What Do You and a Zoo Elephant Have in Common?

The other day I heard a little story that really got me thinking. It was a story about a man who visited the local zoo and stumbled upon the Elephant exhibit. As he approached the large mammal he was astonished at what he saw. But not by the size and magnificence of the elephant but by the fact that the only thing holding the elephant in place was a small rope and spike in the ground.

For the viewer, it was obvious that the elephant was strong enough to just walk away and pull the stake from the ground. Yet, it stood there trapped by this tiny, insignificant rope. Confused by what he saw, the man asked one of the zoo keepers why the elephant didn’t move.

The zookeeper explained that when the elephant was younger, the rope was enough to contain it and keep it in one place. Early on the elephant struggled to get free and eventually gave up. Over time the elephant got bigger and stronger, but still possessed the same belief about the rope.Now even as a fully grown elephant, whenever the rope is tied to its foot it believes that there is no point in trying to break free.

When I first heard this story three thoughts went through my mind.

  1. That’s really sad.
  2. Is this actually true?
  3. What a great metaphor for life!

After a very quick Google search I found out that story isn’t true. It’s just another made up myth that toys with our emotions. The only case in which this might actually happen would be if the elephant were abused and forced to stay in one place from a young age. And that, of course, is something to be sad about.

Despite my discovery of this story being fictitious, I do still believe there is a valuable lesson to be learned.

In life, we are bound to encounter many failures, setbacks, mistakes, and wrong turns. From each one, we typically will learn a lesson. And that lesson is usually quite simple: Don’t do that again!

From our painful experiences, we create belief systems. Our inner dialogue towards that specific instance now says that we should simply avoid it at all costs so we don’t have to go through the same pain as before.

The Power of The Brain

When the brain thinks we are about to experience danger or failure, it pumps up the cortisol levels and increases our awareness of possible danger. This is why we often get scared and have irrational fears about things that have not yet happened.

On the flip side, our bodies are wired to boost certain brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin during moments of happiness. This is why we constantly seek out routines that are familiar and habits which we know will bring us pleasure.

Whether consciously or unconsciously you are continually trying to seek out safety, happiness, and comfort. It’s only natural and you shouldn’t fight these urges. However, in a world where failure means losing a game, not running faster than your opponent, or letting down your fans — it is completely irrational to let your fears stop you from performing your best. Cortisol is designed to keep you alive, but since the world you live in is fairly safe, the next closest thing to worry about becomes failure within your sport or profession.

The New Failure

As a society, most people now fear social failure more than anything else. Which means that when we experience such failure, we will do whatever it takes to avoid it. Over time this belief system stops us from certain areas of progress and limits our potential to master our craft. In the end, we are fully grown adults trapped by a rope around our ankle and believing that we should not bother trying certain things again simply because we failed last time.

I urge you to evaluate your current belief system.

What things have you tried in the past that didn’t work out?

What obstacles have you encountered and decided they were too difficult?

Which people have you given up on trying to help?

Every day you are growing stronger and wiser, but at the same time, so is your belief system. This week, challenge yourself to reevaluate your beliefs about certain things, experiences, or people. Try something you’ve failed at before, or trying something new altogether.

Don’t be an elephant stuck in the zoo.


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