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Learning to be an Expert

In my mind, becoming an expert at something happens by pursuing the things that I like or, even better, the things I love. Something that I am passionate about, like riding a horse, handling large herds of cattle, flying an airplane, or simply just living life. As a consequence, I naturally do that activity a lot and get a ton of practice. I learn at a deep and fast pace by making mistakes, through repetition, from being around others who are handy at it–whatever it is–who also, because we love what we are doing, consider it an honor to share our knowledge.

Intern Max working with the young horse Little Star at the Chico Basin Ranch. Photo by Brennan Cira.

Ranch apprentices Mike and Louis working cattle at the Zapata Ranch. Photo by Katrina Flynn.

A learning environment, though at times trying, especially in a professional setting where we are trying to be economical with time and money, should be a vibrant and healthy place to live and work, especially if we are inspired by where our path is leading us. It creates an openness, a special kind of excitement, and comradery – all things that make the environment fertile for learning. The workplace becomes a place where forming answers is not the goal as much as finding ways to identify the pertinent questions, then live them every day. The excitement and “can do” attitude that comes from this vibe is like fertilizer; it permeates our community and empowers people to grow like young seedling sprouts anchoring their roots into the ground and spreading their leaves into the air.

This is what the Ranchlands Apprenticeship program has grown into. Our goal has been not to develop experts, but to create a place of learning that has the potential to lead to expertise. Perhaps not a huge distinction, but through experience, we know that the environment within which we learn is of profound importance.

This way of looking at becoming an expert may seem elementary, but it is the basis of Ranchlands apprenticeships – a program that teaches young people how to be leaders in ranch management by taking on large degrees of responsibility in a professional ranching operation. Apprentices learn through shouldering the complex responsibilities of taking care of a herd of cattle.

Chico Apprentice Brandon, roping at a branding in the summer of 2020. Photo by Brennan Cira.

Through the apprenticeship program and elsewhere, education as a whole has become a central pillar of the Ranchlands ethos. In many ways, this focus on learning has greatly influenced who we are today. Personally, I have come to realize and appreciate that teaching others sharpens my own grasp of my skills and changes me as a rancher and human being. Instead of becoming entrenched in our own perspectives and beliefs, we become more open and accepting of how others think and approach challenges.

For example, the singular best tool for learning is making mistakes, which could be seen as diametrically opposed to running an efficient business. However, by not looking over apprentices’ shoulders, we teach them that making mistakes is not only acceptable but part of the process, actually accelerating the learning process. As a consequence, in our roles as mentors, we have to be open to how others see and do things and be patient and realize that while we are different, we are not better or worse than each other.

Photo by Avery Sass Clark

Today, after almost twenty two years of working closely with young people, witnessing their growth has become one of my favorite parts of our ranching practices. Two of the best memories that I have on the ranch are punctuated by a moment where I saw an apprentice break through to the next level.

First, one morning when we had a pasture to gather, I had to send two early stage apprentices to begin. I was halfway dreading going up to join them, because I was assuming that I was going to have to do most of it myself. When I rode through the gate into the pasture, I was surprised to see dust close by. As I kept riding I began to see that they had actually gathered the entire pasture and were almost to the gate. I had to pull my horse up and let it soak in. Looking across the rolling hills with different groups of cattle slowly coming toward me, I can remember the emotion washing over me as I saw the pride in the apprentices’ quiet smiles.

I also recall the image of seeing an apprentice on his tiptoes, almost trotting, making a straight line across the headquarters yard with a definitive purpose in his mind. I could see he was on a mission with a clear objective, a stark contrast to his usual (and typical of early stage apprentices) wandering here and there, not sure of where he was going or what he was doing. Now suddenly, there was a change, a spark, almost a fire burning (soon to come). Something had clicked, and I just smiled. He was a different person almost from one day to the next.

As we interview young people applying to our program, what we value the most is emphatic enthusiasm about coming on board, no matter where or what they will be doing. This determination is the hinge upon which we want to build our relationship of learning through sharing what we do every day at Ranchlands. It ensures that we gather a group of people around us who are passionate and who love what we are doing. This sense of excitement becomes the fulcrum that enables us all to grow together, and ensures that our way of life and the work that we do in creating a healthy natural world will continue into the future.

A group of interns and apprentices gathered at the end of Bison Works Week, 2019. Photo by Claudia Landreville.



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