The Elephant and the Rider

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In life, we embrace a lot of changes — new place, new job, new technology, new boss, marriage, the birth of a kid. Yet, we resist certain other kind of changes like trying to quit smoking, dieting, going to the gym everyday, waking up early in the morning etc. In most cases, the latter is due to a conflict/ disagreement between the mind (the rational side) and the heart (the emotional side). You’ve also experienced this if you’ve overeaten, dialed up or text-ed your ex after midnight, procrastinated, skipped a piano class or gotten angry and said something that you regretted.

This is analogous to that of an elephant and the rider — the mind being the rider and the heart being the elephant. When both the mind (rider) and the heart (elephant) are in agreement, the mind thinks that it is in control. However, when there is a conflict or disagreement between the two, then the huge animal (heart or instinct) overpowers the rider. In some cases, the rider gets his way temporarily but eventually the rider gets exhausted and gives up (exactly what happens whenever you’re using willpower).

The emotional side is the elephant and the rational side is the rider. The rider is so small compared to the elephant and anytime there is a disagreement between the two, there’s no doubt who is the winner.

The rider (mind) provides planning and direction — it thinks long term. However, one problem of the rider is that it contemplates the options endlessly and loses direction. If you’ve ever spent too much time planning and finally ended up doing nothing — it’s because of the rider. If you want to lose weight, the rider contemplates on various options — running in the morning, gym after work, no lattes at Starbucks in the morning or no fried stuff for dinner. In order to direct the rider — you need to be more specific and give it clear directions — I’m going to lose 1 pound a week by going to the gym for 30 minutes after work on Mondays, Wednesday and Friday.

While the rider provides the plan, the elephant is the one that finally gets the job done. Emotion — love, compassion, sympathy and loyalty, is the elephant’s strength as it has the energy and the drive. However, our emotional or instinctive side usually optimizes for a quick payoff (eating ice-cream) over long-term benefit (staying fit). So when you need to change your behavior, you need to motivate the elephant or appeal to your heart — maybe have a weighing machine in your bathroom or use a Fitbit to track your daily activity.

For real change, we need to appeal to both the rider and the elephant. I’ve found this analogy to be really useful — something that I can easily relate to and one which has helped me achieve some of the changes mentioned above.

Kaushik Rangadurai

Code. Learn. Explore

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