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Coaches Diary: Barry Learns How to Eat An Elephant


Barry – a company director for the past twelve years – was sitting in my office doing his best not to look like a frightened man.

Aged 48, Barry had suffered a mild heart attack six months ago and was terrified that he would soon be experiencing another terrifying episode. His difficulty was that while he had been given plenty of advice from the health care experts, he was finding it difficult to put it into practice.

Barry admitted that he was a poor patient and that he had never done much to look after his health. A stressful working life, combined with a love of junk food, cigarettes and whisky had all taken their toll but even knowing the risk to his life, Barry was finding it hard to quit all of his bad habits.

Feeling overwhelmed with the changes he needed to make, Barry had simply given up and felt resigned to the inevitable health problems that lay ahead. Wisely, Barry realised that he wasn’t going to be able to do it all on his own which was why he was sitting in my office early one summer’s evening.

As we discussed the advice given to him by his doctors, it became increasingly clear that Barry felt he was being given an all-or-nothing ultimatum if he were going to live to a ripe old age.

With a slight smile, I asked Barry to describe the best way to eat an elephant. Looking at me as though I was slightly mad, he shrugged his shoulders and raised an eyebrow.

“The way you eat an elephant,” I told him, “Is one bite at a time - and we need to approach your new health care programme in the same spirit.”

I explained to Barry that the subconscious mind works hard to keep us safe – and that it assumes that what is familiar is safe, therefore the subconscious mind tries to make us stick with our habits, unaware that they actually may harm us.

For Barry to make long-lasting changes, he would need to adapt his lifestyle slowly and reward himself for all the small successes along the way to becoming a healthy individual. He also understood that moderation was a good watchword and that modifying his lifestyle didn’t necessitate living a life of austerity and sobriety.

Barry could see the sense in what I was saying, and together we worked out a goal and action plan – starting with the end in mind. I asked Barry to create a clear picture in his mind of how he wanted to look and feel in a year’s time.

Enjoying the image, Barry started to write a forward plan of the small changes that he would make over the coming year – together with the rewards for each success. And as he left my office, Barry looked relieved to know that what had seemed impossible was in fact possible, so long as the problem was attacked in the same way as eating an elephant.

Olivia Stefanino is a leadership development consultant and executive coach, who works with blue chip organisations, small to medium sized enterprises and individuals. To find out more and to download your free e-booklet: “128 ways to harness your personal power”, visit


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