listen to the elephant sometimes

Hardest-Working Rider in Blogging

One of the hottest bloggers in the field of personal development, Cal Newport, is also reading The Happiness Hypothesis, and like me the idea of the conscious “rider” trying to coerce the subconscious “elephant” to go where we need to go resonates with him.

His recent post on Why you should never plan to “get some work done” was one that I thought I’d agree with. He related how he unexpectedly got a chunk of unscheduled time and saw it as a chance for some bonus productivity.

At the end of the three hours, though, he discovered that he had filled the time with logistical planning and emails and other busy-work. In other words, he’d been given this opportunity and felt it had been wasted. Up to this point I was right with him; if you’re given a “bonus” period of time, then using it to do the same stuff you’d do any other time is kind of a missed opportunity.

Then he lost me.

It’s the Elephant’s Fault

But it took only one afternoon free from structure to reaffirm what I know to be true. The elephant of your working mind has no interest in bringing you to where you need to go. It will always default to the watering hole of shallow busyness if not reined with confidence.

This idea seems to me to be at odds with one of the major points Haidt made, about the fact that the elephant has been around a lot longer than the rider (evolutionarily speaking). “The rider evolved to serve the elephant“, he writes, and further:

We sometimes fall into the view that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing. We are the rider, and we are the elephant. Both have their strengths and special skills.

The rider blaming the elephant for busy-work? Really? You really think that the thing your subconscious wants to do when given unrestricted freedom is answer emails? I’m not sure I’m buying that.

The Place for Passion

When I start an open space, I usually open with something like this:

Before we start talking about how today is going to work, I’d like you to start thinking about one thing in the back of your mind. It’s that thing that you really care about. It’s the thing that gets you excited – the thing that brought you here today, that got you out of bed this morning, that set your entire life on the path towards getting what you want. Just let that grow…that thing that makes the lizard brain in the back of your head go “Yeah!”

And then I proceed to create and hold a space where they can explore exactly that thing.

To my mind, what Cal missed in his unscheduled time was a chance to listen to the elephant. He is known to be against the idea of “follow your passion”, so I understand that for his “scheduled time” it’s important to him not to just go with it.

But I also know from his writings that he isn’t anti-passion; he just believes it has a place. I think that place, if nowhere else, should be the unscheduled time. It’s as simple as saying “Huh. I don’t have to do anything for the next little while…what do I want to do?” I know that in today’s busy world we don’t get that too often. Heck, that’s why people pay me to run Open Spaces; for some reason they need a special name and a facilitator to give them permission to follow their passion.

While I’d love to get paid for what I do, it’s sad to me that people need permission. I think that you can make a practice of coupling those unexpected moments of free time with asking the deeper self: What do I really want?

The Cliff

There’s another reason to listen to the elephant. . I don’t ride horses myself, but I’ve heard many stories of riders who thought they were heading in the right direction who were corrected – and often saved – by the instinctive knowledge of their mounts. Perhaps I’m wrong – and if you’re a reader who rides, please chime in and let me know – but I think a rider who ignores the feedback from their vehicle, whether it’s grinding brakes or balking elephants, won’t be riding very well.

Maybe this can be a week of trying to practice listening to the elephant. Of finding out where it wants to go, on the off chance that it’s a direction worth exploring. If you can’t trust your gut entirely, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth listening to occasionally. And I bet it gets better with practice.

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