In Switch, they outline the idea that human behavior is the collective result of three elements working with (or fighting against) each other:

  • The Elephant – the emotional component of decision making (intuition, motivation, and so on);
  • The Rider – the logical component of decision making (analysis, direction, and self-control), and;
  • The Path – the step-by-step, directionality, resources, and roadblocks.

I recently helped my friend with his shed; it had started to rain and water was leaking from broken seals into the shed and encroaching on tools that shouldn’t get wet. A pretty simple problem with a few pretty simple solutions, if you ask me. But to my friend, this was a monumental undertaking which was almost too big for him to tackle. In fact, many simple tasks are this way for him. Why?

His elephant sat on him (or more accurately, his elephant sat on his rider). This is the best analogy I can think of to define the situation; he was so overwhelmed by the number of choices, options, ways to solve the problem, and so on, that it went beyond simple 90mph spinning of wheels or endless analysis into something emotionally paralyzing. Most analytical people – me included – get stuck spinning their wheels, which is certainly frustrating – but not paralyzing.

But for my friend, who was spinning his wheels from the start, it reached a point where even the elephant (or the emotional component of his decision making ability) started to get involved and get overwhelmed, too. It wasn’t frustration, it was irrational, destructive emotion. It was as if the rider and the elephant were completely out of sync – no path, no plan, unlimited choices with no discernible differentiations.

It literally stopped him cold for 30 minutes while rain inched closer and closer to his tools.

Rather than allow the rider to continue the destructive cycle of inaction, his elephant just sat down… on the rider. That is, my friend got so emotional, so negative, that he couldn’t even think about the problem at hand. He just had to feel upset before the limitless options in front of him became one or two, and the path became clear.

The problem is pretty fundamental: analytical people have a very difficult time trusting their intuition. Spock (in this case – the rider) couldn’t make a gut decision any more than McCoy (the elephant) could best Spock in quantum dynamics.

I think there’s a gray area between the two where intuition, balance, and action reside. Not the path, but something akin to Kirk – 50% actionable educated guessing, 25% analytics, 25% emotion. It’s something we can all work on – whether you’re overly emotional or overly analytic. Actionable, educated guessing allows you to learn by doing and grow from your mistakes.

When my friend finally snapped out of his conniption, that was how he did it. Of course, it was 30 minutes later and almost too late to save his tools, but he did arrive at a solution – shortly before it stopped raining.

(Header photo: Sheds by Phil Genera)