Elephant & Rider: A Tale of Motivation

As a sports coach, one of my jobs is to help motivate.  I suppose, ideally, each person would find her own motivation, but we all have days when we are a bit off, so I know that at any given practice, at least one person will not be at her best.  And some days,  the whole team might be suffering from a general malaise.  Sigh. . . .

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, author Jonathan Haidt writes about a Buddhist metaphor for motivation.  The conscious mind is the rider, and the unconscious mind is the elephant.  As the logical one, the rider is able to see the big picture, to plan, and to reason.  The elephant, then, represents emotions and impulses.

Bottom line is that each of us needs to learn how to train our elephant.  By being patient and not necessarily acting on our emotional impulses, we can find the key to motivation and self-improvement.

One of the things that helps me train my own elephant is to find that which is greater than the “quick fix.”  Remember, that emotionally-driven elephant is a heckuva lot bigger than the rider.  So I have to find something REALLY compelling to keep that elephant on the road I choose.

In a sports setting, I can use motivators that might seem a little negative or taunting.  For example, I might push an athlete by asking, “What are YOU going to do for this team?  What are YOU going to give RIGHT NOW?”  I often encourage my team members to find out what they are made of, to push more than they thought they could give.

But in a personal setting, when you don’t have a coach yelling in your ear, how do you dig down deep and wrangle that elephant?  Are you able to focus on that big-picture goal and wisely and gently keep your elephant’s eyes on the true prize?

Who guides your actions, elephant or rider?


4 responses

    • Hmmmmmm…… so the rider represents the conscious mind or the intellect, and the elephant represents the unconscious or one’s emotions. Perhaps you could clarify your comment please? I can see that the rider would necessarily be guided by the lay of the land; that’s kind of the point. As the rider, he has the benefit of the “big picture.” As for the elephant, are you saying that he (i.e. your emotions) is exactly in sync with your rider?

  1. Aimee, two good points. Almost in evertthing I do, I believe there is a emotional connection or the elephant. Since money may be tight, trying to live more simply and what is good for my body, I have been asking myself if my decisions are emotional and as big as a elephant. The rider will always will be there, it depends who or what chooses to come along.

    • I think you hit upon the right idea, Susan. WHEN those moments come up, ask if your decisions are based on emotion or not. That can be tricky, though! Sometimes it is hard to be rational when that emotional elephant gets really loud!!

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