How to Explode Creativity: The Conscious Rider and the Subconscious Elephant
Over many years of speaking on the power of the mind I searched for the ideal metaphor to describe the conscious and subconscious. For a short period I used Plato’s imagery in Phaedrus, in which Socrates refers to our conscious, rational self as a charioteer who is holding on to the reins of two horses, one disciplined and the other unruly, which together represent our subconscious. The weakness in Plato’s metaphor is that he assumed the conscious mind, the charioteer, had far more control over the subconscious than it actually does. Nevertheless, it was quite an insight, particularly considering that brain science did not even exist yet!
Then, for some years I described the subconscious mind as “computerlike” and the conscious mind as the “programmer.” That all changed, though, when I received a call from a close colleague. It was with great enthusiasm that he suggested I read the new book by Chip and Dan Heath entitled Switch. “You must read this,” he exclaimed. “This book supports everything you believe and will expand your ideas on how you teach.” He was right.
In Switch, the Heath brothers present a clear and concise picture of how to manage change. But it was their vivid and easily understood metaphor for the conscious and subconscious minds (the Rider and the Elephant) that prompted me to reexamine my approach to describing the workings of the human mind.
What was even more impressive was that they gratefully acknowledged borrowing this delightful metaphor from University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s impressive book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. “Haidt explains,” the Heaths wrote, “that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small compared to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.”
This description resonated deeply within me, at least partly because, while visiting India several years ago, I had the opportunity to ride an elephant, and it was one extremely edgy experience. Although I had received some instruction in signaling to the elephant the direction in which I wanted it to move, despite my best efforts, that elephant did just what it wanted to do, and I had only as much control as it allowed me to have. I felt very small and insignificant. As a result, when I subsequently read Haidt’s book, I found myself viewing the principles I teach through a different lens, and began to refer to the subconscious and the conscious as the “Elephant” and the “Rider.”
In order to help you develop your own insight into how our two minds work, I have listed below what I consider to be the ten most important characteristics of the conscious Rider and of the subconscious Elephant. These characteristics fit neatly within working as a coach and using the tools of visualization and hypnosis for peak performance.
Remember that the Rider is the rational side, which needs focus, and the Elephant is the emotional side, which needs motivation and direction. Remember, also, that both have strengths and weaknesses. The greater understanding you have of their characteristics, the more you will be able to help them stay out of each other’s way and work in harmony.
THE CONSCIOUS RIDER
- is the creative visionary who can imagine alternative paths of choice, and is proficient at crafting mental movies of possible futures.
- is a master storyteller, even if many of the stories are complete fabrications.
- can proactively direct the imagination to influence the Elephant.
- is our rational, reflective side, what is often referred to as our “inner voice,” “mind chatter,” “inner dialogue,” or “self-talk.”
- thinks it is in charge but is actually always at the whim of the Elephant, and because it has limited reserves of energy, can easily become exhausted from trying to override the Elephant’s power.
- can see both problems and opportunities, but since it has a natural tendency to see mostly the negative, it often focuses on solving problems rather than searching out opportunities.
- is overanalytical, easily paralyzed in the face of uncertainty, and often overwhelmed when presented with too many choices.
- is a master of rationalization and justification, and can almost instantaneously make up logical reasons when overridden by the Elephant’s ingrained habits.
- is able to delay immediate gratification because it is willing to make short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs.
- can only see its reflection or know itself with the help of other Riders or by using tools for introspection.
THE SUBCONSCIOUS ELEPHANT
- is the heavy lifter, taking care of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, respiration rate, digestion, etc.), and freeing up the Rider to do what it does best—think, contemplate, create stories, and visualize.
- is the core of our emotional self, and therefore reacts very strongly to emotions and feelings, especially those of fear and love.
- does not think, contemplate, or reflect in the traditional sense but, rather, reacts with absolutes, constantly and automatically deciding between right or wrong, good or bad, left or right, flight or fight, etc.
- cannot tell the difference between a real experience and one imagined by the Rider.
- is extremely suggestible.
- is basically in charge of our choices and actions, but can be influenced by the Rider when presented with emotionally charged, vivid, crystal-clear, and easily understood directions in the form of pictures and images.
- is fearful, skittish, and programmed with the basic default setting for survival.
- does not like to take risks, think out of the box, or follow “the road less traveled,” so when the future is uncertain it always follows a familiar path.
- is fundamentally lazy, always wants the quick payoff of instant gratification, and is accordingly unwilling to make long-term sacrifices for short-term gains.
- responds to suggestions given by the Rider that are clear, precise, realistic, and logical, and is more comfortable moving on a different path when taking small steps.
It might help you to think of the Rider as a new chief operating officer (COO) of a large and complex company, and the Elephant as the entrenched, unspoken, and underlying rules that guide the organization.
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