Practicing Finding the Elephant and the Rider


“Practice is the best of all instructors” – Publilius Syrus

Last week at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, I got to hear Dan Heath, coauthor of Switch, speak about change. I loved the book Switch and while a lot of what he spoke about was in the book, it was helpful to hear it, to have it repeated in a way that it started to really take root in my head. Now that the NTC is over, I know that I have to continue to practice identifying the Elephant and the Rider in order to be able to get change to happen. Identifying it in other situations, outside of work, is one of the best ways to do this.

My notes from Dan Heath’s plenary made a lot of references to my thoughts about something that I have accomplished in my life. This past fall I celebrated the milestone of losing over 100  pounds of weight. A diet was an example often mentioned, but my notes took it one step forward and that is with my success with using Weight Watchers.  I am going to walk my way through the change that I have been able to be successful in, using the points that Dan Heath identified, to show that we all things in our life that we have made changes but we may not have identified the elephant and the rider.

One of the easiest ways to start impacting change is by some sort of feeling making the Elephant react. The example that was given was how some organizations can use pity to get a donation. My need to lose this weight happened when I felt that embarrassment and shame that occurred while at an amusement park and I couldn’t fit into the ride. I was sitting in the seat as three men tried to push down the harness, even in the larger seat. That feeling was enough to get my elephant to move. I really saw how large I had become. I felt how it felt to hold up everyone else on that roller coaster and then the shame of having to get up and walk away without ever riding the ride.

The path to my change was made easy on many levels. This was because the management team that I worked for knew that health for the employees was important and they offered to bring the Weight Watchers at Work program into the office. It was easy to just walk down the hallway and go to a meeting with other coworkers. During that first time, everyone was working together. There was no one showing up with donuts and pizza. Most of us were all in Weight Watchers and we helped each other. But Weight Watchers at Work couldn’t be sustained forever, and I needed more than a sixteen week program.


I went back to Weight Watchers the following fall with my mother, knowing that I had success with the program before and that I needed to be there. Plus, Weight Watchers had done a lot of things to help my rider. I think they have so many things in place that helps the Rider know that this is the right way to go. Every week you hear success stories. Most meetings start out with “Who is happy?”. The question isn’t “Who lost weight?” – it’s “Who is happy?”. There are some weeks when I was happy when I didn’t gain weight and that got celebrated with stickers and applause.  Celebrating other’s success was just as important as celebrating mine. As my leader would say almost once a meeting, “If you have had a good week, the meeting needs you. If you have had a bad week, you need the meeting.”

Success stories are the bright spots and they are celebrated vibrantly. Not only with the meetings, but with weekly newsletters that includes tips and stories from others who had been where I was. The Weight Watcher magazine features these stories along with the website. It was absolutely not difficult to find the bright spots. But bright spots weren’t just success stories.

One of the tools you start with at Weight Watchers is a tracker. It’s a food tracker. Now this might not seem like a bright spot, but it can be. If you keep your food trackers and you get into a slump, one of the best tools is to go back to the previous tracker for a week that you were successful in losing weight. You can then follow what you had done in previous weeks (repeat your bright spots) or you can look at the differences between the good weeks and bad weeks and see what things you need to adjust slightly.

Losing weight was so difficult for me. It took over five years in total for me to lose that 100 pounds, but Weight Watchers gave me a path. It was written on food that I bought at the stores (the value of points were right there on the frozen meals). There were times when I even wrote the number of points on the boxes of cereal and other foods as they came into the house. Visually, that number represented a path that I had to take. It made it simple and I didn’t have to force my rider, who could easily be tired, to think about what to do. High numbers were hard to swallow and low numbers were items that I wanted to select.

Weight Watchers isn’t a diet to me, which is probably the biggest identification of a change in my environment. A diet means that I was saying no to things, depriving myself. There are times that I can allow my elephant to have that craving for chocolate and peanut butter, but I have created an environment that puts me back onto the path right after that elephant has been satisfied and gets the rider back into control. This is the way my life is now, it’s not a diet.

Now this has been a simplistic look at one way that I have forced myself to practice identifying the elephant and the rider, but I know that for me to really become an agent of change, especially after I know that I have used the carrot and stick a lot at work, I need the practice. I can’t make the changes that I want to implement without getting really good at this and making it part of the tools that I have in my toolbox. If I don’t know how to use that circular saw, I’ll never get it out – and I believe it is the same with change.


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