Tending the Spark

Protect fragile ideas from an early death

When I visited a panda sanctuary in Sichuan a few years ago, I nearly wept for the plight of these creatures.

How could nature design such a delightful creature, and then place it through the evolutionary equivalent of a death march? The poor thing only eats low-nutrition bamboo, so in order to keep a full belly, it has to eat enormous amounts — a hard to do when its bamboo forests are being cleared away. If that isn’t stressful enough, all that eating doesn’t leave much time for panda amour, which is complicated enough given there is only a 36-hour window every year for a female panda to get pregnant. And even if that rarity should occur, a baby panda at birth has the size and capability of a stick of butter — deaf, blind, unable to move for three months. In the hands of its 200-pound mother, the chance of death by accidental smushing is, sadly, quite high.

So many forces conspire to kill the panda off. Is it nothing short of a miracle, then, that one could be born, could survive that treacherous first year, could eat and eat and eat and grow into that icon the world knows and adores?

The same thing could be said of ideas.

Oh, there are hundreds of ways for an idea to die.

It could get skewered with facts. Data shows us that this probably won’t work.

It could bleed to death from a thousand little inquisitorial pokes. Have you thought about what happens when X, Y, and Z? Hmm, you haven’t? This idea isn’t super well-baked, is it?

It could lose in the gladiatorial arena. Isn’t this idea pretty similar to that idea over there? And since someone’s already doing that idea, does it really make sense for us to do this?

It could shrivel up in the sun after being left out for too long. I know we’ve been saying we’d go deeper on exploring this idea, but it’s just not a priority right now.

It could be lost to the sea, with nothing to anchor it down. It’s not a bad idea, but I don’t see how it relates to the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do.

It could be publicly executed. As the decision-maker, I’m just not in support of this idea.

It could never be given an opportunity to live. If only I had more time to think about this problem, I’m sure I’d come up with something awesome.

Or… it could die simply from a lack of care. A subtle glance at a phone screen instead of listening, a question lined with skepticism, a change of subject —

— Poof, and another idea vanishes, scatters to the dust.

I myself have played a part in the death of hundreds, maybe thousands of ideas.

On occasion, I have been ashamed of the reason, because it was about wanting the satisfaction of being right, or coming across as clever.

But even when I have the best of intentions — to save time, to prevent a march down the path of a bad idea, to guard against the folly of the Idea Person — I’m coming to the realization that I don’t want to be that person, the one who cuts young ideas down until we no longer have a forest at all.

Yes, ideas are like pandas. Few will make it. Only the fittest will survive.

But here is the crucial difference between the two: ideas can morph and change. A mediocre idea, shaped through the right circumstances, can evolve into a great one. Two so-so proposals can get together and birth a masterpiece.

If you end an idea too early, it may never have the chance to find its legs. Because the kinds of ideas that tend to withstand those early attacks are the ones that are safe: the derivative, the obvious, the incremental. We’ve all seen those movies. We know how they end.

We also know that most of the ideas that end up changing the world are the ones that look crazy in the beginning, that some large number of rational people think are straight-up bad.

Here’s the thing: in every idea, no matter how good or bad it is at face value—there is a spark. Something that is interesting and meaningful. It may be barely a flicker, but it is there. Because why else would the inventor have gotten excited about it?

Maybe the spark is in the problem that is identified. Maybe it’s a new perspective on how to look at what we’re trying to do. Maybe it’s a wonderfully executed detail. Those sparks deserve to be tended.

I want to be the kind of person who looks at every idea, no matter how immature, and seeks to uncover that spark. I want to plant and water these gleaming seeds until they shoot towards the sky and inspire a forest of follow-through. This doesn’t mean irrational exuberance. An idea’s shortcomings should always be called out, without bias, without the muddle of context. What it does mean is asking questions to gather intent rather than shutting down a proposal at face value; what it does mean is peering into the future with a sense of optimism.

This is what a good design brainstorm, critique, or exploration does — it’s not about deciding whether to kill a thing because it won’t work, but about growing the pieces of it that will.

Young ideas and pandas are fragile things.

And yet, in the panda sanctuary I observed, there were people who made it their life’s work to ensure the animals had their fill to eat, who preserved and then grew their bamboo forests, who researched panda amour-time and helped them breed at just the right moment, who carefully monitored the babies to reduce death by accidental smushing. It’s because of these efforts that in the last decade, the number of pandas has grown by over 16%.

Let’s do the same for ideas. Let’s identify and grow the best parts of each. Let’s protect them when they are young, so that they’ll have a chance to become what the world knows and adores.

Mr. Panda and me, 2009

Thanks to Jonathon Colman, Andrew Pouliot, George Kedenburg III, and Caitlin Winner for their input on earlier drafts.



A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

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