Motivating your elephant

You possibly already know that we all have an elephant and a rider. The “elephant” is a metaphor for all the parts of your system that lie outside your own conscious awareness, while the “rider” is that small percentage of your being that you’re consciously aware of – probably less than 5 per cent of your thinking.

The metaphor comes from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.

And there’s another brilliant book which picks up this metaphor and runs with it.

Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath, is subtitled “How to change things when change is hard.” It’s packed with examples of how people around the world have found ways to get elephants and riders working together to make great things happen.

The key elements, as the Heath brothers see them, are:

  • Direct the rider
  • Motivate the elephant
  • Shape the “path” – the route from where we are to where we want to go.

For each of these elements, the brothers have practical approaches to suggest, backed up by solid research and plenty of stories.

It’s an easy read – and it includes plenty of powerful metaphors of its own. One that I particularly like is the idea of a “destination postcard”: that’s a vision of a clear goal, that can easily be shared.

“When you describe a compelling destination, you’re helping to correct one of the Rider’s great weaknesses – the tendency to get lost in analysis… To the Rider, the “analyzing” phase is often more satisfying than the “doing” phase, and that’s dangerous for your switch.

“Notice what happens, though, when you point to an attractive destination: the Rider starts applying his strengths to figuring out how to get there.”

For the Heaths, the advantage of a vivid destination postcard is to direct the rider – but I’m sure they’d also agree that it’s great for motivating the elephant, too. The destination postcard enlists elephant emotions like passion, enthusiasm, and excitement – and the more colourful the image, the more attractive the elephant will find it.

And when you want to help someone (including yourself) discover their destination postcard… you could do a lot worse than the Power Switch technique.


  • Lloyd Johnson


    Great post (as always) Judy! I’m off to take my elephant out for the evening 🙂

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