Chapter Review of Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard

Date: January 30th, 2018

Alex Eisler

We work on a lot of different projects in lots of different places around the U.S. When I talk to people outside of work about where some of my work is (East Coast/West Coast, rural/urban, north/south), people assume that working on sexual health issues is easier in some places than in others. Really, I don’t think it really matters what part of the country a project is happening in.

What I do find, is that it matters how much people and communities are primed and open to change or growth—individually and in groups. For a long time, I thought this willingness had a lot to do with people’s intrinsic motivation for changing what has always been or what feels “normal,” but there’s more to it than that.

I love the analogy of the rider, the elephant, and the path, and it has helped me think about what makes change possible—change not just to do things like sex education, but change getting people to engage in professional development, to adopt a new system at work, or to learn a new skill. An excellent primer on understanding change, the elephant, the rider, and the path is the Heath Brothers book Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard.

Here’s the gist, imagine that your brain is really made of three things that serve different purposes:

An elephant The elephant is the emotional part of your brain. It’s the part that feels cranky if a meeting runs too long or anxious when a new skill feels overwhelming or optimistic when your boss hears your concerns.
A rider
The rider is the logical part of your brain. The rider listens to facts and figures, understands if something is important even if it feels like you’ll never use it, and makes you sit patiently in a training even if you have other work to do.
And a path
The path is the context where you learn and consider change. You’ll find the path in a few places: the context at work, the places where you go to training or learn new things, or your personal factors that impact your work.

Consider all three if you’re doing a training or trying to get a program in a school. The elephant is big, and the rider can only keep the elephant on track for so long if the elephant wants to buck and run away. The rider has to understand their job and why keeping the elephant under control is important. And if the path is smooth, the rider can easily guide the elephant, but if it’s rough, the rider is in for a tough time.

The rider, elephant, and path apply to all levels of change: an individual person learning a skill, getting a bureaucratic system to adopt a program, and getting a community to adopt a new way of doing things.

Switch is written conversationally using stories and research to illustrate an intuitive framework. You can download the first chapter for free from their website to get started thinking about how to get the rider on their elephant and moving down the path.

I think you’ll like this book (or at least this chapter)…But you don’t have to take my word for it!

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About the Author

Healthy Teen Network Manager, Capacity Building & Evaluation, Alex Eisler, MPA, is a creative and innovative champion for adolescent health and well-being. Alex’s experience in resource development, instructional design, management, training, and delivering capacity-building assistance (CBA) across the U.S. has enabled her to develop nuanced and inventive approaches to meet the sexual, reproductive, and social-emotional needs of adolescents, including teen parents.


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