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Switch: The Elephant, The Rider & The Path

December 14, 2012

SwitchA vivid image, a memorable phrase, a powerful metaphor—all go a long way towards clarifying and teaching abstract ideas.  And in Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, brothers Chip and Dan Heath use a great one (borrowed from psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis) to serve as the illuminating, gravitational center for their cluster of ideas, lessons and stories about change.

According to the Heaths, all human change—whether it’s as small as an individual losing the five pounds I will have gained by this time next month, or as big as restructuring health care practices and standards in hospitals around the globe—depends fundamentally on the Rider, the Elephant and the Path.

The Rider is the rational, analytical part of our brain.  Its strengths are “the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment”.  The Rider is “a visionary…willing to make short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs…a clever tactician”.  On the other hand, the Rider “loves to contemplate and analyze”, has “limited reserves of strength”, and tends towards “paralysis in the face of ambiguity and choice, and … relentless focus on problems rather than solutions”.  Crucially, “the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant…(that)…anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose”.

The Elephant is the emotional and instinctive part of the human brain.  “It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being thin)”.  The Elephant prefers the comfort and security of a well-trodden path, even if a new path is leads to a better outcome.  But, the Heaths are quick to point out, “the Elephant also has enormous strengths…love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty.  That fierce instinct you have to protect your kids against harm—that’s the Elephant”; and “the Elephant is the one who gets things done”.  “[Change] requires the energy and drive of the Elephant“.

The Path is the surrounding environment, the context in which the Rider and the Elephant operate.  Often change is hard, not because people—both rationally and emotionally—don’t want to make a change, but because the environment makes change hard, if not impossible.  (The gifts of chocolate truffles and a gingerbread house stuffed with candies that arrived in the mail yesterday are just two small cobblestones in the Path that’s leading to that additional five pounds by mid-January.)

What makes Switch a hopeful and useful book is the Heaths’ insistence throughout on two interrelated points:  1) successful, transformative change is possible, and 2) there is a unifying pattern to how change happens.  By recognizing and using that pattern, they argue, readers can create change in their own lives.

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From → Books, Politics

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