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The Emotional Elephant and the Post

A business professional with an insatiable desire to learn and improve.

The Bound Elephant

When elephants are young, their owners will tie them to a fence post. Initially, the baby elephant will pull against the fence post over and over again until it finally gives up, learning that it cannot pull the post. Once this is learned, the elephant never pulls on the post again. When the elephant becomes an adult, the owner will tie it to the same fence post that by now is no match for the behemoth animal, but because the elephant learned as a baby that it cannot win against the fence post, it does not try again as an adult.

This scenario is often used as a metaphor for our lives. We often learn things at a young age, as a new hire, or upon our first time trying something. We will learn that there are things you cannot do and so we stop trying. However, what we are bad at is realizing when the environment has changed. Just like the elephant who does not realize that they are now larger and can thus now pull the fence post out of the ground, we as humans often do not realize that the environment in which we live has changed and do not attempt tasks we previously learned could not be done.

Here's an example: When hired at a new job, we are somewhat dependent upon our manager. we do what the manager says and avoid what the manager tells us not to do. However, when a new manager replaces the old one, it is very difficult for us to stop avoiding the things that the old manager told us not to do. If the original manager did not like us adding color to a PowerPoint, it will take some time before we feel comfortable adding color even if the new manager directly asks us to. Overcoming learned behavior is extremely difficult.


The Emotional Elephant

Daniel Kahneman, in his book "Thinking Fast and Slow" (see link below), produced ground breaking research into how our minds work. He outlines two systems of thinking which he labels as system 1 and system 2, which explain the behaviors in which we make choices. Since "system 1 and system 2" are not interesting titles, he uses the metaphor of an elephant with a rider to explain his point.

To oversimplify his message: System 1 is the rider and system 2 is the elephant. The rider, our logical and rational brain, can guide the elephant but system 2, our emotions and knee-jerk responses, are much faster and difficult to steer. Imagine your emotions, including motivations, drive, grit, and passions, are an elephant. When the elephant is going in the direction that the rider wants, everything is great. But at times the elephant will veer off the path and the rider is helpless to stop it.

The call to action in this book is to understand the methods of steering our emotions, just as elephant riders had to develop methods of steering an elephant. For an elephant, we use techniques such as following a beaten path, making course adjustments early rather than quick pivots, and so on. For ourselves, Daniel Kahneman outlines Heuristics and how to leverage them to impose a more organic control over our impulses.

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The list of Heuristics is lengthy and outside the scope of this article, though I do recommend you look them up. However, the use of the elephant and the rider as a metaphor, given the early story of the elephant being tied to a fence post, is a connection worth diving into.


The Emotional Elephant

Imagine your sense of motivation, your drive, is an elephant. Now imagine that elephant is tied to a fence post. Do you feel like you can break free? Break the chains and go running? Or do you feel that the post is an immovable object and any attempt at fighting it is futile?
Regardless of which way you land, I have one question for you: Why?

Why do you feel that way? What experiences have you had that led you to that answer? When and where have you been encouraged and when and where have you been discouraged? Are you even aware of these events? Chances are you can think of several examples but the most influential ones likely occurred early enough in your life that you cannot form a coherent image of the event. You are significantly shaped by experiences that you don't even recognize as relevant.

Yet there is hope. We are not just the elephant. While our elephant makes up a grand portion of our lives, we also have the rider, the systems 1 thinking. We have the ability to look at the post and re-evaluate our ability to break free of it. All we need do is look. The elephant alone cannot do this, it requires the attention of our rational minds. The challenge for us is to remember when to use it. The challenge is for our rider to focus on the fence post.

Take stock of your life. Take time to sit down and evaluate. Imagine you are an elephant rider sitting down with your elephant and going over everything you have practiced together. Review all the tricks you've learned, all the habits that have served you well in the past, all the lessons you've learned over the accumulated years, and check to see if they are still valid. When it doubt, test it. What harm would an adult elephant face if it pulled against that fence one more time as an adult?

Then, do it again. You may have missed something. Something may have changed since the last time. Periodically check in with life and make sure what you're doing is still right. Make sure your passion is free and not bound by something as insignificant as a stick in the mud.


"Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman

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