What Elephants Can Teach Us About Personal Development


We share something very unique with elephants. Though they’re one of the strongest animals on the planet, elephants can be constrained with the smallest sticks and ropes.

In Southeast Asia, elephants are still used as a mode of transportation. Tourist are often amazed at the fact that the elephant handlers use small ropes tied to the ground with tiny sticks to keep an elephant in place.

The reason this works is because the handlers tie the elephants to huge trunks with large ropes when they are young. The young elephants pull and tug and fight until they tire out, and they soon learn that they cannot move when tied up.

The handlers then use increasingly smaller ropes and sticks, but the elephants never tug at them. They’ve learned that they simply cannot move when tied up.

Imagine: one of the strongest animals in the world, constrained by something that the smallest child could break free of.

But, really, how much better are we? Many people live their lives being afraid to try something because they’ve been convinced that it’s too hard or because they’ve tried a few times and it didn’t work out for them.

Take music, for example. I know a lot of people who would like to learn how to play an instrument but are convinced that only musicians or people who are innately good can play music, with the end result that they never try…despite the fact that everyone learns how to play music (meaning that it’s a teachable skill).

I used to think I wasn’t creative because my older brother is much more natural of an artist than I am. He was gaining a lot of acclaim as a teenager for his drawing skills (and he’s a good musician, to boot), and at the time I couldn’t draw (or play) anything like he could. I “learned” that creativity was something some people (my brother) had and others (me) didn’t.

What happened that changed my outlook? I taught myself how to play guitar. Granted, I started when I was nineteen, so I may never be phenomenal, but I do pretty well. On some of my last visits home, I was able to hold my own with my brother.

Furthermore, although I still haven’t learned how to draw people and landscapes, I can sit down and illustrate designs and ideas by hand. Turns out that I am creative, just not in a way that I counted as creative when I was younger.

In other words, I’ve learned that small ropes and sticks can’t constrain the elephant within me.

Think about the limitations you’ve set for yourself or that have been set for you by others. Tug at the rope a little – you might find that it gives way easier than you expect.

Photo Credit: artct45

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  1. says

    Very true, Charlie. My mother’s family is full of painters, but because I wasn’t an innately talented artist as a kid I just decided I CAN’T draw or paint. Even though I rationally know this may not be true, I still can’t help but feel it.

    My mum has encouraged me to try painting, particularly because I love abstract art anyway, but still I haven’t. I always tell myself I’m a writer and a pretty good photographer and that’s enough. Right now, I don’t have the time to play around with a new skill, but one day I vow that I will explore the painter within.

    And my husband didn’t learn piano until he was 17 either. I still find this hard to believe because his mum plays piano and his grandmother was a cellist, but somehow he just didn’t even try it when he was young.

    Nice post.


    PS. And you didn’t tell me, what music do you play and listen to?

    Kelly@SHE-POWERs last blog post..What is the Music of Your Life?

  2. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Kelly: It’s weird that you see it more with art skills than with other skills. But, then again, I know a lot of people who get blocked by math, too.

    I think the easiest way to explain what I listen to and play will be through showing my notecards and songs I have transcribed. It’ll probably be more accurate than saying I play [this] when in fact I don’t even have the music tabbed out. I’ll have a off-topic post that explains this in a few days.

    @ Jared: It’s more that I tug more when I start seeing that I’m constrained. I do more short-circuiting of “I can’t do that because I’m not good at it” and instead think about what it would take to accomplish something, even if I have to learn to do it.

  3. says

    Thats an interesting metaphor, but I’m doubtful that it works here; I think?

    The training of the elephants is a case of behavior conditioning; training of humans for creativity as you described it is about methodical learning of a new skill through practice.

  4. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Prashant: Hmm, there are two routes to go on this one. One route is to think about the training of creative habits, which I do think is a habit and practice that can be learned. The second, and more related to what I meant in the post, is that we often condition ourselves to believe that illusory limits are real. The behavioral conditional of elephants and humans, then, creates the same behavioral outcome – we both don’t strain against perceived limitations because we don’t recognize that those limitation can be overcome.

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