Why we are all baby elephants

elephant painting itself

You are a baby elephant

Growing up, you tromp around the green landscape of rural India, enjoying freedom like a 4th of July fireworks show.

Mom is your biggest fan, showering trunk kisses on your floppy elephant ears every chance she gets.  Then, a kind Indian man comes into your life.  He’s in charge of training you to grow up to be a good, strong elephant.  An elephant fit to have man ride you.

The two of you take a field trip to the local market.  Scared and bewildered, it’s the first time you’ve set foot outside of your bubble at home.  As the hustle and bustle of market life pass in front of you, your little elephant feet can’t help but get excited.

To make sure you don’t wander off, the kind trainer ties a hefty rope from you to a small sapling.

Angry elephant shouts escape your trunk as it shakes around like a firehose.  You dig your feet into the earth trying to break free.

You’re trapped.

Every time you and your kind trainer head into the market, the same scenario plays out.  All the strength a baby elephant can muster doesn’t even make the tree creak.

The market planted a seed of curiosity inside you, but after a few months of wandering about at home, your trainer starts tying you up to keep you beside all the other elephants.  Without the water of exploration, that little curious seed inside you shrivels up and dies.

Fast forward 20 years.

The same trainer takes you to the market, spears his bamboo walking stick into the ground, and ties your reins around it.

At 7.5 tons, you’re a big bad adult member of the largest species of land mammals on the planet.

You don’t budge.

It’s no use.  You tried to move a thousand times as a kid without success.

 

Trained Helplessness

Elephants are some of the smartest animals alive yet they can be tricked by training to submit to 2 feet of wood speared into the dusty ground.

They could break free with a little effort… but training deleted that possibility from their mind long ago.  They’ve been trained to be helplessness.

We’re just like these poor elephants, trapped by the well intentioned training of our friends, family, culture, and school.

“This is possible and that isn’t,” they tell us, unaware that their opinions define our reality.

Let’s take this into the real world.

School.

“There’s only one answer – and its at the back of the book.  Just don’t look!”*

With ingenuity off of the table, I – and sadly many of my friends – have become extremely good at the art of regurgitation.  Memorize and forget, memorize and forget.  Wash, rinse and repeat.  Welcome to the reality of school!  We hope you like our cookie cutter student.  He’s what’s good, right, and successful.

Wrong.

What use is it to regurgitate?  I’m sorry to break it to you, but anyone can Wikipedia the answer to half of the questions I was asked in undergrad.  At times, memorizing material is important, but anyone leaving school now can attest that a sad number of teachers subscribe to this philosophy.  The best teachers threw conventionality (and mediocrity) to the window.

Travel.

An epidemic has swept through the US, striking fear into the hearts of possible travelers.

Mommy and daddy say , “No hun, (insert dream adventure country here) is too dangerous!  Haven’t you seen the terrible drug cartels, terrorists, and muggers on the news?”

Guess what?  We have all of those here in the US too.  My answer is always, “If you or I walked through downtown Houston at the wrong time (or any other major US city for that matter), there’s a good chance we would get mugged.  So that’s why I wouldn’t walk around at night abroad, just like we wouldn’t here.”

Anyone can travel, practically everyone can save up the money if they want it enough.

In Nicaragua I met a 25 year old Canadian in a wheelchair who had traveled the world.  Paralyzed from the waist down, he had worked and surfed through every travel obstacle thinkable. No set of stairs or the cultural conditioning of fear could hold him back.

In Belize I met a petite Danish woman in her late 20s with plans to make it down Central America to Columbia.  A friend was waiting for her, and the fact that she spoke no spanish, was a woman, and was deaf didn’t deter her.  Communicating through doodles on a pad of paper, she lived.  Much more than most people.

The list goes on.

We’re all baby elephants that have had ounces of courage, creativity, and honesty trained out of us.  But it’s ok.  Now we know.

Go get it back.

My question to you is: What else have we been trained into thinking isn’t possible?

 

Written with love,

Kevin

 

*Props to Sir Ken Robinson for this phrase.

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