Choosing Your Words, Your Mindset, Your Training Strategies
Written by Alexandra Kurland
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Years ago I learned to avoid the word “Try”, as in “I’ll try to get that done for you.” or: “I’ll try to make that meeting.” When someone tells you that, “try” translates to you might as well schedule something else. That person isn’t going to be there.
Try is a polite way of saying: "I don’t want to do that, but I don’t want to say so, or perhaps even admit to myself, let alone to anyone else, that I’m not going to do it."
Why does “try” have such a negative subtext? We were all raised on “The Little Engine That Could”: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Try seems as though it should be one of those words that sits on the empowering side of the equation, not the other way around. How did “try” come to have such a negative association?
Psychologist, Carol Dweck, may have part of the answer. In one of her studies students were given a test. Half the group were told: “You scored really well. You must be very smart.” The other half were told: “You scored really well. You must have worked really hard.”
Those two simple phrases produced profoundly different results. When the students were given the choice between taking a tougher test that would challenge them or another that was like the one they had just taken and done so well on, the students who were praised for being smart chose the easier test. When asked what they would do in the future if they were given a tough test, those same students said they would probably cheat. When they were given an opportunity to look over the test papers of other students, they looked at papers of students who had scored lower than they did. Looking at the test results of someone who did worse than they did made them feel better about their own performance.
In contrast the students who were praised for their effort chose the tougher second test. And when they were given a chance to look at the test papers of other students, they sought out those who had done better than they did. These students understood that ability was not fixed. Challenging themselves with tougher problems now would help them to perform better in the future. They had what Dweck refers to as a growth mindset.
The other students had fixed mindsets. When they were praised for being smart, they became locked in by those expectations. If they took on the tougher challenge and failed, people would know they weren’t smart after all. If you have to work hard to achieve, it means you aren’t a natural, you aren’t really smart. “Try, try again” was for people who needed to work hard, not the naturally gifted.
Fixed, set-in-stone mindsets are hard on horses. If a rider believes that talent is innate, she’ll have to buy a gifted horse, one with a long pedigree of champions behind him. If that horse struggles in his lessons, this rider will frustrate easily. Her horse “should” be able to do this. She’ll compare herself to all “those other” riders are already out competing on their horses, and she’ll feel like a failure.
Chunking down, building a solid foundation, taking the time it takes are all phrases designed to make this rider increasingly impatient. Natural talent doesn’t need to work through those training steps.
This is a rider who won’t stick to any one training program. Instead, as soon as she hits a stumbling block, she’s looking elsewhere for answers. Trying again means she’s failed, that her horse isn’t good enough, she isn’t good enough. What a disaster.
Growth mindsets are great for horses. If you have a growth mindset, you enjoy the process of training – not just the end result. You know that it’s okay if your horse isn’t as naturally athletic as your friend’s horse. He tries really hard, and that’s what counts. You know try is like heart. It will carry him a long way forward.
Try harder. Try again. These are phrases that can make some people wince. Why should you try harder when what you’re already doing isn’t working? In a fixed mindset world you don’t believe that trying harder will make any difference. You’ll run from any suggestion that you should try again. “Try” is a miserable word if you have a fixed mindset.
But from a growth mindset perspective trying harder is something you’ll embrace. Try is great word. Try implies that you are reaching for something. You are challenging yourself, stretching yourself beyond your immediate comfort zone. Try is a great word if you have a growth mindset.
So here’s the question: how do you respond to “Try” – with excitement or glum resignation?
The Power of Yet
“Not yet” is another phrase that Carol Dweck has helped me to understand better.
In a Tedtalk she describes a high school in Chicago that doesn’t give failing grades. Instead, if students don’t pass a course, they get the grade – not yet.
Dweck loves this concept. As she put it: “If you get a failing grade, you think I’m nothing. I’m nowhere. But if you get a grade of “not yet”, you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It puts you back onto a path into the future.”
Students with a fixed mindset feel as though their intelligence is being tested. Failure is devastating because it reveals how inadequate they are, and there is no possibility for improvement. Dweck’s words to describe this were wonderfully evocative: “Instead of luxuriating in the power of yet, they are gripped in the tyranny of now.”
I was thinking about Dweck’s talk this past week while I was working with some horses I haven’t seen for a couple of months. No matter how many weeks – or even months it is between visits, these horses always remember what we were working on, and they are always eager for more. Their enthusiasm for learning would be any teacher’s delight. On this trip the lessons were mostly in-hand. I was focusing on how soft, quiet, and connected the communication between us could become. For each of the horses it became a dance of cues.
We tend to think of cues as something we give. I cue the horse to trot. He responds by trotting. The cue is a signal. The trot is the behavior I get in response. This is a very limited and limiting view of cues.
Cues are wonderfully layered and complex. The more you learn about cues, the more you appreciate what this means. Here’s an example: we’re not the only ones giving cues. Cues can also be given by our animals. When cues are truly working well there is a back and forth exchange. In fact, one of the fun by-products of clicker training is the behaviors that I have taught to my horse can be turned around and used by him to cue me.
When you recognize that cues are a two way street, you become much more aware of what your animals are trying to communicate back to you. Through this cue communication you become better at listening to your learner and adjusting your training to meet his needs. You’re thinking about the whole animal and not just the isolated behaviors you want to teach.
This raises the question: what is the difference between a cue and a behavior? Could you reach a point in your training where all you really have is just a series of cues?
On a macro scale this is how we normally think of cues:
In this schematic cues and behaviors are seen as two different things. But really a cue is also a behavior. You lift your hand to cue your dog to lie down. That hand signal is a behavior. When the dog responds correctly, that reinforces you for lifting your hand in that particular way and makes it more likely that you’ll do it again. The effect of cues works in two directions. They signal which is the next “hot behavior”, and they reinforce the preceding behavior.
When your dog lies down, we think of that as a behavior. But it’s also a cue to you to click and toss him a treat.
You say “trot” to get your horse to change gait. Producing that sound is a behavior. As are all the weight shifts, the changes of breath, the head tilts and anything else we may use to signal our intent. But why did you ask for the trot at that particular moment? Were you responding to some subtle signals from your horse that said this would be a good time to trot? When you think about cue communication, this is how the graphic evolves:
With people what would we call this back and forth exchange? How about a conversation?
That’s exactly what I was having with these horses. Back and forth – I listened to them, they listened to me. Out of this conversation one of the horses produced the most glorious trot. I was working him in a somewhat unconventional leading position. Instead of being at his head, I was by his hind end. As he trotted beside me, I had my hand resting on his hips.
It was an amazing trot – to the left. To the right he couldn’t manage a trot at all. I found myself saying “yet”. Thank you Carol Dweck. The trot was not there – yet.
I asked. He clearly knew what I wanted. I could have insisted, forced him to make more of an effort, to produce a trot NOW. I did not. Instead I listened to him. I let him cue me. This is how our relationship has always been. He wanted to shift his balance into a lateral flexion. Good idea. Let’s flow with that.
The next day the trot to the left felt even more glorious. And in this session, when I asked for the trot to the right, he went up into it with ease. Not yet had transformed into yes now!
More than that, the trot to the right was even better than it was to the left. The celebration over that wonderful trot was all the sweeter because it had not been there just the day before. I had chosen a teaching strategy that let me listen to my horse, that let me harness the power of yet.
“Yet” is a wonderful word. “He can’t trot to the right” is a door slammed closed. “He can’t trot to the right – yet” is a door held open to possibilities. Which do you want for your horse?