A system for better living.
Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.
— John Donne
For the past five years, I’ve been part of a small group called The Elephants.
The Elephants gives me a system for planning, reviewing and improving my life.
Few people know about The Elephants but it’s undoubtedly one of the best things that’s happened to me. I want to share the Elephants’ system so that others might replicate and benefit from it.
The Elephants existed long before the name did. It wasn’t until I came across that Donne quote about ‘harmless, great things’ that I realised it perfectly described what we were trying to become: great without causing harm.
The Elephants’ system has five parts — the group, the start, weekly reporting, quarterly reporting and quarterly reviews.
The ideal Elephants group size is four people. Any bigger and you can’t get deep into things at the quarterly reviews.
The most critical factor in a successful Elephants system is the group’s composition.
You need to choose people you can trust completely. People with whom you could see yourself sharing things like:
- Your bank balance.
- Personal insecurities that you may not have shared with other people.
- Doubts about your most important relationships.
The power of the group ultimately comes from its transparency.
Choosing people with whom you can be transparent is critical.
“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”
— Abraham Harold Maslow
The first step for an Elephants group is to spend time on personal reflection.The goal here is to start articulating what you want from life, now and in the future.
By opening your personal aperture as wide as possible, you can build a more complete picture of who you are and who you want to be.
As a group, we did this once very early in the process, but if we were to do it again, the format would go something like this.
Each person spends 1-2 hours alone, laying out as honestly as they can their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Each person then takes 1 hour to present their personal SWOT to the rest of the group. The group then spends an hour discussing it. While the presenter is speaking, people should take notes on questions or points of discussion to raise later.
The initial reflection should take 2 hours. The group presentation and discussions will take 2 hours for each person.
This process will therefore stretch 8-10 hours and take up most of the first day.
It’s important at the end of that first day to exercise and cook and eat together informally. That relaxed space can prompt a lot of meaningful discussion.
10, 3, 1, 3, 1
Day 2 starts the same way, with 1-2 hours of personal reflection time. This time, the exercise involves setting out where you want to be 10 years, 3 years, 1 year, 3 months and, 1 month from now.
Start at 10 years and work backwards.
The way to frame the exercise is to start by writing: In 10 years, I will be <enter your age in 10 years> and I will…
The categories in which you’ll need to answer this question are flexible, but as a starting point, consider these eight areas:
Once again, each person will present what they’ve outlined to the group and a discussion will follow. Each presentation and discussion should take 45 — 90 minutes.
The best way is to decide on the order of presentations is to pick names out of a hat at random.Going earlier in the day means you get better alertness from people. It’s also important to be heard. Make sure everyone’s phones are off and in another room. Check them between sessions.
Once all discussions and presentations are complete, each person should take 30 minutes to review their 10, 3, 1, 3, 1's and make any necessary notes or amendments to them.
The final stage of the first group weekend is for each person to record to camera their 10, 3 and 1 year goals.
Your 3 and 1 month goals should be written down and shared with the group.
Once this is done, you’re ready to begin.
The most important habit of The Elephants is consistent weekly reporting.
Every Sunday, each person should share with others how their week went.
The format of this is completely flexible. You can write a chronological journal, summarise by sub-heading, list bullet-points, just hit the most top of mind things…
You’ll know what works as you start doing it.
Mine end up being chronological journals of 6-800 words.
I’ll usually scan my sent emails folder, scan my calendar and then write about everything that’s been on my mind.
I always make an effort to mention how my health is and how my relationship’s been for that week.
For a long time we used a private Wordpress with comments enabled for weekly reporting but switched to Google Docs with comments because of better security.
It’s important also in the header of the weekly report to record your progress against your quarterly goals.
The group should hold each other accountable. If an update’s not done by Tuesday, people should be jumping on the person who hasn’t done it.
The key here isn’t so much format, it’s consistency. You should start the weekly reporting part of The Elephants even if you haven’t got your Elephants group ready. It takes a while to become a habit and a while to find your rhythm.
At the end of each quarter, you prepare a report on the previous quarter. The starting point for this process is to read back through the past 12 weeks of weekly reports.
You’ll be shocked to see how much happens in 12 weeks and how much your field of importance shifts week to week.
You’ll inevitably look back and say, “I can’t believe I was so worried about that!”
12 weeks gives you a really good stretch of time to look at your progress.
The quarterly report format is flexible, but here is what mine includes after about 20 iterations:
- Slide 1: The quarter’s headlines. 5-10 of the biggest events/issues/topics for the previous 12 weeks. For example: a successful fundraising, a team retreat, 3 days at the Australian Open.
- Slides 2-4: Month-by-month breakdown of the quarter in dot points.
- Slide 4: A breakdown of time spent by city, presented in a pie chart.
- Slide 5: 12 photos to summarise the quarter (I just scan my Instagram history for this one).
- Slide 6: My daily Fuelpoints for the quarter. This might seem trivial, but it operates as a good proxy for both my physical wellbeing over time and a leading indicator of my mood.
- Slide 7: My progress against the previous quarter’s goals.
- Slide 8: My goals for the upcoming quarter.
- Slides 9-12: My updated 10, 3 and 1 year goals.
Again, format matters less than consistency. Just do something. Try and improve it each quarter. After 5 years, you’ll have something good.
Quarterly reports get done in the first fortnight after each quarter. Once done, they get presented to the group for review and feedback.
Quarterly reviews are the hardest part of The Elephants to maintain. Over the years, we’ve done ours in Sydney, Brisbane, Byron Bay, Adelaide, Darwin, Los Angeles, New York, hiking on the Sunshine Coast and on Skype. You basically have to do whatever it takes to make them fit in to everyone’s schedule.
Quarterly reviews are straightforward. Draw names from a hat to determine order. Then present your quarterly report to the group for an hour and then discuss for an hour.
Ideally, at each quarterly review, each person records to camera their 10, 3 and 1 year goals, though we’ve been bad at this as a group.
The more of these reviews you do, the more natural they become. The more you share, the more other Elephants know what to respond to. The more time you spend together, the quicker you can get right to the core of the issue.
At their best, quarterly reviews have the effect of resetting you.
You walk in with one perspective and leave with a completely new one.
To summarise, here’s how The Elephants system works:
- Pick your fellow Elephants carefully.
- Spend meaningful time in the beginning doing the SWOT and 10, 3, 1, 3, 1 exercises and getting feedback on them.
- Do weekly reporting, including progress against quarterly goals.
- Do quarterly reporting, resetting your goals for the upcoming quarter.
- Present and discuss your quarterly reports, preferably face to face, and record to camera your 10, 3, 1 goals.
A Personal Note
Outside of Julia and my family, The Elephants is the most powerful guiding force in my life.
I have had to reinvent myself many times over on the journey from middling Brisbane Law student in 2006 to where I am today.
I’ve had to make difficult, counter-intuitive choices.
I’ve taken risks I didn’t want to, putting my trust in the group’s alternative judgment.
I’ve had to live on the edge of discomfort as I’ve grown and learned fast.
For all these things, I credit the constant push and support of the Elephants.
I have the group as backup when a hard decision needs to be made.
I have 5 years of regular planning and review now, which gives me a better sense of who I am. The consistencies, the weaknesses, the anxieties and the constants.
It has not always been smooth keeping the group together. There have been falling outs, disagreements and lulls in engagement. Life gets in the way, people miss reports and reviews, things get out of sync.
But on average, we all make the best effort we can to keep it going and each quarter it gets incrementally better.
The Elephants started as 4 people. We’re now 3.
One of our founding members died in 2009 in tragic circumstances. As a group, we have never quite recovered from his loss. Apart from the chasm he left behind in our hearts, he also acted as the glue between us. Evening out our collective imbalances, squashing the irrational dreaminess we sometimes fall into and fearlessly pushing us where we were most vulnerable.
He was an engine for all of us, someone who inspired us to do more when more seemed impossible.
A large part of our continuing commitment to The Elephants is a commitment to him.
We miss him everyday. But through the Elephants we never lose contact with him. His energy continues on, and as we each succeed in our own way, we honour his legacy.
Without him, the Elephants wouldn’t exist.
He would be proud of what it has become. He would have been 32 today.