Elephant & Rider


"What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind" - Buddha

This quote has stood out to me for years. I love it. It is that constant reminder that my past does not determine my future; that if I want to see change it must start with my thoughts. This is what started me on my journey of self-exploration and eventually starting my personal coaching business. I became intoxicated by the idea that change starts with thoughts, but equally stumped by the process of actually changing my habitual thoughts. 

Research shows that approximately 40% of the activities you engage in each day are habits. It makes sense. It takes a lot of brain power to consciously work through something that is new or unfamiliar, and if that was the case for everything, all day everyday, we would be depleted and exhausted way quicker than necessary. 

As a personal coach and lover of the brain, I work a lot with understanding habits and retraining the brain to create new habits that serve who you are. We form new habits constantly, consciously and unconsciously. This started at a young age before we knew ourselves and who we wanted to be as an adult. So naturally, there are a lot of habits that are in your repertoire that actually don't serve you well. The first step, acknowledge those habits and confidently state that this is not the way you want to show up in the world anymore. 

Another fascinating statistic tells us that the average person will think anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts in a day (depending on how deep of a thinker you are). And of these thoughts, 70-80% of them are negative, self-defeating, or self-deflating. Talk about a habit that could really use an upgrade. 

One thing I have found to be pivotal in the retraining of my brain is understanding my brain, how it works, why it does certain things, and what metaphors are helpful to obverse the workings of the brain without wasting much energy on judgment, shame, guilt, or any other unnecessary negative emotion that surges cortisol and consequently takes over all of the bodily functions. 

Which brings me to my favorite metaphor that has helped me get to know my brain and understand how to gently guide it in the direction that I choose. 

You may be familiar with that feeling of "loss of control". That feeling when you know how you want to act or what you want to say, but then you go ahead and do something completely different. Suddenly it feels like there is more than one Self inside you, directing you along your path. Well, that's because there is. 

Jonathan Haidt, in "The Happiness Hypothesis" introduces us to the Elephant and the Rider, two parts of equal importance inside that beautiful brain of yours. 

The Elephant is the "old part" of the brain. The part of the brain that we have in common with all other mammals. It is our automatic system, our habits, our reactions, our impulses, all driven by natural bodily functions guiding us towards rewards or things that promote survival and away from uncertainty or anything that has a potential threat to our survival. 

Your Elephant is your Limbic System, it is automatic, subconscious, programmed, emotional, over-reactive, and thrives on prestige and "feel good now".

Haidt says,

"The automatic system (aka Elephant) has its finger on the dopamine release button. The controlled system (aka the Rider), in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It's a rider placed on the elephant's back to help the elephant make better choices"

The Rider is the Cortex, or the "new" part of the brain (evolved later in our history of becoming human beings). The Rider can be understood as our Reason or Rationality, our "second thought", concerned with long-term happiness, it's pragmatic, focused on growth and learning, the planner, and the tendency to over-analyze. The part of the brain that brings critical thought, awareness, and a higher sense of consciousness into our reality. The Rider allows us the ability to make choices aligned with who we truly want to be versus who we were raised, programmed, and accidentally habituated to be.

To make matters more difficult,  Loretta Breuning in "Meet Your Happy Chemicals" explains, 

"Your cortex [i.e. the Rider] sees the world as a chaos of raw detail until your limbic system [i.e. your Elephant] labels things as "good" or "bad" for you [by spurting happy or unhappy chemicals]...The limbic system can't process language. When you talk to yourself, it's all in your cortex. The limbic system never tells you in words why it is spurting a happy or unhappy chemical." (You project meaning and create stories after your Limbic System first reacts).

The limbic system (aka the Elephant) spurts chemicals based on programming and experience. If there is some uncertainty ahead, cortisol is spurted to grab our attention and signal to the body that this is a potential threat. Our cortex (Rider) receives this signal and then has to decide to listen and retreat or observe and proceed anyways. This becomes complicated when we have habits of thought and actions that are familiar but that are actually not in accordance to our core values or how we want to show up. It becomes a battle of sorts, chemicals spurting and the Rdier consistently taking in the signals and consciously choosing what path to take.

Loretta Breuning highlights this potential mixed signalling,

"Can eating a donut fix a career or romantic setback? From your limbic brain's perspective, it can....When donuts trigger happy chemicals (because fat and sugars are scarce in nature) a neural pathway is paved. You may not act on it because you also know the consequences and you've built other "do something" pathways. But it remains in your mammal brain's arsenal of survival strategies."

Understanding these two separate but harmonious parts of our brain will allow you to take a step back and observe your thoughts, reactions, emotions, and triggers with a new sense of appreciation. You cannot force the Elephant to do what the Rider wants to do. You have to coax it, gently guide it, work with it, work as a team. 


Dan and Chip Heath in their easily digested book "Switch" digs deep into this metaphor and develops an application to harness your Elephant and create direction for your Rider. 

"The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings" - Haidt


Our Elephant is emotional and impulsive. When you have a clear vision for what you are working towards, a deep felt purpose in your daily pursuits, and an overall sense of Happiness, your Rider can be much more convincing and your Elephant becomes easier to tame. So focus on scripting critical moves for your Rider to follow, have a clear detination in mind, each day by setting an Intention and setting Actions to allow yourself to see and feel progress. Convince yourself that radical change is needed and commit to the process, and your Elephant will become motivated as well.


The metaphor uses the imagery of an elephant for a reason; when it feels stuck, it really feels stuck. There is no dragging or pushing this 6 ton elephant in any direction. It needs to be motivated. Engage in activities each day that boost your dopamine. Bring some fun and pleasure into your daily routine. Incorporate positive self-talk into your morning to set the tone for the day and to spend some time coaxing that elephant. Acknowledge small-wins and take time to feel proud after moments of bravery or hurdles you overcome. The Elephant likes to feel good, so take time to breathe in your accomplishments and surround yourself with fun and positivity. 


Set yourself up for success by setting goals for the not so distant future. What are the stepping stones along this journey? What actions can you complete each day to see and feel progress? When there is a direction and stepping stones, your Elephant and Rider have tangible points that they are working towards. Tweak the environment when necessary, surround yourself with inspiring people, and tackle one habit at a time. 

And remember, repetition is key:

"Building new circuits in adulthood is like trying to slash a new trail through dense rain forest. Every step takes huge effort, and the new trail disappears into the undergrowth if you don't use it again soon. Such trail-blazing feels inefficient and downright unsafe when a nice superhighway is nearby. That is why people tend to stick with the pathway they have." - Loretta Breuning


Take some time to write out your key takeaways from this post. What stands out? What are you curious about? Commit to coming back to your notes or to this blog on a regular basis to remind yourself of these tools and this metaphor. Repetition begins by simply bringing something into your awareness each day. Start with small incremental steps. Do this daily and allow the practice to evolve through trial and error, practice, conversations, and reflecting and writing. Allow yourself to be curious, open, and receptive to the process and love the journey that you are embarking on.