unable to see the forest for the trees. It means we’re so involved in the details that we forget to look at the bigger picture, and what the main plot actually is.

Let me explain why not being able to see the wood for the trees is detrimental in your life.

What does, “can't see the forest for the trees” mean?

Image of a forest with multiple trees, indicating that we 'can't see the forest for the trees'.

The idiom, “can’t see the forest for the trees”, means that someone is so caught up into the details of the issue that they forget to look at the bigger picture.

It entails that someone is overwhelmed and so preoccupied with the details that it prevents them from accessing the point of the whole situation.

In this instance, the trees stand for the many single issues and obstructions that stand in the way of a solution. The forest stands for a solution. A bigger objective that is undervalued or blurred by getting lost in the details.

The individual trees, which represent the individual issues, are not all that important with regard to solving the overarching problem. Exactly the same way as a single tree isn’t essential to define a forest.

Can't see the forest for the trees explained

Being able to see the bigger picture rather than getting caught up in all the small details is an essential skill to possess in life.

Why?

The big picture matters most

 

Image of the quote, “looking at the big picture” written in white letters on a picture.

Because the big picture is what’s truly important.

I’m not saying that certain details can’t contain critical information, either. But what good are all the details when we lose sight of the main goal?

We should always keep in mind what the main purpose of our behavior is. Whether it’s to solve an issue, to gain more knowledge, or to become more competent at a given skill.

Details are not the most important

Furthermore, to maintain effectiveness, we want to prevent ourselves from getting lost in the details, since this takes our attention away from the main goal.

People can only do so many things at once efficiently. Thus, focusing too much on details can cause us to spread ourselves too thin. If we spread ourselves too thin, then that means we do too many things at once, which results in not doing any of those actions well. Thus, spreading ourselves too thin almost never leads to success.

Details serve to paint a clearer picture

Rather than getting caught up in all those details and making them our main objective, we want those very details to enhance the clarity of the big picture.

We need to use them in order to gather more information about the bigger picture, rather than it being our main goal. It serves as an addition, an enhancement, to paint a clearer picture, if you will.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Who said can’t see the forest for the trees?

Image of a forest with multiple trees, indicating that we 'can't see the forest for the trees'.

The popular quote, “can’t see the forest for the trees” has existed for a long time.

Its origin dates all the way back to at least the 1500s. It was first uttered by John Heywood in the proverbs of John Heywood’s 1546 assemblage.

Cant see the forest for the trees, synonym

Many synonyms of the quote, “can’t see the forest for the trees” exist, such as, “can’t see the wood for the trees”, “can’t see the forest through the trees”, “don’t miss the forest for the trees”, and,  “don’t miss the forest for the trees”, and, “can’t see the trees for the forest”.

While the wording might be slightly different, the meaning remains exactly the same.

Opposite of can’t see the forest for the trees

The opposite of “can’t see the forest for the trees”, is a big picture thinker.

Someone who keeps a clear view of the big picture, but doesn’t care all that much about the details. It stands for not sweating all the small stuff that stands in the way of the main objective. Whether it’s to figure out a concern, to become more skilled, or to obtain more knowledge.

Can’t see the forest for the trees example

The word “example” written in red letters on a white background.

An example of not able to see the forest for the trees in action could be an argument between a mother and her son.

The debate could be about the son not cleaning his room, and the mother berating him that she always needs to ask him multiple times before he does so. But instead of accepting the blame, the son starts talking back, making the mother mad and emotional in the process.

Instead of focusing on a solution, the mother gets so angry and upset that she starts getting emotional and blaming the son for every little thing he has done wrong in the past. Telling him that he’s always playing video games, that he never studies, always gets bad grades, and so on.

In this instance, the mother got too caught up in her emotions, which in this case are the trees, instead of focusing on a solution to get the son to clean his room. Metaphorically speaking, this resolution would be the forest.

Example of, “can’t see the forest for the trees” in a sentence

Image of a forest with multiple trees, indicating that we 'can't see the forest for the trees'.

An example of being unable to see the forest for the trees in a sentence could be the following:

The husband got so caught up in the wording of his wife that he could not see the forest for the trees. He didn’t recognize that his wife simply wanted the best for him.

Conclusion

A lot of people get so involved in the details that they end up not being able to see the forest for the trees anymore. They lose focus of the main objective.

But when things get hectic if we need to do multiple things at once, then being able to keep a clear head and focusing on the main objective can be a great asset to succeed without getting lost in the sauce.

Call to action

“Take action” written with white chalk on a blackboard.

Try to look at the bigger picture, as it is always the most important. Details can help provide a whole, and clearer representation of the obstacle or concern you’re trying to fix.

You can’t solve the issue at hand if you cannot see the forest for the trees.