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The Parable of the Big Idea

A Parable by Tanya Cothran

Once day a young woman had a great idea. She looked out over the lawn that filled the communal space in her apartment complex and realized that the space was being wasted. “No one even uses the lawn, but if we were to use the space to grow vegetables instead of grass many people would benefit,” she thought to herself.

A well-managed farm in Malawi.

A well-managed farm in Malawi.

Her idea excited her so much that she couldn’t help but tell everyone about her vision. She told neighbors and old friends, inviting them to come along and join the movement regardless of their gardening skills.

Excitement was high as a big crowd of volunteers gathered at the first meeting. Groups of people began ripping up grass, turning the soil, and planting seedlings.

The next day people assembled expectantly, looking to the young woman for guidance about what to do next. But the woman, the unassuming leader that she was, admitted she didn’t know anything about farming. “We are all learning together,” she said.

A very small tomato garden in Kenya.

A very small tomato garden in Kenya.

“But who does know about farming?” the crowd asked, turning to look at each other, searching for where to turn next.

Finally, one man in the group came forward saying, “I know about planting and caring for a garden.” He told the people to wait while he assessed the work already done.

The evaluation took a long time. “These plants are took close together and these seedlings are placed in the middle of a creek bed,” said the man. “The ground is too wet.” “These seedlings need to be taken out but that will lead to erosion and flooding now that the grass is all gone.”

Discouraged, the woman slowly worked out a plan with the man who knew. During this time, though, the crowd began to see that the project was disorganized and they were angry and felt misled by the promise of big things to come.

By the time the woman returned, everyone except three people had left. Then slowly the small group, humbled by their experience, began the hard work of removing seedlings, replanting grass, and learning about farming. Together, they decided to start with just a small plot of land for their farm and to wait until they saw the success on the small scale before they invited more people.

Parables are an invitation to see differently. How can this story help you see things in your life and work differently? What is the value of a plan? What are the benefits of an enthusiastic crowd versus a small group of committed people? What is the role of expertise and learning? Is it necessary to start small? What else?

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