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Brilliant Ways to Create Positive Change

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Brilliant Ways to Create Positive Change

By Chip and Dan Heath, Experience Life

Many of us have acted in ways we wish to change, or have created habits that don’t align with our future goals. You’ve likely experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on.

These are all situations in which our emotional side overpowers our rational side — the Elephant overpowers the Rider.

It is helpful to think about how we can affect positive change through a metaphor used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books, 2006). He argues that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the 6-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched. Hence, we sleep in, overeat, call our ex, etc.

Most successful changes share a common pattern. They require the leader of the change to do three things at once: Direct the Rider; motivate the Elephant; and shape the Path.

The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being fit). When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs. Such change attempts get scuttled when the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.

The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment. But what may surprise you is that the Elephant also has enormous strengths and the Rider has crippling weaknesses.

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Megan, selected from Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

110 comments

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5:30PM PST on Dec 15, 2012

Great article...thankyou!! Interesting metaphor.

8:12PM PDT on May 21, 2012

this is a great metaphor to work with. I am going to keep it in mind and use it to affect the positive changes in the future

3:22AM PST on Nov 22, 2011

Thank you! I'll be keeping hold of this one.

10:41PM PDT on Oct 9, 2011

thanks

8:14PM PDT on Aug 19, 2011

I enjoyed visualing the rider and elephant...

2:12AM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

Yup - very nicely presented and some good ideas in there I wouldn't have automatically thought about.
Thank you.

11:13AM PDT on Aug 6, 2011

Thank you for this article, Megan. :-)

9:30AM PDT on Aug 6, 2011

Excellent! One of the best articles provided on this website. Thank you.

3:54AM PDT on Aug 4, 2011

Great article!! Enjoyed reading it and I've heard a few of these points, but not so well presented and linked. Thanks... will spread the word to my friends. We all need to manifest positive change :)

2:48AM PDT on Aug 2, 2011

thnks

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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