Saturday, December 06, 2014

Parenting your Elephant

It is great that we breathe without thinking. It is not great if, without thinking, we don't breathe properly. Our ability to do several things while only being conscious of a few and normally only one (even if the one jumps around) is what makes it so difficult to get computers to do even a fraction of the things that we can do. It also means that sometimes we have to train ourselves. There were quite a few books out on this subject a few years back. My favourite was Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking, fast and slow' although as an incredible storyteller I look forward to Malcolm Gladwell's books with about as much anticipation as I did every new release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 'Blink' deserved that antici          pation.

The best metaphor I have come across to describe this approach to looking at the way we come at life is from Jonathan Haidt. If I could choose one book that I could give a copy to everyone in the world it would be 'The Happiness Hypothesis'. In it he introduces the Rider and the Elephant. The Rider is our conscious mind. This is probably who we most consciously identify with when thinking who we are. The Rider is only in control in the sense that should she choose to, she can train the elephant. Assuming she has developed a good relationship with him. Even if she is a world class trainer, the Elephant's sheer size and power means he is still in moment to moment control. The Rider may have the impression that  when she pulls to the left and the Elephant goes left, it was her decision. In fact, the Elephant does as he pleases and will go left when requested if it is convenient. Should he go right, there is not much to be done. At this stage, she will probably try to explain what he did (PR manager), justify what he did (Lawyer) or sulk.

Why I find this idea so powerful is that in part it allows you to distance your identity from your actions. Particularly the ones you are less proud of or can't shake. It is empowering. Forming habits and learning to slowly train our Elephants in order to release their magic is possible. If you break a year down into a series of months and days and moments, you can identify your habits. You can plot. You can tweak. I imagine though, that in order to train your Elephant, you also have to be kind to him. You have to treat him with the same compassion that we treat children. We give them time and we try identify and build up their strengths. Parents often talk of their need to act in various roles for their kids. Perhaps the role of encouraging parent can be added to the portfolio of PR Manager and Lawyer for our own Rider.
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