A Metaphor To Live By

The mind is a wild elephant. The Buddha

Yes I apparently like elephant metaphors. So here are more elephant metaphors for your learning or at least enjoyment. In his 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt came up with this image as he marveled at his weakness of will. I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

In this metaphor the rider is Haidt’s rational mind and the elephant is his emotional mind. He says the rider is an advisor or servant, not a king, president or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The rider is conscious, controlled thought. The elephant is everything else. It decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, snap judgments happen constantly and automatically. In Haidt’s metaphor the rider can’t just decide to change and then ask the elephant to go along with the program. Lasting change can come only by retraining the elephant, and that’s hard to do.

Of course much has since been written about retraining the non-rational mind. In fact, so much has been written that you would think we would by now know how to retrain the wild elephant. Our brain/mind apparently has at least two parts or sides: Left brain/right brain, rational/non-rational, fast/slow, System 1/System 2, think long-term and plan vs. instant gratification, rider/elephant, etc.

In their 2010 book Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath expand on Haidt’s metaphor and suggest that to change behavior: you need to direct the rider (give yourself crystal-clear directions), motivate the elephant (engage the emotional side, get the elephant on the path and cooperative) and shape the path (arranging the context to make change more likely). I believe this addition of the path and context is a significant contribution, making the metaphor whole.

I am writing this blog in case some readers may be like me and find metaphoric thinking helpful in rethinking some difficult decisions when we realize we need help. Metaphors invite us to think in ways that are not logical, but novel, creative and revealing. To imagine your rational, logical, slow mind, the rider, and your emotional, irrational, fast mind, the elephant, and also to remember the path and context as significant — may help you think differently and more creatively.

Or here is another elephant/rider metaphor for thinking about your life’s journey.

Humankind traveling through life is like the fly on the back of an elephant who thinks

it is steering. The elephant doesn’t mind, and it makes the ride more enjoyable.

Author unknown



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  1. Gene Unger says:

    I would just get off the damn elephant and go where I want to go. I know I’m smarter than the elephant or else I would be chained up at night and then waiting for a human to feed me. Dumb elephant. Arrogant Gene. See you tomorrow

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Marianne Fontana says:

    I, too, enjoy metaphors and find they help me see things more clearly. However, all the different parts of our brain just made me tired. I think I like the idea of being the fly. Actually, I don’t but at the moment it sounds like a good place to be.

  3. Pingback: METAPHOR MEMORIES | Positive Uncertainty

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