You don’t always get what you wanted . . .

. . . but you always get what you asked for.

This is a principle I first learned when riding and interacting with horses.  I started riding as a small child (8 years old) and this rule about horses was one I learned to help me deal with my frustrations when I couldn’t get the horse to do what I wanted.  I don’t remember who first said it to me, but it made me realize that the problem wasn’t in the response, but the question. 

Horses don’t speak English (or French, Chinese, Farsi or Gaelic).  That’s not to say they can’t be conditioned to associate certain words with certain items or actions — they can be trained to come when called, to respond to voice commands — but they don’t come to the party with an a priori knowledge of the language.  They are being asked to respond to questions they don’t understand.  We do what we can to imbue certain words with meaning, and a wise horseperson will work with the horse’s own language (mainly physical and spatial) to hedge their bets.

There are still, however, many misunderstandings.  It is the very basis on which we learn to interact together. 

Horses aren’t deceitful, they aren’t manipulative, they aren’t difficult just to be contrary.  They generally want to do what is asked of them.  Whether we believe that they aim to please, or that they simply choose the path of least resistance when possible, the truth is the same.  If we ask a horse for something, and it isn’t given, either the answer wasn’t obvious or there is a barrier to the correct response.

If the question was misunderstood, it may be that we weren’t actually requesting what we thought.  Just because I thought I was asking, “Please move over” by applying pressure to their side, the request might have been read as “Please go faster”.  Therefore, the response was “wrong”, in that it wasn’t what was intended, but it was “right” in that it was a reasonable response to the question that was posed.  In this case, the question was not specific enough to yield a singular answer.  Or, it may be that the horse in question has no reference point, no history, no training, regarding a question phrased in terms of pressure on the side.  It may, effectively, be a problem of ignorance.  The response, then, was merely an educated guess in the first case, and wild guess in the second.

Alternatively, there may be a problem in the way of the question being received properly or the response being given.  The person may not be giving the request directly enough.  There may be something physically blocking the request (such as tack).  Or there may be a problem of soundness preventing a well intentioned horse from doing what it knows is being requested.

The solution is to ask a better question.  Questions or requests must be direct and specific.  There should be nothing in the way of the request getting through, physically and psychologically.  And the request should be singular: there should only be one possible interpretation of the question.  As long as there are multiple possible responses, the request should be refined and positive and negative reinforcement can be used to give feedback to refine the understanding of the attempted responses.  That’s it.  With education, clarity, and a sufficiently refined question, the response will be correct.

With horses, this makes sense, and is fairly obvious once it’s been pointed out.

What I’ve learned, though, is how this amazing idea, “You don’t always get what you wanted, but you always get what you asked for”, can be applied to so much more.

Dancing, as an example, works beautifully.  As with a horseperson, a leader in dancing is often quite frustrated by the disconnect between request and response.  And keep in mind that the dancer has the advantage of language, which the equestrian does not.  The same principles hold true, however: if we ask our partner for something, and it isn’t given, either the answer wasn’t obvious or there is a barrier to the correct response.

If a leader asks his partner to move backwards (forward, from his perspective) and he gets a crooked, short or otherwise incorrect step, either refinement of the request, or education of the follower (often both are required).  It is very unlikely that she is misinterpreting his physical request intentionally, although it often comes across that way.  The request, the lead, must have a unique interpretation and our process of communication must be direct enough to be clearly felt.

If the follower does something the lead did not intend, then she can be educated to learn the correct response, if she doesn’t know it.  But also, the lead should examine the exact request that was made.  Something in the question precipitated the response that was given.  Uneducated or not, the physical way in which we respond to each other should be based on the physical instincts the responder already has, be it a horse or a dancer.

Again, the solution is to ask the question that you really wanted answered.  The lead must be direct, specific, and have a unique correct response.  Questions open to interpretation are bound to be interpreted.

So, with horses and dancers, we can see how this idea holds true.  But there’s even more to it — an even greater way to generalize this idea.

In life, we don’t always get what we wanted, but we always get what we asked for.  As the leader in a dancing couple, or the rider of a horse, we are responsible for directing the course of our life.  It’s easy to look around at our own situation, and see what we like or don’t like, what we’re pleased with, and what fails to satisfy us.  But if we really examine where we are, and what life gives us, we’ll often see (uncomfortable as it can be) that we’ve gotten to where we are by asking the wrong questions — by making the wrong requests.

What am I requesting?  Am I acting, in my life, as the leader?  The way I interact with the people around me are my requests, my questions, to the universe.  Am I specific and unique in my requests?  Am I requesting anything, or am I just drifting — thinking that when what I want comes by, I’ll simply recognize it and seize it? Focus on the thing you want.  Be specific and unique in your thoughts.  It will guide your interactions with the people around you.  Take setbacks, problems, “wrong answers” as learning tools to refine the questions.

If I want a job more fulfilling than the one I have, I must ask a different question.  I have to seriously consider what it is I want, and pursue it.  If it means confronting my boss and asking for something different than what I have, then I should do it.  If it means getting further education, I should pursue it.  If it means changing careers, then I have to make that decision.  But I have to be clear in myself on my goal before I set off on my journey to get it.  And if the response isn’t to my liking, then the request has to be refined.

Like anything else, this is best attempted with small things first.  Like asking a horse to walk forward on a lead line or taking a walking step forward in a dance frame, we start small.  But the principle is the same, and the more we practice it, the more successful we become.

If the result isn’t what we want, we need to examine the input.  By refining the process and the question, we can get a better response.  But the rules are always the same: you don’t always get what you wanted, but you always get what you asked for.

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