Are you the elephant or the rider?
Imagine a giant, hulking Elephant with huge tusks.
It doesn't take much for me to imagine, because I nearly fainted when I saw a ginormous elephant eyeball peering through the roof of our flimsy tent in Amboseli National Park. I can still vividly see its eyelashes and the thick, dusty folds of its skin! And I will never forget its even more ginormous right tusk blocking our escape route to our puny-looking car. I could scarcely move or breathe as it loudly tore branches from the bushes just arms lengths away. After an endless night of elephant snores coming from within a few steps of our tent, I can confirm 100% that elephant snores are not conducive to a good night's sleep!
And then imagine a Rider sitting astride, making every attempt to keep the elephant on the straight and narrow.
Who has greater power? The elephant, or the rider? What happens when they're at cross-purposes?
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt developed this metaphor to help us think about behavior change. When we want to grow and develop, we quickly become aware of the emotional part of us with its extensive nervous system (the Elephant), and the analytical, rational part of the brain located in our prefrontal cortex (its Rider). When the two are in sync, the journey is clear. When the two are in disagreement, who wins?
In Haidt's analogy, the rational Rider can see a path ahead and make long-term plans (like setting up a tent for a good night's sleep). Underneath, the Elephant provides the emotionally and instinctually driven source of power. Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch: How to change things when change is hard, explain:
"Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched."
Whipping, caging, shoving down, or distracting the elephant are sure ways to create chaos. In the Western "I think therefore I am" mindset, the common misperception is that emotions are wrong. That means that vast sources of power and motivation are regularly being wasted.
Even if the rider is sure they know which direction to go, listening to the elephant's wisdom, and aligning with its great strength is much more effective. For example, the rider can remove boulders and logs in the elephant's path. The rider can motivate and reward the elephant with a destination that's clearly within the eye, ear, and smelling distance. The rider can also pay attention to the signals the elephant is sending and take those signals into account.
After our long night of little sleep, we spoke with the Masai men who managed the campground. They explained that we had set up our tent right in the middle of the elephant's favorite walking trail. Our tent had become an obstacle between its normal sleeping space and the branches it loved for a bedtime snack.
What is your inner elephant telling you these days? How can your rider remove some of the obstacles in its path, and make its destination more enticing? What would it be like to align your head and your heart on the decision that's before you now?
With great love,
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