The phrase, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” commonly attributed to car manufacturer and industrialist Henry Ford is a perfect example of how we bind ourselves to our ideas. On August 29th 2011, the Harvard Business Review published an article written by Patrick Vlaskovits questioning whether this phrase was actually said. The short of it is there is no proof one way or the other.
To use the old adage, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The widespread use of the quote about faster horses illustrates how attached we are to the notion that great people have minds unlike the rest of us; that they reject the status quo or just figurally kick the general public out of their stupor. Henry Ford was innovative, and a trait of that is taking risks AKA doing things that haven’t been done before. Risks are risky, so it makes sense to have a slightly humorous catchphrase to ease your fear as people around you are sceptical of change.
But really, if people did say “faster horses” what does that mean? I’m sure the average person didn’t expect horses to move any faster; maybe be healthier and have a longer life. Or maybe they thought about the logistics of their day and wished they didn’t have to travel so far with such big loads? What we can guess they mean by “faster horses” is having an easier life in some way. No big change, just a few tweaks to make a chore less demanding.
Henry Ford may have offered some sort of faster horse; with the mass production of the automobile and changes in the workplace – particularly the growth of the assembly line – cars became more popular than before. Though I am sure if Henry Ford ever uttered the phrase, he was merely commenting on consumers’ ability to not exactly know what they want, or their lack of imagination. Regardless, he gave them what they wanted.
How is the phrase relevant today? Well, there are thousands, if not millions, of inventors and entrepreneurial types who subscribe to this way of thinking. Experimentation and creativity can give us great things. Progression and advancement often happen when someone does something different than before. But I want us to think about the horses in our lives…
What do you want? What will make you happy? Financial freedom, good health, a rewarding job and family life? What way can your horse be improved? You may have a little or no money, so you need more of it. You may have bad to average health so need to upgrade to that good body and fitness, you probably work in some way but you need that dream job so you don’t feel so tired.
What if we replaced, “more”, “better”, “upgrade” and “faster” with something else instead? What if we stopped asking for a seemingly superior version of something we already know too well? Something that we know does not make us happy!? What if we threw away what we know and thought about what we’d truly like to see? What if Henry Ford asked us what we want and we just said the first word that came into our minds? Instead of money we spoke of security, instead of health we said time, and instead of prestige we said comfort. What if the word we used was Love?
How impactful would the phrase, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said love” be? It wouldn’t sell cars. But it just might stop us from pushing our horses too hard.