Learning and failing: Four kinds of horses

I know a group of leaders who for years had identified something important they wanted and needed to learn. For them it wasn’t an easy something, it was a very, very hard something. They struggled and they suffered and they broke promises to themselves and others, and they called their team dysfunctional because of their struggle.

Then one afternoon, they gathered themselves up. They grabbed on to their moxy and their scrap. They went to bed sick to their stomachs with dread and the next, long day they acted with profound courage. That day, they accomplished more than most leadership teams do over months – and they did it gracefully, intelligently, wisely. In watching their coming together, I felt like I’d  been witness to one of the sexiest things on the planet.

At a dinner party later that evening,  a friend – for her own, different reasons – read this aloud to the diners. And there you have it: it’s a profound, sexy planet we live on.

It is said that there are four kinds of horses: Excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones.

The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip. The second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin. The third one will run when it feels pain on its body, and the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run! When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse.

But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says.

When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of the practice…. The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones.

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center,
by way of the insightful Kathleen Wood at New World Fight Club