How to Train an Elephant (and re-train yourself)

By Tommy Dott,


Do you just love animals? Now be honest, is the vote still out about your feelings toward a majority of adult humans? Do you often think to yourself that animals are way cooler than people? Me too! In fact, I would sooner submit myself to the pains of a Renaissance Fair, or sit through an Italian opera triple feature, than spend 1 hour in a zoo. When I was 10 years old I even started a neighborhood boycott on a local circus (around the same time I also started a boycott on Bay City Rollers records--but that's for another blog). So when you're done reading this do me a favor and please don't email, call of write to the lovely folks at Ebb & Flow magazine regarding the mistreatment of animals. I am on the same page as you are, and I'm pretty certain that the Ebb & Flow peeps are in agreement with us. Animals totally rock, but people, well, we'll just leave it at that.

OK, so now onto the point...

Have you ever seen a elephant, maybe in a circus or a fair, that's being led by a person using a small, thin rope as a leash and wonder, why doesn't that poor elephant just run for it? Can't it just drag the trainer behind him like a Schlitz can off a newlywed's bumper, or simply stomp them like a cockroach? If you think about it, it's astonishing to see the command that a 100-and-something pound person can have over a 6 ton being. How did that happen? How does that person maintain so much control? How do you train an elephant??

It's simple. You start when they're little.

Generally when a baby elephant is first taken in, it's watered, groomed, cleaned up and well fed, and for its own safety (and the safety of others) a leash is created to go around the neck and the leash is staked to the ground. It doesn't have to be a King Kong size stake or rope, just strong enough to deter a small elephant from running. As the elephant grows in size so does the size of the stake, as does the rope. As the elephant matures it learns, "If the rope is around my neck I can't go where I want". Once that fact is ingrained into the elephant's brain it no longer even needs to be staked. You just need that little rope as a leash. The training is completely psychological. The rope now triggers that same automatic response of "If I feel the rope I am unable go where I want.”

As human beings, that is very similar to how we are trained as well. Most of what we hold onto today--our fears, insecurities, apprehensions, and self-doubt--the stuff that makes us feel like we can't achieve what we want, or go where we want--they mostly stem from when we were younger. Whether we were directly told "You won't like that", or "You're not good enough", or if similarly limiting statements are just implied in a more subliminal way, we drag it all around with us like that little rope. Sometimes those negative based feelings can come out of a loving and caring place as well. For example, when you were leaving the house as a kid did your mother ever tell you as you were heading out the door "Take lots of risks today!" "Be extra adventurous!" No, she probably told you, "be careful." Be cautious. It's forever embedded in our psyche. That trigger instinct to “be careful” or the thought of “what if I fail?” is often that stake in the ground that stops us from going where we want to go.


The keys to any major changes in self improvement come with small changes within our brains. We simply need to step back, listen to what we are telling ourselves, and if we don't like it, we change our conversation. I talk a lot about "changing the conversation" in my personal transformation coaching practice, and some of my blogs often circle back to this point, because it's paramount in getting us out of where we don't want to be, and to a place that works better for us. It's a practice that takes time and effort because that high-to-low swing only takes a split second, but if you can catch yourself it also takes a split second to change that negative response into an empowering one. These types of small changes when reacting to our own thoughts is an incredibly powerful way to finding more peace in our lives. It's how we can stop ourselves from thinking mole hills are mountains. It's how we can get ourselves to hear the word "obstacle" but view it as "opportunity". It's how we can stare fear down and openly welcome the feeling of being courageously uncomfortable.

It all starts with realizing one thing...that restraint you sometimes feel around you? It isn’t staked to the ground.


Tommy Dott is a Personal Transformation Coach. To learn more about transforming your life by turning fear, doubt and hesitation into empowering moments, check out