The Chained Elephant Mindset – Can You Get Rid of It?

When I was small, I used to love circuses, and what I liked best about them were the animals.

The elephant in particular caught my attention, and as I later found out, other children liked the elephant too.

During the performance, this enormous beast would nobly display its tremendous weight, size, and strength… But after its performance, and until just before it went out on stage, the elephant was always tied down with a chain to a little stake in the ground that held one of its feet.

The stake however was just a minuscule piece of wood, hardly a couple of centimeters long.

And although it was a strong thick chain, it seemed obvious to me that an animal capable of tearing a tree from its roots, could easily free itself from that stake and flee.

This mystery continued to puzzle me. What held it there? Why didn’t it escape?

When I was 5 or 6, I still trusted the explanations given by grownups.

So, I asked my teacher, my father, and my uncle about the mystery of the elephant.

One of them explained that the elephant didn’t escape because it had been mastered.

So I asked the obvious question: “If it’s been mastered, why do they keep it in chains?”

I don’t remember having received a coherent answer.

With time I forgot about the mystery of the elephant, I only remembered when I found others who had asked themselves the same question at some time.

Years later, I discovered that, to my luck, someone had been sufficiently wise to come up with the answer:

The circus elephant does not escape because it has been attached to a stake just like this one since it was very, very small.

I closed my eyes and imagined a defenseless baby elephant fastened to the stake.

I am sure that in that moment, the little guy pushed and pulled and tired himself out trying to get himself free.

And, regardless of his efforts, he couldn’t do it, because the stake was too strong for him.

I imagined him tuckering himself out and falling asleep and the next day trying again, and the next day, and the next.

Until one day, a terrible day in his history, the animal accepted its futility and resigned itself to its fate.

That enormous powerful elephant that you see in the circus does not escape because, unfortunate thing, he thinks he can’t.

He has that memory ingrained into his mind: the futility that he felt shortly after he was born.

And the worst part is that he has never returned to seriously question that memory.

Never again did he return to test his own strength…

So we are a bit like the circus elephant: We live with the idea that “we can not” do things for the simple reason that once, long ago, when we were little, we tried and have failed.

Jorge Bucay

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