“The mind is a wild elephant.” The Buddha

“When change works, the people have clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment. In other words, it’s because the Rider, the Elephant, and the path are all aligned in support of the switch.” Chip Heath and Dan Heath in SWITCH (2010).

I believe the elephant wins the prize as the most frequent metaphor. Probably the most popular elephant metaphor is The Six Blend Men and the Elephant. This was written by John Godfrey Saxe in 1872. My favorite is by Jonathan Haidt In his 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis. He 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.”

This metaphoric image of change is revealing. Change happens by us and change happens to us. Sometimes we are no match for the change that happens to us. I have frequently said: ‘We need to be as capable of change as the environment” When the rider and the elephant are in snick, change is possible. But sometimes we can’t be that capable. At times, we are no match for the Elephant. 

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 complete. And making change more likely is also an advantage.

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. 

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.” Unknown

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  1. Marianne says:

    Using metaphors to explain life situations is always helpful to me. Maybe I need to think of one now to help me make sense of the emotions I am experiencing with this life change. Helpful thought. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything.

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