To be an entrepreneur

29 06 2015

guinea pig

I started my first enterprise with my brothers and sister when I was around twelve and they were aged ten, eight and six. We spent a good deal of time discussing our vision, our goals and our plans for expansion. We built up stock and cut costs by accepting donations for our equipment and running expenses. We already had one long high-sided box with some chicken wire tacked to the top; it wouldn’t be difficult to make or find another. The guinea pigs we were breeding to sell all lived together in the box and seemed comfortable enough.

We were feeling really excited about finding customers and marketing our business. Who wanted to go to a dusty pet shop and choose a sad, caged guinea pig when they could come to us and select from a whole squeaking mass of the happy little creatures. Our guinea pigs were different. They had twinkly eyes and little twitching pink noses. They were irresistible. We shone with pride. People would be able to tell just from looking at us that we were doing this for love, as well as profit. We didn’t know any other children entrepreneurs who had bothered to start something so amazing. We were certain we had found a niche in the market.

The guinea pigs found their own gap and began escaping at night. First one or two would go missing and we would find them huddled under the tumble drier in the laundry room of the old hotel where we lived at the time. We plonked them back in the box, but every morning a few more would escape and we would coax them out from under the drier until one terrible morning we went to the laundry room and saw that every single one had disappeared. Dreams of our global guinea pig farm crashed as we realised we had lost everything.

We didn’t have the heart to start again. In any case it was much more profitable carrying suitcases up the stairs for the hotel visitors and occasionally washing glasses. We moved into a new league of entrepreneurship when the coach parties rolled in for cream teas. We put our collaborative skills to use by each taking a team role: one to take the coats and umbrellas from the elderly ladies, one to hang them up (the coats not the ladies), one to issue the cloakroom ticket, and the littlest, brightest, shiniest one to smile and say thank you as the saucer overflowed.

We recognised from an early age that entrepreneurs don’t waste time when one business fails to get off the ground; they instantly start another. Entrepreneurs like to live by their own efforts, and there is nothing more satisfying than building something from nothing and having people want to invest in what you have built.

I started a social enterprise knowing that I wanted to link philosophy to connecting with animals because whenever I taught philosophy I nearly always ended up having a conversation about animals and the so-called species barrier. As a child I never really saw any difference between myself and animals, or trees or beetles, or ticks, or stones. To me, it was simply life in another form, and I was always utterly curious about life, which is important if you are going to attempt to do any kind of work in philosophy.

After seventeen years of teaching philosophy it is being, the raw material and energy of philosophy that intrigues me. Being is a constant, fresh puzzle and this has been illustrated by some of the children I’ve taught this year. An essential part of being is having something to care about, if I’m getting all phenomenological, something for being to be concerned with. These children rescue greyhounds, they care about orcas being kept in captivity, they dream of music or menus or oceans. They’ve shown me that when you care enough, you have everything you need to become who you are.

As I reach the final stage of my year at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, I’m realising how important it is for an entrepreneur to hold on to the open mind of the child. To trust that your enterprise will find its own form and to trust that even if your box is empty one morning, you will still be able to go out and build something, not be someone.

I’m really sorry though about the guinea pigs we lost. We made some careless mistakes and we really should have organised a night watch, but we were beginners and I suppose we can be forgiven for that.

Trust the animal to choose

15 06 2015


Since I wrote about trust I’ve been thinking about times when I’ve had to trust my animals to get themselves out of trouble. This is what might be called high-stakes trust, when there are no other options than to submit to assistance. I think many animals are experts at assessing when to trust humans and they need to be, especially when their lives are at stake.

Tinker’s life was not at stake, but she was at risk of severe injury when she got both her front and her back legs caught in fence wire. She had been boxed in around the gateway by her bolshy aunt Bella and had tried to save herself by plunging forward, but in her rush to escape she had got caught between two strands of fence wire and stood wide-eyed wondering what to do next.

The scene from War Horse of Joey trapped in razor wire on the Western Front came into mind. That horse had no chance of escaping without tearing himself to pieces, and now this young Dartmoor pony was in the same predicament. If she lunged forward she would shred her chest and neck and shoulder on barbed wire. If she tried to move backwards there was a danger she would tear her legs all the way up to her quarters.

Her instinct was to push forward and she was breathing hard and straining with her chest trying to force her way through. Fearing that she would pull the fence down, I moved her back and she responded before trying again to free herself. My mouth went dry as I imagined the terrible wounds she could inflict. I saw her fine flesh torn like raw meat. I felt powerless to help her.

Just then the field owner arrived in his truck and my hope soared. I shouted at him to come and help us, but the wind took away my words. He had lost his mobile phone in the field around a year ago and so I couldn’t even call him. Unknowing of the crisis down at the far end of the field, he left with his usual cheerful wave, closing the gate behind him. In that moment I felt the horror of what I was sure was going to be disaster. Fear dried my tears against the back of my eyeballs.

Tinker struggled again, and I could tell that she was getting fed up with the situation. Any minute now she was going to shove her way forward through the fence. I knew that horses could still run with horrific injuries and not feel pain because of the adrenaline. I needed to act quickly to stop her.

Taking a few deep breaths, I explained to her that she was trapped and that pushing was going to cause terrible injury. She quietened and blew on to my hand. I then explained to her that what she needed to do was to help me to find a way to get her out of this situation. She became very still. Her eye was huge and dark and liquid. I wanted to help her, I explained, but I needed her co-operation. I needed her to help me find a way out of trouble.

What happened next was truly amazing. She arched her neck and then very slowly lifted her hoof up to chest height, like a dancer practising stretches. She continued to lift it and together we wiggled it clear of the wire and slowly, very slowly eased it over the top of the fence and down to the ground. Then with the same deliberate, careful movement she lifted her other front foot clear and together we moved that one down to the ground. I had a sense that we were working together as a team, choreographing each move. Eventually we got all her legs free and she sauntered off and began to graze as if nothing of any consequence had happened. By now I was shaking and needed a few whole droppers of Rescue Remedy.

Afterwards I was able to think about how resourcefully the pony had solved this problem. She had tried different ways to free herself and had to overcome her instincts in order to co-operate with me. She had probably never before been in the situation of having to totally rely on a human being to get out her out of trouble, but she was willing to give it a try. I don’t think she realised that it was her only option. I think she was so fed up with waiting that she was open to suggestion.

This is truly remarkable in a semi-feral animal who mostly thinks of survival.  It was fascinating to witness Tinker change from an animal committed to self-preservation to an animal making an informed choice about how she might preserve her being. She worked out how to lift herself out, and that saved her from injury and taught me a profound lesson about trusting the animal to find the best solution to a problem.

Since that incident my relationship with Tinker has strengthened. That day we found a greater understanding and respect for each other. We learned that we could rely on each other when things got difficult and neither of us needed to fight for the upper hand. I realise that this semi-wild mare is even more sensitive, aware and intelligent than I thought. I suspect that she will always be a little wayward and I’m sure there will be plenty more scrapes, but now I know her better I trust that she will work her way through the next problem with confidence.

This illuminating talk by Caroline Ingraham explores some of the reasons why we should give animals choices.

Trust comes from within

7 06 2015

Belinda and Beau

I’m wondering about trust at the moment because it seems to underpin every relationship and every communication. It’s emerging as a theme in my work with horses and people. The line of thinking was inspired by a brief conversation with master horseman Mark Rashid after watching him work with a traumatised horse.

The dark, powerful gelding was rigid with fear as he approached the lorry and seemed to be holding his breath. The horseman didn’t ask the hose to step closer to the lorry. He admitted to the audience that he didn’t care if the horse went into the lorry or not. He was not looking for a result. He was looking at helping the horse to overcome being afraid.

Watching Mark Rashid work with the horse was unremarkable. He did little more than lead the horse a few paces away from the lorry and then back again to a point near the wall of the arena where the horse felt comfortable. It would have been easy to miss the teaching and powerful shifts in behaviour that were taking place between the man and the horse.

At first the gelding was too afraid to trust and wanted to flee as fast as he could from the lorry, but through a series of small steps the horseman worked patiently and thoughtfully with the horse. During the lesson the horse learned that he could rely on his handler and that alone helped him to feel more comfortable about just standing near the lorry. The horse also learned that the handler remained consistent and clear and fair. When the horse was ready to explore further the handler noticed and gave the horse an opportunity to sort out the problem for himself. Mark Rashid didn’t need to comfort or reassure the horse or talk in soft tones. He simply communicated to the horse that he was someone who could be trusted, and the horse was able to believe that he had found the right help. That gave the horse confidence.

I found this simple lesson so moving because the horse was given time to think through the problem and to solve it. I also got the impression that Mark Rashid was utterly absorbed in what was happening with the horse so much so that he almost forgot he was giving a clinic to people who had paid to watch him work. This level of professionalism I find spellbinding.

Afterwards I mentioned to him that the horse clearly trusted him within a few minutes. Now the horse didn’t know that Mark Rashid has decades of experience of working with horses all over America. The horse had worked with Mark Rashid on a previous visit to Britain, and so possibly remembered him as someone he could trust, but this wasn’t obvious as the horse was clearly terrified when he entered the arena. What the horse found was not a friend, but someone who trusted himself. We know that fear is contagious, but maybe trust is, too. The turning point in the lesson came when the horse recognised that Mark Rashid trusted himself.

‘But what if you don’t trust yourself?’ I asked him. ‘What if you doubt your own ability, what can you do?’ He smiled and shook his head as he mulled over the conundrum. ‘That’s the real question,’ he said. In order to enable others to trust us, we first have to trust ourselves. To reach the point of trusting ourselves could take years of practice, years of mistakes, years of trial and error, or it could take a commitment to truth, to understanding, to finding out through observation and deep listening.

The intention to offer help to another living being must be communicated mindfully. We may have years of expertise, yet that still means we can’t impose knowledge or assistance. I’ve been on the receiving end of inappropriate offers of help that made me feel jangly and unsupported. A neighbour once cleared out her cupboards and dumped a load of kitchen items on my doorstep with a note saying she thought I might use them. She was being helpful. I felt pained and strangely guilty as I packed up all the unwanted plastic containers and took them to the tip, hoping she wouldn’t see. Her lack of observation and understanding was embarrassing.

If I were a horse with a problem I would want someone like Mark Rashid to help me out. I would be able to tell that he was fair-minded, consistent and clear. I would be able to tell that he had my best interests at heart. How often, though, do we meet people who pretend to have our interests at heart? People who offer help without bothering to find out where we are and what it is we actually need? Watching Mark Rashid made me understand how essential it is to take the time to work out what is required before we leap in with our problem-solving skills. As busy-minded humans we are often tempted to do too much. We find making a lot of effort satisfying. When we do less with horses (and people) we often get so much more. This means for me: less assisting, more listening.

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