In 1979 I went to Atlantic City to serve on the opening team of the Playboy Hotel and Casino. It was a boom town, bustling with activity. Numerous casinos were under construction. The energy and excitement were palpable. It was a heady time. Atlantic City was being reborn.
In conversation with a long-time resident, I learned that in days gone by diving horses had been a major attraction along the once famous boardwalk. A horse and rider would walk up a long ramp to a high platform that extended over the ocean and jump off. Voluntarily! Diving horse.
Immediately, I became intensely curious about how one trains a horse to do that. My acquaintance said, “Well the horse trainer still lives here, and he’s often at the Good Times bar at 5:30 on weekdays. You could just go over there and ask him.”
Unbelievable. Sometimes life just hands you something good.
I was soon sitting there with the trainer. I wish I could remember his name. This is what he told me:
“I don’t actually train them. I find them. I take very young horses to the beach. Some of them just like going into the water. They just go in spontaneously and they like it. The horses that don’t go in, I eliminate. I take the ones who liked the water to a very low pier. Some jump in. The others I eliminate. I take the ones who jumped in to a slightly higher pier. Every once in a while I find a horse who likes jumping off the high platform. Of course at every stage there’s some coaxing, there’s some rewarding. But there’s never any coercion. That’s how it’s done. That’s my secret.”
Years later I was listening to a famous animal trainer who worked with lions and tigers. The interviewer asked how he trained those cats to perform the specific tricks. He replied, “I watch them when they’re very young – watch them when they’re just playing, doing whatever they want. Different cats like doing different things. If a particular cat likes to jump backward, I create a trick that requires him to jump backward. I build the tricks around what they naturally like to do.”
It’s the same with people. If you find out what a person does naturally and likes to do, training in those areas will likely result in rapid growth and increased engagement. If you’re training someone to do something for which he has no affinity (e.g., diving off a high platform or making sales calls) you can make some progress, but it won’t be rapid, it won’t be easy and it will plateau long before his performance could be called excellent. In addition, his engagement will likely go in the wrong direction.
There are plenty of situations in which a person has not tried something, so neither she nor anyone else knows whether she has an affinity for it. In that case, give it a try. But after a while, if progress is slow and labored, if she doesn’t enjoy it, continuing is not good for her or for the organization. Quit wasting your time, effort and money. Find something that’s a better fit for her.
Thanks to Elisa Hillman for suggesting this topic. And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.