by Jim Burtles
I want to introduce you to a discovery of mine which I have found very useful over the years. It is a rather special, effective form of virtual farming. In other words; although it is all in the mind, it does work and can deliver something useful if one looks after what might be growing there. I call it my ‘Thought Farm’ and I would like to invite you to think about starting one of your own, because I think you might find it amusing and helpful; especially if you are, or would like to be full of bright ideas. Its original intended purpose was to help me to become more productive and inventive. However, I have also found that the technique can provide a form of self-counseling because, in effect, it gives you someone to talk to without any reservations about privacy, retribution or rejection. You know that this someone is going to be discrete, patient and really caring. They will also understand you perfectly because they will be entirely of your own creation.
There are four main fields of productive background thinking on my Thought Farm. Each field has its own fertile ground and is reserved for a particular type of crop. Over time these crops are likely to take root, grow, mature and ripen for harvesting. The Thought Farm is simply a place in which to keep them safe from getting lost, forgotten, misunderstood or misused.
Whenever I am sleeping, daydreaming or simply watching the world around me, various trains of thought rumble around in my head. Usually they are triggered by me recognizing what I consider to be an interesting, beautiful or puzzling element that could lead toward something that might be significant, important or even valuable. However, I am often too busy, too tired or too lazy to pursue the matter at that particular moment. The end result turns out to be a complete nothing – no end point and no fruitful result.
But, one day I had a thought that hung around long enough to become an original idea which means it managed to become a reality. That reality became the means of preserving some of those fleeting thoughts so they could be re-visited and turned into fertile ideas for further development. The subsequent actions could then lead on towards some sort of successful outcome, a feeling of satisfaction and the opportunity of a welcome reward in return for a little effort.
My ‘grand’ idea (grand in the sense of a simple but powerful concept) was to make a note of all my fleeting dreams and budding ideas. This meant I could preserve the essential elements as the potential basis of another ‘grand’ idea (grand in the sense that it could prove to be rewarding in some way). Occasionally, there is the potential for elements from more than one idea to combine in a kind of synergy to produce something really interesting or useful. These serendipitous mixtures could trigger a breakthrough toward a really valuable insight or possibility.
Eventually I came up with a practical concept which I call the ‘Thought Farm’. The appealing qualities or aspects of this concept are:
- A catchy title which is easy to remember and conveys a productive image
- A repeatable process which has proved to deliver interesting results
- A tangible object which sits there as a reminder of the project
- A tantalizing mystery object which draws one back in
- A visible but private symbol of something special
- Anybody can create their own personal version
The underlying principles are that:
- Putting one’s thoughts down in writing helps to clarify and preserve them
- Reading about them subsequently initiates review and reflection
- Return visits can lead to development and improvement
- The final outcome could be a very satisfying idea
Without trying this process of natural evolution you might never realize or recognize the true potential value of any of those elusive passing thoughts which are so often spawned by the unexpected or the unusual in those fleeting moments when we are unprepared for education or invention.
In the long term:
- Passing thoughts might fade away, and remain unrecognized
- Ideas from thoughts may be forgotten, and never be realized
- Words from ideas should be written down, and then reviewed
- The written word can inspire action, and generate satisfaction
The Four Fields
Like any successful agricultural enterprise, a productive Thought Farm needs to have a number of fields for the various types of crop. Of course, it is up to the farm owner to decide how to allocate the land according to their own vision of the crops they expect or want to grow. I have split my terrain into four fields; to encourage cross-pollination and hybridization there are no gates or fences. Whilst each field is earmarked for a particular thought group or type, there are no border guards or entry restrictions. Words associated with ideas can arrive in my head at anytime, anywhere and from any direction; all are welcome as long as they are good-mannered and well behaved.
The physical expression of the Thought Farm concept needs to take the form of a notebook which can be carried around. Loose sheets of paper are fine for scribbling on, but they do tend to end up in untidy disorganized piles. A notebook on the other hand can easily be divided up into a number of separate sections or fields like any other well managed farm.
Inside the cover it is a good idea to make a few notes about your new-found friend who is going to help your ideas come to fruition. Perhaps you would like to give it a name like ‘Thought-land’ or ‘Paper-fields’. Of course, you could choose a name like ‘Fido’ or ‘Bonzo’ because you are going to chat with it and maybe take it for walks. Make sure that it has your contact details, just in case it gets mislaid.
Spend a few moments thinking about creating some rules of use or a set of guidelines. These directions might commit you to a regular review, say once a week or limit the number and size of initial entries. Some people will want to condense their bright ideas down into a cryptic reminder of perhaps two or three words; five maximum. Whereas others may feel they need to build complete sentences in order to express themselves. In either case there should be some space set aside for subsequent reflection, exploration and expansion. You may need occasional access to a ‘Thought Shed’, a kind of workshop where you can spend time turning your bright ideas into useful products. This could be a section within the main notebook, a separate notebook or just a folder full of writing paper. Only you can judge how much space you might need for this assembly unit and what it should look like.
Some of the ‘farm’ pages represent a field set aside for those tender but fertile ‘Seed’ thoughts; ones which contain the germ of an idea that could be valuable or useful. Seed thoughts are kept at the front of the book where they are easily accessible.
At the rear of the book there is room for those wild and untended ‘Weed’ thoughts; reminiscences about how things used to be, ought to be or could again be. Although they may not be practical, or achievable their flowers may one day inspire a pretty picture worthy of capture. In this unmown and unharvested area nature is allowed to develop her own landscape of fruit and flowers.
Somewhere within the notebook there are a few pages reserved for ‘Need’ thoughts; these are the dreams which remain unfulfilled, or idealistic thoughts about what is desirable or could be possible. Such desires can be put to the back of our mind while we focus on day to day activities, but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten. One day, when the time is right we can go back, rediscover them and watch them bloom or ripen, ready for harvesting.
Further back in the notebook there is some space devoted to ‘Deed’ thoughts; these are tentative feelings or inclinations about what one could, would or should do. Perhaps they are dependent upon circumstances or an opportunity to enable them to materialize. Because there is a sense of obligation, duty or responsibility about them they do make a useful reference point or even the basis of a checklist or a bucket list covering things one ought to bear in mind as one plans the future from time to time.
You may decide to extend your ‘acreage’ to include similar parallel areas of potential growth. These could be an extension to your original set of notes or they could form a separate smallholding in a different location. There may be some very private areas which you would not want to share and there may be those which you would be willing to share with your close friends. If you come across something which you want to share with the world; it probably warrants its own special separate place.
For example, one option might be some space devoted to ‘Creed’ thoughts where you make a few pertinent notes which might help to form the basis of your beliefs. This could help you come to grips with your own personal basic beliefs and associated ethics as they evolve over the years. This is an intellectual alternative to passively following the traditions and doctrine of your family, culture or education. It might include or embrace religious, ethical, political or therapeutic belief systems or it could simply be some basic facts which underpin those beliefs. Those facts can then be used to defend one’s own axioms against being undermined or overwhelmed when others insist that they are right or better informed.
Another useful reference might be an ‘Achievements’ list where you record all your significant achievements. I compile a fresh list of achievements for each year that passes. My wife does the same, and then we share and compare our lists on New Year’s Day as part of our celebrating another year on planet earth. In some ways this concept is similar to a diary except that it is focused entirely on personal successes and enables us to congratulate each other. You may wish to share it with a friend or keep its contents to yourself; this is purely a matter of choice.
We also prepare and share our ‘Wish Lists’ where we both make a note of things we would like to have as birthday gifts or Christmas presents. This means we avoid receiving unwanted items and can expect to get what we want rather than what happens to catch someone else’s eye. It’s the difference between getting a beautifully arranged bouquet and a bunch of assorted flowers; delightful because they’ve got it spot on or acceptable because they probably mean well.
For those with ongoing problems which don’t seem to want to go away there is the possibility of a kind of rubbish dump or scrap yard where you might be able to lay your demons to rest. Obviously, this technique is more suited to the small scale rather personal type of upset, but it is worth a shot. It can’t be expected to replace a sympathetic skilled counselor, but it could help you to get a clearer perspective of the problem before you engage in the other type of truly interactive therapy.
I think the style of farming has to suit the terrain and relate to the crops as well as match the temperament and expectations of the farmer. This means that the style or format of agricultural writing may change over time as the farmer gets older and wiser, as the weather changes or as the harvest suggests. In my case the style has stayed more or less the same for many years. You may benefit from taking a peek at my regular approach, but bear in mind that the rules are not set in concrete.
There are lots of starting points within each of the four main ‘fields’, often on a fresh page or wherever there happens to be enough space to record a few words without the page looking crowded. The original entry is the cryptic note made when the line of thinking first started. In most cases I try to keep these initial notes short and sharp because that is my normal farming style. However, I have also been known to go into sentence or even paragraph mode when the occasion or the subject seemed to warrant rather more elaboration to capture the essence of the idea.
Personally, I like to keep my fields looking reasonably tidy and well separated because this makes the reviewing easier for me. However, there are those who are happy to cross things out, make notes in the margins or even cut and paste to create a collage of ideas as a crop begins to form. You have to follow your own instinct and plan of action. How do you want to balance tidiness against convenience; structure against usefulness, aesthetics against practicality? The choice is entirely yours.
It will pay you to remember that all those valuable but flimsy first thoughts are like pollen in the air, fertile but fleeting; destined to become dust, adrift in the breeze. Only you can provide them with any tangible substance through your immediate actions or records. Do something or write something now, less they should slip away and vanish forever.
One thing I would say is this: “My Thought Farm has worked well for me and has given me lots of good ideas, opportunities and advice as I have explored my corner of our universe over the years”.
About the Author
Jim Burtles is an engineer who devoted 40 years of his life to helping others rebuild their businesses in the wake of disasters. Ad-hoc counseling was often an integral part of the job. He came to appreciate and understand how different people perceive and deal with the world and the problems it throws at them. Now he is semi-retired and an occasional school visitor; sharing his experience and wisdom in the classroom to help teenagers define their ambitions and develop their careers.