Carville: How to Ride an Elephant – Part II |

Carville: How to Ride an Elephant – Part II

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

Last time we discussed the disconnect that often occurs when we try to make a change in our lives. Our rational side tends to think in terms of the future (I want to be thin.), while our emotional side likes to live in the present (I want an Oreo – now!). In the book “SWITCH” by Chip and Dan Heath, they use the analogy of a rider to represent the rational planning side of our brain and an elephant to represent the emotional side. The rider plans the direction and the elephant provides the energy.

However, if the rider and the elephant disagree, then there’s a real problem. No matter how hard the rider tugs at the reins, the elephant will go where it wants, and the rider’s plans are dashed. Today we will discuss three ways to direct the rider to work with the elephant to create change with examples taken from “SWITCH” to help illustrate the point.

Find the bright spots.

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. In 1990, Jerry Sternin worked for Save The Children, an international organization that helps children in need. Sternin’s assignment was to fight malnutrition in Vietnam. He had no public health experience, a meager staff, a shoestring budget, and didn’t speak the language. When Jerry arrived, the government liaison told him he had six months to make a difference.

Sternin knew he would not able to address the root causes of malnutrition: poverty, sanitation infrastructure, lack of clean drinking water and education about proper nutrition. So what did Sternin do? He looked for bright spots — successful efforts worth emulating. He travelled to local villages and asked mothers, “Did you find any very, very poor kids who are bigger and healthier than the typical child?”

The women nodded, “Yes, yes.”

Sternin talked to dozens of people from various villages. Two things became clear. The healthier kids ate approximately the same number of calories but their food was divided into four smaller meals instead of two larger meals. This was important because the malnourished kids were better able to digest smaller portions and derived more nutrients from their meals. Second, the bright spot mothers were mixing in tiny shrimp and crabs and sweet potato greens from the rice paddies into their kids’ meals. These foods were considered “low class” by most mothers, but the extra protein and nutrients made all the difference.

Now Jerry had to spread the word about what worked. He knew that the local people would be resistant to his efforts to educate them, so he asked the bright spot mothers to go to the various villages and spread the word. The program reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages succeeding where well funded, heavily staffed international organizations had failed.

There is often an asymmetry between the size of the problem and the scale of the solution. Find the little things that are working in your life and do more of them. Remember, bright spots are specific to you.

Script the critical moves.

Steve Booth-Butterfield and Bill Reger, two health researchers from West Virginia University, were contemplating ways to persuade people to eat a healthier diet. While the benefits of a healthy diet are clear enough, how to do so is anything but clear. Which foods should people stop or start eating? Low fat or low carb? Weight watchers or Jenny Craig? Switch to diet Coke or just drink less soda?

As the two researchers brainstormed, they kept returning to milk. Most people drink milk, and while it is a rich source of nutrients, it is also the single largest source of fat in the typical American diet. They ran some calculations and discovered that if people switched from whole milk to 1 percent milk, they could attain the USDA recommended levels of saturated fat.

Booth-Butterfield and Reger didn’t try to change behaviors and attitudes about diet. Instead they launched a media campaign that asked people to make one crystal clear change – drink 1 percent milk. The ads were punchy and specific. One ad trumpeted the fact that one glass of whole milk has as much saturated fat as five strips of bacon. The ads were clear and specific, providing concise direction to the rider while at the same time producing an “oh gross” emotional factor that appeals to the elephant, thereby motivating the two to work together toward a common goal.

Make a list of the top 10 things you can do to affect a certain change. You don’t need a complete battle plan; you just need to take some steps toward your final destination. Buying 1 percent milk didn’t solve the diet problems of the country, but it was a good first step.

Point to the destination.

Change is easier when you know where you’re going and why it’s worth it. Crystal Jones was assigned to teach the first grade at an elementary school in Atlanta. The skill gaps in her students were daunting. Many had never attended kindergarten, so this would be their first year in school. Many of her students didn’t know the alphabet or numbers and ranked in the lowest percentile of learning. She knew she needed to write lesson plans and activities (script the moves).

Crystal knew she needed to speak to the kids in their language. She announced to her class that by the end of their first year in school they would all be third graders (not literally, of course, but they would be at third-grade skill level). This was a goal tailor made for a first-grade psyche. First-graders know very well that third graders are bigger, smarter and cooler. She also cultivated a culture of learning and called her students “scholars” and asked that they address each other that way, too.

By the end of the year, 90 percent of the kids were reading at the third-grade level. What Crystal Jones created was a destination postcard — a vivid, gut-smacking picture of the near-term future. Can you paint a vivid picture of your best future?

Take out a sheet of paper and write down one change you want to make in your life. Now draw three columns with the following headings: Bright Spots, Critical Moves, Destination. Take about no more than 10 minutes each day for the next three days and write down everything you can think of that relates to the changes you want make in each category. Very quickly you will have a good plan of action that can be used to direct “your” rider. Next time, we will discuss how to inspire the elephant to follow the rider’s plan.

Mike Carville is a NASM/RKC certified Fitness Coach and co-owner of South Yuba Club in Nevada City and Grass Valley ( Please contact him at:

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