The Idea Person

Many people in a creative field, myself included, have succumbed to the fantasy of the Idea Person.

Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass
5 min readMar 10, 2015


The Idea Person waltzes into the office on a Monday morning feeling light as a feather, her mind blooming like a lotus flower. An idea is unfurling! And what a marvelous idea it is, shimmering with promise, twinkling with the anticipation of what could be. Though the idea at this stage is barely a ghost, Idea Person can already see, taste, or touch some piece of it—a flawless sentence, a scene that brings a lump to the throat, a striking concept, an intuitive interaction. This idea has legs! And what is needed is for those legs to grow strong, stand up, and sprint forward until they shatter the barrier between imagination and reality.

So Idea Person gathers her talented team, tells them the idea, and says “make it so!” Then this team—talented and diligent as they are—takes the idea into their laboratory, pumps up the bass while they spin some magic, and voila! the idea, like Casper, gains a beautiful earthly body. The world is made better off with this new story, movie, invention, design, product, service, law, process—whatever the idea is.

Everybody is terribly impressed and thinks, “Wow, what a great idea that Idea Person thought of.”

Idea Person, pleased as pie, decides to take a vacation to some far-flung locale in search of inspiration for the Next Big Idea.

I got my first taste of this fantasy in sixth grade, when my best friend and I, avid readers that we were, decided that we should write our own books. We’d plunk down at a table after school with a spiral bound notebook and one of those gel-ink sparkle pens, and we’d scrawl the word Ideas at the top of the page.

And out they would come pouring, like fog over the hills.

A girl who lives in a sparkling blue lagoon gets adopted by a dolphin family. (Influenced by Julie of the Wolves)

An attractive band of elves and faeries embark on a quest to find a giant sparkling crystal in order to save their village from burmination while figuring out who should date whom in the process. (Influenced by Final Fantasy + David Eddings.)

A girl secretly raises a white tiger pup with sparkling aqua eyes and eventually becomes the coolest kid in school. (Influenced by wishful thinking. And yes, we had a particular fondness for the word sparkling at the time.)

We did this on many afternoons, filling the pages of that notebook with ten, twenty, a hundred ideas, each one bursting with potential.

On a few occasions, we’d go home breathless. I’d race up the stairs, one of those ideas detonating within me as I’d fire up Word and clatter away on the keys.

The farthest I ever got was 60 pages. The elves and faeries had just left their village and stepped out into the woods, where they found a riddle carved in the base of a tree.

We are a culture that glorifies ideas. In tech circles, everyone wants to discuss the latest tech trends (live-streaming! Drones!) In the movie or publishing industry, thousands of e-mails are exchanged about which genres are hot (fantasy!) and which are not (vampires!) Do a Google search for “The Next Big Idea” and you’ll get 300 million results, many of them blog posts purporting to contain the secret to success. In interviews, candidates are often assessed on the strength of their ideas. At dinner parties, we all love sitting next to the “Idea Person”.

And yet, the people who are most likely to be called “Idea People” from the outside know exactly how little an idea in of itself is worth.

Harry Potter was not the first book about a a boy in wizarding school.

Google was not the first search engine.

We’ve known how to prevent and treat malaria for over half a century, and yet every year 200 million people still suffer from the disease.

We who grew up with information at our fingertips have seen the rise and fall of countless technologies, but two-thirds of the people in the world don’t have basic Internet access.

Ideas are like candy—colorful, fun, easy to indulge in.

The hard part—the part that really matters—is the follow-through.

Why don’t we glorify that instead?

What is a Follow-Through Person (FTP)?

Someone who knows that good execution is 90% of what makes anything succeed.

Someone who values getting shit done.

Someone who honors the craft of getting shit done well.

Someone who recognizes that in order to make the idea live, she must inspire others to also want to make the idea live, through a combination of planning, research, critical thinking, and effort.

Someone who fights the devil in the details every single day.

Someone who does not pat herself on the back when the idea is good, but only when the incarnation of the idea is good.

Someone who does not flinch at the possibility that her idea may not be good enough.

Someone who soldiers on through the hard, the repetitive, the frustrating, the boring, all for the sake of making something real.

Let’s celebrate that person.

Let’s fantasize about being that person.

The elves and faeries never made it out of the woods in my story.

But in my best friend’s stories, they went on to have great adventures.

In the summers, when visiting relatives overseas, she wrote.

On school nights, after finishing homework, she wrote.

On weekends, while the rest of us carelessly scattered our time to the winds, she wrote.

It took months for her to finish a single story, because writing is such messy business. I’ve watched her write and re-write scenes. I’ve seen her rip out a character with surgical precision and stitch in a new one, page by painstaking page. I’ve seen transplant a story into a completely different setting and rework all the details that would be affected. It’s like trying to remove a particular color of yarn from an in-progress scarf.

But my friend is a Follow-Through person, and that’s why over the years, I’ve had the great pleasure of savoring many of her stories.

I’m not the only one. Many people do, because my friend, Marie Lu, is now a bestselling author.

Nothing thrills like the promise of a good idea.

Nothing happens without follow-through.



Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.