Sometimes a word will pop up out of nowhere, like the mushrooms did yesterday on the grass verge just down the road on this small suburban block.

But ‘ideafarming’ is a good way to describe the work that I do:  like a old-style farmer, planting seeds for new ideas, tending them, nurturing them, watching them grow.

Perhaps not as exciting as fishing for facts; perhaps not as challenging as herding cats; yet in its own way definitely as much hard work as either of those, and it has its own quiet pleasures too.

Different styles of ideafarming, of course. Some go for a machine-like monoculture, repeating the same ideas over and over again to reap the maximum benefit before the ground itself is exhausted – at which point an overly-artificial hydroponics-style approach may be the only option left. Others are aggressive – almost obsessive, even – in their war against the weeds: “Any idea needs to be challenged, vigorously and early … to make it more resilient”, thundered one erstwhile colleague – a tactic which seems more like ripping every tender young shoot out of the ground to check if it’s growing. My own ideafarming is probably more organic in style: watching, waiting, letting things be, letting things grow together in unexpected ways, companion-planting between disparate ideas and the like.

Some ideas ripen quickly, to give a quick harvest – but those ideas tend to be the most perishable of all, and getting them to market in time can be a chancy business. Other ideas are more predictable, perhaps with a yearly harvest – but that can mean long gaps where the work is as hard as ever but still no return in sight. Others again may take years, decades, even centuries, before they start to yield their crop – the metaphoric grapevines, hazels, chestnuts, walnuts of the ideafarmer’s harvest. They all look much the same when their first shoots first push their way out of the ground – and yet each needs nurturing in their own distinctive ways. Often the nurturing consists of deliberately ‘doing no-thing’ – which is not the same as ‘doing nothing’; and sometimes what we most need to do may make no sense at all to ‘outsiders’ – such as the paradoxical advice that “in order to remember something you never knew, first set out to forget it”.

And we’re always at the mercy of the elements, too. City-folks may see the machinery that we ideafarmers use – the mobile-phone, the library, the computer as metaphoric combine-harvester – and think that that’s what does all the work; but the reality is that those machines do nothing on their own, they help us in our work, but they don’t make the ideas grow at all. If we’re fortunate, and skilled, and careful, we may indeed at times have a bumper harvest, a glut of new ideas; but sometimes – and sometimes even for years – nothing will grow. Stuck. No matter how much we might like it to be otherwise, it’s not something we can control.

So we ideafarmers tend to be of a taciturn temperament: quiet, reflective, often rather solitary, a bit scruffy, perhaps, even a bit eccentric in our ways at times. Observant, yes – because we have to be; careful; innovative, always trying something new, yet always aware of how things work out over the longer term, looking to the future by being carefully aware of the present and the past. Passionate about what we do – as anyone can see at any conference – yet often irritable with those who get overly excited about everything: after all, there’s not much room for excitement in a working life that for the most part consists of watching, very carefully, at the way the grass grows.

And it’s a working life that never stops: get up in the morning, walk the fields, tend the fences, watch for pests and predators, for termites and ‘term-hijacks‘, for wild ideas and other weeds that will run rampant if we don’t watch out for what’s happening to our would-be harvest; a moment’s rest on the porch at sunset, perhaps, but then it’s time to settle down to get ready for yet another day. We don’t have much time for the bustle of the market: the work is calling – never stops calling – for our attention, we know we have to get back to the farm. And ideafarmers don’t take vacations as such: the ideas continue to grow whether we’re there or not, so we’re always working even when we’re not at work. We don’t have much choice about that: ideafarming isn’t a job, it’s more a way of life, a way of being. In reality, it’s not just something that we ‘do’: we’re ideafarmers because that’s who we are.

Ideafarming. A strange job, but someone’s gotta do it, I guess? 🙂

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