What Riding an Elephant Taught me About Self-Improvement
The changes that lead to a better, more prosperous life start simple and small
By Maya Hu-Chan
This article was originally published on Inc.com
A few years ago, while on a business trip to Thailand, I rode an elephant to explore a nearby jungle area. I soon realized he was very headstrong. If I wanted to turn right, he seemed determined to turn left. Despite my valiant efforts to tug and pull the elephant to go where I wanted to go, he had a mind of his own. I realized that things would not go my way unless I learned how to communicate with him.
I believe the elephant is the perfect metaphor for mindset and the ability to change. In her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Carol Dweck defines the term as a set of beliefs or a way of thinking that determines one’s behavior, outlook and mental attitude. Just like the elephant’s will determined his direction, our mindset determines our behaviors, and, ultimately, our success in life.
As an executive coach, speaker and global leadership educator, I frequently see clients make small changes that result in incredible payoffs, like higher productivity, improved family life, reduced stress, and business growth. In each case, the first step is the same: changing mindset.
The steps that follow are simple, too. The following tips can guide you as you make small changes that lead to a better, more successful life.
1. Make it a habit
Three years ago, I decided to get in better shape. I often travel for work, and, when I did, I would abandon any fitness routine I had started. I also had young children, and was convinced I was too busy to exercise.
How can I create an exercise routine that is quick, effective, and can be done anywhere, anytime? Baby steps. I started by getting up 30 minutes early, doing 15 minutes of push-ups, sit-ups, squats, jumping jacks, and light yoga, and then meditating for another 15. I did this Monday through Friday, no matter where in the world I was.
Soon, this became a habit — a habit I have now kept up for three years. This habit has led to immense changes in my physical, mental, and spiritual health, and it all started with a simple change in mindset.
2. Change one small thing at a time
One of my clients, Aditya, is a brilliant engineer with a global IT giant. At the young age of 35, he had been promoted frequently throughout his career, and soon became a director. He was not only managing a large business unit, but managing collaboration between teams, too.
An introvert by nature, Aditya rarely expressed gratitude towards his coworkers. He said, “They are just doing their job! I don’t constantly seek recognition from other people, what is the big deal?”
Soon, he found his career at a plateau. As his coach, I shared the feedback that his peers and team members perceived him as arrogant and rude and did not see him as qualified to move up. He was convinced his coworkers hated him, and there was nothing he could do to change how they felt.
I challenged Aditya to think of one thing he could do differently to improve relationships with his coworkers and change their negative perception of him. After a few minutes of reflection, he said, “Maya, I guess I need to say thank-you more often. Not only in emails, but in person, too — and tell people why I appreciate them.”
At first, he was skeptical that such a small change in behavior could make a difference. I encouraged him to try it for a few weeks.
One month later, Aditya was pleasantly surprised people were responding quickly to his emails. He was being invited to lunch. His cross functional peers seemed happy to do things for his team, and that helped everyone’s productivity.
If I had told Aditya to change how his employees felt about him, he wouldn’t have succeeded. That kind of large, broad directive is almost impossible to execute. Instead, Aditya made one small, easily actionable change, and it had a big impact.
3. Be consistent
Consistency was a key to success for both myself and Aditya. I didn’t exercise for 30 minutes every other day — I did it every day.
Aditya consistently expressed gratitude to his coworkers. At first, saying thank-you felt awkward and unnatural, because it was a new behavior for Aditya. But, through repetition and consistency — and, by making sure his thank-yous were sincere — expressing gratitude became second nature.
Self-improvement — and the personal and professional benefits that come from it — is possible for all of us. As it turns out, it is possible for elephants, too. By the end of my ride, I had learned that dangling bamboo in front of the elephant was a sure way to get his attention and entice him to move in another direction. He went through a change, and so did I.