The Elephant and the Rider

From time to time you come across ideas that make a strong impression on you. Often enough, it takes a while to fully understand that the information took such an important role in your life. But you realise that you come back to the idea and find it useful. Useful to interpret certain aspects of your life.

One of these ideas in my life is the elephant and rider metaphor. I nearly missed this great blog entry of JD Meier, because it happened that I only got aware of the metaphor by reading a follow-up blog entry the other day. I strongly recommend these two entries. (And I do recommend to follow the blog of JD Meier.)

To describe the idea in my own words: An elephant rider is generally able to direct the much larger elephant. But s/he won’t be able to do that against the will of the elephant. In such a case the elephant will follow its own needs, leaving the rider in a helpless position. This relationship can be used to describe your rational mind (rider) versus your feelings (elephant). Did you ever try to change an unwanted behaviour? How often did you give in to your feelings and gave up on your (new year’s) resolutions?

You won’t be able to succeed in your personal goals if you can’t bring your emotions in line. If it is your will against your emotions you will loose. You will have to influence your emotions if you want to change yourself, ie change unwanted behaviour. You might be able to get your elephant on the road with will power, but you will were out, eventually.

Why is this idea so interesting to me? Because it suddenly helps you to understand the world better. Why a positive attitude is paramount for changing a behaviour. It tells me what I did wrong so many times.

Take Change or die! from Patrick Mayfield. I saw his presentation a while ago and it made an impression on me. He referenced the work from Alan Deutschman and took bypass patients as an example. According to his statistics a shocking 90% of patients are not changing there unhealthy behaviour (smoking!) after an bypass surgery, ensuring the next life-threatening situation in a few years. Why? Rider vs. elephant! The fact that you will die soon can’t be translated into the language of the elephant. The patients knew they had to change but they didn’t do it. A second study showed a far better rate of behavioural changes after focusing on positive emotions. For the second study people were given positive attitude to a behavioural change by connecting the change (give up smoking) with things they would like to do: playing with grand-children, being able to walk for an hour, etc. Being able to do things that create positive emotions does the trick. This is the language of your elephant, and is therefore influencing the elephant! This approach aligns your emotions with your abstract thinking and gives your rides the tools to stay on track. Focus on the positive aspects of the change.

Did you ever realise that people are not acting in a logical manner? I think I know why. The elephant is stronger. People do what feels right, not what they know is right. And if you want to do what is right the metaphor might be able to help you. Please let me know if you have more examples.

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