Make No Mistake – or Rather, Do!

I was brought up in the school of thought that, when training horses, we need to set them up for success as often as we can; that is, if we give them every opportunity to answer our questions correctly and then make it easy for them to do just that, we’re effectively ingraining those patterns into their daily routine and creating solid, correctly trained citizens.

Makes sense, right?

Right.

On the whole, I have to say I’ve found this method to be quite effective and can see its merits. That said, however, I’ve recently encountered a couple of trainers who have altered my perspective on this by advocating for a training mindset that is essentially the exact opposite of the one I was raised on. These trainers have encouraged me to put my horses – both my FEI veteran and my two-year-old green bean – into situations where they’re guaranteed to make mistakes for the specific purpose of correcting them. It’s basically setting them up to fail instead of succeed – or, in the words of one trainer, “Well, he’s done it right two times now; go ahead and see if you can encourage him to mess it up the next time around.”

If I want my two year old to grow up to be a solid competition horse, I’m going to have to set him up to make mistakes (and learn from them!) along the way.

There’s something to be said for mistakes, readers – both in horse training and in higher education.

In horse training, when the horse makes a mistake (and therefore presents us with the opportunity for correction), he’s not only delivering a fool proof way for us to create an environment where real learning takes place, but he’s also developing an understanding that he doesn’t always have the right answers – and thus learning to cope with failure. We aren’t being cruel or unfair to the horse in these situations, nor are we making corrections out of anger or inciting fear in him; instead, we’re making it safe for him to try anything – well, just about anything! – when asked a question, instilling the confidence in him that he’s either going to hit on the right answer the first time (good boy!) or else he’s going to be wrong and we’re going to show him the way to get it right on his second attempt so he can get to “good boy.”

(Ironically – or maybe not – in the case of my horses, the two-year-old copes better with mistakes than the FEI horse does, as the elder statesman has long lived under a perpetual cloud of assumption that he’s right about everything and the world is wrong if it thinks otherwise. You really have to admire his ego, no?)

As college students, I hope you readers will be less like my FEI horse and more like my two-year-old; that is, I hope you’ll look for mistakes every chance you get.

You see, that’s what college is really for, readers – it’s a place where you can make a lot of mistakes in a safe, forgiving environment and learn from them before you’re out in the great big world at large. After all, the consequences for making a wrong calculation on the spreadsheet you send to your professor to be graded are small – a 3.0 instead of a 4.0 – whereas a wrong calculation on the job can result in a piece of very expensive machinery that’s too big for the site your employer needs it to service and lost revenue for your company. Two very different situations but only one of which is tragic!

And what about the opportunity to take courses in an area you think you’re interested in but aren’t entirely sure about? College affords you the space to try it on for size – and if it turns out to be not your cup of tea, you can chalk it up to a mistake and correct it before you find yourself 10 years into a job and career you hate. You’ll use the experience to learn about yourself and the world around you and move on.

After all, as the Irish writer James Joyce said: “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

So get out there, students, and mess stuff up. (Well, not too much stuff – you know what I mean. Let’s be reasonable and law-abiding about the whole thing.) Learn. Grow. Become.

(And if you need help in your college search, be sure to contact me or pick up a copy of my book to guide you.)

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