Mark Johnson

    Leading horses and planting seeds

    Sunday 24th May, 2020 - 3 min read

    You can lead a horse to water

    ‘You can lead a horse to water… but you can’t make it drink.’

    This old adage states you can try to help someone but you can’t force them to accept your advice, they have to accept it of their own accord. The phrase has a negative connotation and for good reason, if someone ignores advice that will benefit them that’s a bad move on their part - especially if they continue to complain afterwards.

    But often our advice isn’t critical. We’re not telling someone how to save their life, we’re recommending a new TV show, a great book, or a recently discovered restaurant. They say they’ll check it out but we don’t hear anything more of it and our suggestion is seemingly ignored. What we don’t realise is that the suggestion is ticking over in the back of their mind and it’s just waiting for the right time to pop back up. They may have been binging another show, not feeling non-fiction books, or not dining out to save money. This topic comes to mind because I recently started Yanis Varoufakis’s book ‘And The Weak Suffer What They Must’ after years of my Dad mentioning it to me, and during the same week he’s decided to get a Kindle after years of me recommending how great they are for reading web articles and getting cheaper books. There’s a hundred and one reasons why someone might not take up our suggestion immediately, but that doesn’t mean it was ignored.

    When things do eventually line up and they take up your suggestion, you’ll be the first person they want to thank and share the experience with. It’s easy to be annoyed in this situation because you knew they would like it but they didn’t take any action - when they say ‘I loved it, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to do it’, you reply ‘I know.. that’s why I told you!’. But I think we can have this response to the situation because we have the wrong mental model when giving advice. I propose a new analogy; you’re not ‘leading a horse to water’, you’re ‘planting a seed’. We can’t expect an instant response to our suggestion. You know this yourself because unless you have a penchant for dishing out advice you’ve been on the other side of this exchange far more often than not and you know you’re no exception to taking months or years to act on suggestions, if you do at all. We don’t instantly change our behaviour, we let ideas perculate and often we can’t even explain why we take action when we do.

    So when recommending something to friends or family, you aren’t leading a horse to water, you’re planting a seed. And if you’re lucky enough for someone to take your recommendation months or years later, enjoy the chance to relive the experience when they share it with you and be grateful that the seed you planted has sprouted.

    Sprouted seed


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