Are you a rider or an elephant?

I’ve been re-reading Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch recently.  I am always struck by the stories they tell of a single person, taking a small step, and having such a huge impact. Yes, one person and a small step can make a difference. Whether it’s impacting childhood malnutrition in Vietnam or saving money on the bottom line, it can happen. Isn’t that the kind of impact we’d all like to have? I one person can do it, if all of us could do it, just imagine the possibilities!  It’s daunting.

Their simple method of change is Direct the rider, Motivate the elephant, and Shape the path.  “What?” you ask?  Yes.  Riders are great at seeing the goal, the objective and doing all the analysis on what to do.  But sometimes the riders get stuck in analysis paralysis and fail to get anywhere.  The elephant on the other hand, is motivated by emotion. Give them a strategy and they will execute it with the proper emotional drive.  The path, well that’s simply the ‘how we’re going to get there’. The book explains it beautiful, so if you’re interest is piqued, get a copy and read it.

There are days when I’m definitely the rider. I love to collect data, analyze all the possibilities and can get stuck. But present that emotional motivation and I quickly become the elephant, taking action and getting it done. The trick is to find the balance. Recognize when you’re being the rider and find the motivation to become the elephant. I’m applying this concept to personal behavior just as the Heath’s apply it to organizational change management. Small steps, taken deliberately (the path), can have a huge impact on your life, your work, your happiness.

When I think back on the past two years, I can see I was the rider for the first year. I knew I needed to do something. I thought, reflected, discussed, read, and generally pondered all the options for almost a year. But, I reached that point where the emotions of where I was overtook me. I became the elephant. And any of you who were on that ride with me saw the impact of that transformation. I went from stagnancy to full steam ahead. In early March, 2013, I reached the decision to return to Seattle, quit my job, sold my house and arrived back in Seattle before Memorial Day. That’s a quick transformation. It didn’t happen because of all the analysis I’d done, although that certainly helped. It was that moment I reached where I knew I had no other choice for my life – the emotion. Once that overtook the analysis, there was no stopping me and I shaped my path.

I continue to watch for my inner rider and inner elephant to show up. When I’m in a situation that doesn’t feel right, I begin to ask myself which role I’m playing. Being in the wrong role at any given time is usually what is making me feel uneasy. It’s a great barometer for me. I’m eager to try the same philosophy with an organization one day. Hopefully, that opportunity will present itself. Find a rider and direct him, motivate that elephant, shape the path and watch the change that will follow!


About Andrea Cole

Four years ago, I followed my dreams and my heart by quitting my job, selling my home, and moving myself back to Seattle from Washington, DC. I didn't know how things would turn out, but I knew whatever life held in store for me, it was going to be in Seattle. And what a ride it has been! I now help others live their lives through rewarding career and meaningful retirement coaching. My website is
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