I was a very serious kid. Once I knew I wanted something, I just did what I had to do to get it. The leadership training I got in Junior Achievement made a lot of sense: Set Goals. Write Them Down. Do Something Each Day to Achieve Your Goals. If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It.
As a young adult, I became less driven. I was happier and more relaxed. As one friend put it, I was more human. Yet I was disappointed that I had lost the ability to pursue and achieve my goals, like writing a novel, losing weight, getting married, or making more money.
I was mystified. How could I want something and not go get it? Here is how it was supposed to work: I am conscious of a desire. I figure out how to achieve it. I work at it. I get it. Boom, bang, done. What could be simpler or more logical? How could it not work?
I was even more mystified when I went on strike. Yes, I went on strike against myself. “Time to exercise,” I say to myself. “Nope, I’m not going.” myself says back to me. “Why not? Your goal is to lose weight!” I remind myself. “Don’t care,” myself reminds me.
What was this, split personality disorder? How could I be so disagreeable to myself? I was sure I was mentally deficient.
Then one day, I started losing weight. I stopped working against myself suddenly, as if the “Brat” switch inside my head simply clicked to “Off.” And it wasn’t because I discovered acai berries or kickboxing–I was doing the things I had tried before, but had failed. But what had changed? I remained mystified.
Then I read The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. That’s the book that introduced the concept of the Rider and the Elephant that the Heath brothers explore in their book Switch. The mystery was solved. It had been my logical brain, known as the Rider, cracking the whip to achieve my goals. And my animal brain, characterized by the Elephant, was the one sabotaging me–it hadn’t been Satan, or a mental disorder, or a deeply buried counter-desire rooted in my murky past.
The Elephant is the side of our brains that only knows reflex, emotion, and physical needs. It’s the Elephant that had wanted to eat the cookie or blow off yoga class, despite my stated desire to lose weight. And it’s the Elephant that got on board when I did start losing weight. That was the switch in my head. Get to know anyone who achieves a big goal, and you’ll see a happy Elephant.
So today, instead of believing myself to be deranged when I work against my own desires, I acknowledge my Elephant. Today, character development is no longer a futile exercise in strengthening my Rider brain to become more and more self-disciplined–as many self-help gurus would have me do. Instead, I seek to build integrity by teaching the Rider how to feed the Elephant just right.
The Rider+Elephant dynamic shakes up our assumptions about self-improvement, and our reliance on goals and planning. It explains why strictly self-disciplined habits never last. (Where is your Stephen Covey/7 Habits day planner today?)
I, for one, got tired of beating my head on a brick wall, trying to build character by being strict with myself. The old way has taken me through many cycles of bootstrapped new habits and demoralizing defeat.
Instead, I listen to my Elephantine resistance to change, and then use the logical Rider side of my brain to guide me, and myself, along.