Getting Out Of The Cloud
Systems biologist, Uri Alon has given us the image of the cloud. As a young graduate student studying physics, he found himself in despair over his research. Assumption after assumption had failed. What he thought was a reasonable hypothesis led him nowhere. The cloud became his metaphor for the state of confusion that sits at the boundary between the known and the unknown. When you are in the cloud, you know you are getting closer to discovering something truly new.
When one of his graduate students tells him that he is in the cloud, Alon understands that this is a normal part of the research process. Knowing about the process doesn’t take away the negative feelings, but it does tell him how to help that student.
Alon: “Just knowing that the cloud is normal, that it’s essential, and in fact beautiful, means we can join the Cloud Appreciation Society. It detoxifies the feeling that something is deeply wrong with me.”
Instead of being defeated by the cloud, Alon and his graduate students use it to find creative solutions. How did Alon find this creative solution for his teaching when other researchers did not? Innovations rarely come from within a field. They come from bringing in fresh ideas from other sources.
So what was the fresh idea Alon brought to his research?
At the same time that he was working on his Ph.D, he was also studying improvisational theatre. As an actor, he was actively taught how to deal with failure. One technique for going into the unknown was saying “Yes, and . . .” to what other people offered.
Alon: “Yes and . . .” means agreeing with and building on another person’s offer. If an actor says: “Here’s a pool of water.” and the second actor says: “No, that’s just the stage.” you have nowhere to go. The second actor has created a dead end for your idea. The improvisation is over, and everyone on stage feels frustrated. That’s called blocking: saying no to the other person’s idea.
If instead you say:
There’s a pool of water.
Yes, let’s jump in.
Look, there’s a whale.
Let’s grab it by the tail.
It’s taking us to the moon.
That way you unlock hidden creativity building on each other’s ideas.
In science there’s a lot of blocking and no mindfulness for this form of communicating.”
Silencing the Inner Critic
We have an inner critic that keeps us from grabbing the whale by the tail because we don’t want people to think we are ignorant, stupid, or foolish. Saying “yes, and . . .” by-passes that inner critic.
Saying “yes, and . . .” does more than that. It transforms horse training. I love phrases like this. Psychologist Carol Dweck gave us The Power of Yet. (See: “Choosing Your Words, Your Mindset, Your Training Strategies”; published January 13, 2015.)
Saying: “My horse can’t pick up his right canter lead” is limiting and creates dead ends.
Saying: “My horse can’t pick up his right canter lead – yet” opens the door to possibilities.
Now we have another powerful phrase borrowed from the sciences. Uri Alon has given us: “Yes and. . .”
“Yes And . . .” instead of “No, Not That”
The horse world is full of: “No, not that.” We are the ones on stage saying: “no that’s not a pool of water. Don’t go there.” We are actively taught to block.
We slide down the lead asking for movement and our horse takes a step – just not in the direction we want him to go.
We say: “No, not that. That’s not the way to go.”
He tries again. “No, not that.” We keep shutting him down and shutting him down. Is it any wonder we see so many horses who have lost all the sparkle in their eyes. What we love most about horses, their spirit, we rob from them with all of our “No, not that” blocks.
How much better to say: “Yes, and. . .” That’s how we should be shaping behavior. This is what the best shapers know how to do.
They set up the training environment so they can ask for tiny slices of behavior. Each slice is greeted with a “yes, and . . .” Yes, you shifted your weight. That’s great. Now what else can you do?
Recently I was working with a group of horses who I have come to know well. When I first met them, they were saying: “No, not that” to me every time I slid down a lead. I could tell from their responses that they had encountered a lot of blocking in their past. The lead didn’t invite movement. It stalled them out.
We’ve had a great many roundabout conversations about lead ropes and the cues they can give. On this last visit the pieces of the puzzle began to come together. We had our first true “yes and” conversations via a lead. Each time I slid my hand down the lead, I was inviting movement. I was answered with a positive response. I might want more of a step to the side, but instead of blocking what they gave me, I accepted the offering and built on it.
I had a whale by the tail, and it was taking me to the moon. What a delicious feeling! As I was working with these horses I was thinking – how on earth do you teach this! Blocking is easy. How do you teach someone how to accept and flow with each changing step? And then I listened to Alon talk about “yes, and . . .” That is the metaphor that describes the dance. My partner is never wrong. “Yes, that’s right” is so much more supportive than “No not that.” These horses initially expected the “No.” Now they understand “Yes.”
Clicker training gives us the freedom to say “Yes, and . . .” The horse training I originally learned was all about saying the opposite: “No, not that . . .” I think this is a huge dividing line between what clicker training offers and what traditional training encourages. We look at what we want our animals To Do, and we say “yes” to their offerings.
While I was working on this article, I took a break from the computer and went out to give the horses their lunch. While Peregrine ate his mid-day mash, I cleaned stalls, checked the water, refilled the hay boxes. By that time Peregrine was done. I opened his stall door, and Robin went in to make sure that Peregrine hadn’t left anything that needed cleaning up. I fixed a cup of tea and was heading back into the tack room when I heard Robin calling to me from the arena.
I looked in and both horses were waiting for me. The tea could wait. I went in to the arena. Peregrine started offering his octogenarian version of Spanish walk. Robin circled around us in his beautiful collected trot and ended by positioning himself in perfect heel position by my side. I found myself laughing as I thought “Yes, and . . .”
Next time you are with your horses say “yes and . . .” to them. Grab the whale by the tail and see where they take you. To the moon and back is a wonderful place to go when it is in the company of a horse.
Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:
If you want to listen to Alon describe for himself the cloud and the concept of “Yes, and . . .”, go to:
He’s an excellent presenter, and even though these are essentially the same talk, you will find new things in each one.