What Elephants Can Teach Us About Achieving Our Career Goals

Have you ever seen an elephant at a circus tied to a seemingly small post in the ground and wondered why they don’t just use their enormous strength to pull out the post and walk away?

Here’s how an elephant is trained not to walk away:

  • As a baby, the elephant is chained to the post when they can’t get away. They try to pull away, but it only cuts their leg.
  • They stop pulling. It hurts too much.
  • Then, when they are full grown adults and could easily pull out the post without cutting their leg, they only remember the pain and don’t realize their abilities have made new things possible.

The trick works. It’s an unfortunate circumstance of how we choose to treat animals, but it works.

It works on us too.

How the Trick Works

It’s a trick called assumed constraints. It means we assume a constraint exists and make a passive decision to do nothing. If we just decided to pull at the post, our career goals would be ours for the taking.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is easy. In fact, I know first-hand that it’s wicked hard. I just started working with a coach. In our first meeting he helped me see opportunities I had barely imagined, let alone thought I could do. And he asked me question after question probing into why I wasn’t pursuing these opportunities, given my mission to help business analysts start their careers.

It was a conversation that was both hard and fun at the same time.

Then all of a sudden, taking action was much, much easier than I expected it to be. I started doing things I did not even know I had assumed I couldn’t do. I unshackled myself from at least a couple assumed constraints that I hadn’t even seen until someone pointed them out. It was a beautiful and humbling experience.

How to Break Free of Your Assumed Constraints

Not everyone can work with a coach. But everyone can ask themselves some tough questions.

  • If you had superhuman powers, what would you do to make your career goal a reality? Before reading on, please take a minute and write down at least one thing. OK. Great. Now, ask yourself: What’s stopping you from doing it? Most likely what you wrote down doesn’t require a superhuman power, it just requires you to change your perspective about what’s really possible. (Remember the elephant and the post.)
  • What assumptions do you have about your career transition? Not sure? Let’s have this conversation. I look you straight in the eye and say: “You can become a BA. I know it in my heart you can do it. You have everything you need to make it happen.” You say, “But ______.” Fill in the blank. Capture it now. This is an assumption you are making. Is it even true? (Often it’s not.) Even if it is true, how can you work around it?
  • If you could change one thing about your job situation, what would it be? What is the very first step you can take to make that happen? Why aren’t you doing it tomorrow?

These should be tough questions. If you glance through them and nod or promise to try to think about them later, nothing significant will happen. But if you invest some time in reflecting on them, you might just discover the post that’s been invisible to you and see exactly how to break the chain that’s holding you back.

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  1. What a wonderful collection of insightful comments here! You all are truly ready to look at your careers from a new perspective. I can’t wait to hear where this takes you!

    It seems a good rule of thumb to glean from these experiences would always be to verify negative feedback when received, especially if it’s provided in a condescending way or without much in the way of constructive feedback for how to improve.

  2. Caroline says

    Thanks for sharing your experience and this helpful metaphor Laura. I agree that we are only limited by our own self doubts and that these are not who we are or what we are capable of. Usually these doubts are created by internalizing someone else’s opinion about us. I’ve experienced that first hand recently but also when I started to interview after 3 years of being a stay at home mom. In both cases I had to ask myself how does this person who is so dismissive of my capabilities know me better than myself? In the interview situation, how do they know my exact experience from a piece of paper and a one hour discussion? How can they predict what I can and can’t do on that small sample of my abilities? Is this person both a mind reader and a clairvoyant?

    In a more recent case I was told by my boss and a colleague that I was very inefficient and I didn’t “run my requirements meetings the right way”. I took this to heart and became very depressed. I went over and over what I thought I was doing wrong. I couldn’t find anything so I just kept on searching the BABOK and other best practices. Eventually one of my team told me that the boss and colleague involved were projecting their own self doubts on me. They were feeling stressed and threatened. Our customer had told them both in a meeting when I wasn’t there that they preferred me as a team facilitator because I took a more people oriented approach to the team meetings than either of them did! 🙂

    The other thing I’ve learnt to do is to stop focusing on what isn’t working and to take a step forward in what looks like the right direction. This is what I did with the BABOK and with coming here. Any step no matter how small will make you feel better and will encourage you. Pull on that rope or knock against the glass of the fish tank. Just check every now and then if it’s really there 🙂

  3. Srila Ramanujam says

    Absolutely true. And its even more a skill to train the mind into falling into such loopholes where it might be caught with the unreal and the assumed constraints! If we were only to constantly practice the technique of not unknowingly slip into these presumed assumptions or just being aware of and trying to not lay belief in these, then probably we are actually attacking the root of the issue itself rather than to treat the malady……..but of course easily said than to practice!! And hence, totally agree that we need to look at our real and unreal assumptions and know to segregate what can be solved and what cannot be…….thanks for bringing this awareness.

  4. Laura, I appreciate any story that brings in a metaphor. Sometimes a metaphor can make a message crystal clear. Before I read Sandy’s comment, I was thinking to myself that assumed constraints are placed on us during childhood. Two different readers came out with the same thought. I also like that a metaphor can place a human (or in this case animalistic) aspect on a message having to do with career and business. Nice job!

  5. I can see above examples very relevant in daily life as well. For Ex – You do have very bad experience from a place, Person or Community and you start cursing yourself and stop trying to see the problem from different angle. Like – it might be time, like specific day where you got trapped when things were not as you wanted or You were not in the right shape to see the positive angle of the person at the particular time.
    Above examples always motivate you to give a try , where you want to be. And trust me there is nothing pure than seeing your thoughts getting implemented and with the certain time – being tangible.

    Thank You Very Much for sharing Your Motivating Thoughts.

  6. What I particularly like about the elephant metaphor is that it brings to mind many assumed contraints many of us carry from childhood into our adult careers. It can be very difficult to identify and own up to these constraints. Until we recognize those and other assumed constraints, we are blocked from reaching many of the goals that truly matter to us.

    Like Tera, I recently had a high stress job that did not work out. A knowledgeable friend at the company assured me this was a result of poor management. Still, it has taken me several months to (mostly) overcome this particular ‘post’ so that I can move forward in my BA career.

    Tera, best wishes as you work toward a better life.

    • Thank you Sandy, great point about our childhoods. Even very caring and supportive childhoods can instill self-limiting beliefs. Poor management is definitely a challenge. I don’t have a fix, but it is very important to distance yourself from the outcome of activities at poorly managed organizations – I’ve caught myself in this trap many times. There is only so much one person can influence, let alone control!

  7. This story for me couldn’t have better timing. It’s dealing with the psychological effects of bad experiences, of which, I just experienced. This is so timely and encouraging for me to face my fears and self doubt. I was in a 9 year marriage and gave up my career to raise 4 wonderful children. However, I was told many of those years that I was doing “nothing” and psychologically abused. I just had a stressful job that didn’t work out, and I am extremely down. After reading this, I was able to better recognize the negative perception I have about myself and hope to find a coach that can help me discover my potential.

  8. Amy Morgan says

    I get your point, but you might want to choose a different metaphor. Your example isn’t about elephants, its about cruelty. Yes, captivity, bondage and pain affect perception and would cause anyone to shut down and quit trying. How about something a little more inspiring? I gaurantee you, nobody’s BA job is as bad as a circus animal’s.

    • Sierra Conn says

      Forget the cruelty for a moment, and instead look at it from the perspective of untapped potential. Throughout our lives we may have been made to believe we cannot do something (the baby elephant), but just need a little encouragement to realize that we have all the potential to achieve that something (adult elephant). I think this metaphor works.

      • Amy – Thanks for bringing this aspect of the metaphor up. I totally see this perspective and my intent was not to highlight animal cruelty, for sure. When I first read the story I found it very moving – from the perspective of the elephant (not the trainer) – and it encouraged me to self-reflect about what unseen constraints have been holding me back. Sierra, thank you for validating that this metaphor works on some levels for some readers!

        As to alternate metaphors…there have been many stories that have crossed my reading path since I heard this one. Unfortunately they are all about animal experiences as well. One about a large fish separated from food by a glass wall, only to have that wall removed and not eat the food. And others along these same lines.

        I stand by this story and I hope anyone coming across this post takes a minute or two to reflect on what past experiences may be affecting your own perceptions, whether they be the results of a job interview, feedback from a manager, or criticism from a fellow employee. I work with many professionals and so often I hear in their words echos of those who have given them misguided advice or instilled thoughts that are holding them back. Unfortunately, we are not always kind to each other either.

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