The Art of Cultivating Ideas (and limes)

By Mark Barden, 28/11/2012

Forgive me a little Chauncey Gardiner moment.

Outside my office is a miniature lime in a pot. It gets lots of TLC. And every year around this time, if I’ve tended to the soil, fed and watered it well, it produces masses of little limes — a dozen or so on each limb (see pic) and in excess of a hundred on the bush.


But ninety per cent of them never get bigger than a pea and then fall off. The first season I observed this I was bummed. What a loss. How could I have prevented it?

After a few seasons I realized that this is how the plant makes great limes. It puts out a huge volume first — aided and abetted by bees, sunshine and so on — then lets the weak ones naturally wither away to focus all it’s energy on the remaining few.

How does it know which to let fall and which to put energy into? Plants do have cognitive ability of a sort (watch a sunflower over the course of a day as it tracks the sun’s movement through the sky). Limes may not “know” like we do, but “lime-ness” is hardwired in its DNA — it’s identity if you like — and the lime-iest limes are the ones it keeps.

It’s useful to have this metaphor-in-a-pot as I go about my work. It’s a good reminder of how to create and select ideas:

Understand your DNA:

What are you wired for? Knowing this helps you decide which of your ideas to drop and which to develop

Tend to your soil:

All “new” ideas will be weird mash-ups of other stuff in your head. So only put rich and nutritious stuff in your noggin.

Place in full sun:

Few things grows in the shade. Putting your ideas out there is the only way to see what will thrive.


It helps if you imagine Peter Sellers reading this.

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