S4E38. How Do You Eat an Elephant?

Has anyone ever asked you the question: “How do you eat an elephant?” This question – and its answer – provides a powerful metaphor for learning and development for all professionals. And that answer is: “One bite at a time.”  

If you tried to eat an entire elephant in one sitting, you’d get sick and give up. You’d never want to try eating an elephant again. If you take your time, however, you get to savor it at your own pace and you still manage to get the whole thing down.

If just the thought of eating an endangered species makes you nauseous, let’s look at another example from my personal life. I began experiencing back pain and wanted to strengthen my core by doing crunches. If I tried doing 1,000 crunches on the first day, my abs would likely give out, I’d be sore for weeks, and I’d probably give up altogether. But that’s not what I did. I started with just ten crunches and didn’t experience any muscle cramps. Slowly adding more as my strength increased, I was able to do 75 in a matter of months – but I still didn’t see the results, either in the mirror or in my back. Fast forward to nearly a year after I started, and I can successfully complete 1,000 crunches in less than 15 minutes – and my back is a lot stronger as a result.

When adopting the improviser’s mindset, acknowledge that it’s not going to happen overnight. You’re going to fall off the wagon. You’re going to go back to your old ways: not listening, making it all about you, and letting your ego get in the way. But if you take a “one bite at a time” approach, you can look for opportunities to apply that mindset everyday until it becomes a habit that’s so automatic, you don’t have to think about it twice – you just do it.

You’ve spent your education and early career developing your technical skills. That’s how you got to where you are today. But once those are sound, you need to shift to focusing on what I call “power skills”: communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, listening, adapting, strategic thinking, innovation, and more. When you sum all of these power skills into one, it becomes LEADERSHIP.

Now, take one bite at a time and start investing in your power skills so you can have a greater impact on the people you hire, on the people you lead, on your customers and clients, on the people that are your business partners, the people in your community, and the people of the world.