#47 Blame the Bull: A Weird Look At The Idea Of Self

I've been harping on finding your WHY and other deep stuff for close to a year now.

But I’ve avoided the deepest of deep topics. Philosophy and the ultimate WHY.

There's a reason for that. I'm a left-brained analytical type. I avoid beard-strokers that spend their days talking in circles. I don't see the value in debating whether the chicken or the egg came first. It takes about five seconds to realize that there's no answer in this lifetime, so shut the blank up and get a real job.

Having said that, in the spirit of being thorough, I feel like I have to at least do a philosophy drive-by. So here goes.


I’ll start with a quote from philosopher Albert Camus. He won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957 and is best known for this quote.

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

Point being, if you can’t figure out the essence of life and decide that it’s worth sticking around for, you should off yourself.

Wow! How’d you like to grab a bar stool next to this guy?

With all due respect to Camus, I’m not trying to find the meaning of life. I’m just trying to find my WORK WHY. Which, as I mentioned in the last post, comes from my SELF WHY. But this is philosophy, where nothing can be that simple. The philosophers would argue that searching for a SELF WHY is pointless until I prove that I am indeed my SELF.

No kidding beard-strokers, but I'm pretty sure I already know my SELF.

Or do I?


“I think, therefore I am.”

This is a quote from René Descartes, a French Philosopher back in the 1600’s. 

He was trying to use iron clad logic to prove to himself that he was real. Or that he wasn’t dreaming this life. Or that he wasn’t crazy. Or that he wasn’t being manipulated by a demon. In modern terms you might say he wanted to prove he wasn’t in The Matrix.


And his big conclusion was that he wouldn’t have the ability to doubt his own existence if he didn’t exist in the first place. He had to be real in order to doubt his realness.

Others have since come along and said Descartes is full of crap. That all he could logically conclude from his thought experiment is that thinking is taking place. Which doesn’t prove HE exists or that there is a SELF doing the thinking. 

This stuff makes my head hurt, but please don't run away. I promise I'm heading towards something useful.


Many argue that SELF as we tend to think of it - a being with a single center - doesn’t exist. That our mind, or our SELF, is just a system processor for our non-stop flow of thoughts and bodily sensations and reactions.

Like a Wall Street ticker tape running on and on and on.

Try this experiment. Sit still for 15 seconds and observe your thoughts. 

What’s for dinner. My ears are ringing. I forgot to call the doctors office. My desk is a mess. What’s that noise? This post is weird. What time is it? My ears are still ringing. The Cleveland Browns suck this year. My left shoulder’s sore. I need a shower.

Wow, there is a lot of crap in there. And I’m not in control of most of it, it just happens. Maybe I am nothing more than a stream of thoughts and sensations and reactions. 

Which is kind of freaky, or scary, to think about.


There’s a problem with this logic.

During the above exercise wasn't there more than one entity at work? There was all the garbage flowing through my mind, but there was also the part of me that was doing the play-by-play. Noticing the thoughts. Reporting on the action. Maybe that observer was my SELF.


I can't take any more Philosophy. Which is why, in search of something more concrete, I headed to Psychology.  I latched onto a social psychologist from New York University business school. His name is Jonathan Haidt (Height) and he wrote a great book titled "The Happiness Hypothesis"


Haidt wades through a ton of brain science and concludes that there are two entities in me that define my SELF. One is an elephant, and the other is the rider sitting on top of the elephant. Here, from page 16 of his book, is how he defines these two

“...the rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The rider is …conscious, controlled thought. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings.”

The important point being that rational you - the rider - is just an advisor. Final decisions are made by the elephant.

This seems like crappy design since the rider is the one that can think into the future. Learn concepts from others. Help keep us on a steady path.  Maybe, but supposedly this kind of wiring worked best when we were cave people trying to stay alive. Reactions mattered way more than planned logical thinking. 

And even though our society has evolved to where we'd be better off if the rider had more control, evolution hasn't caught up. No one has told the elephant to stand down. So it is what it is.

Rational me - the rider - has to tame automatic, emotional, visceral me - the elephant. We must become allies and confidants.

I like this way of thinking about SELF. It explains the internal dynamics behind the WRONG STORIES posts I did (see posts 27 -33 in the ARCHIVE). It explains how a workforce of well-intentioned people can come off the rails. It explains how you can go into a situation planning to be calm and cool (the rider) and end up flying off the handle (the elephant).

Blame it on the elephant. 


(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

I have just one problem with this elephant/rider definition of SELF. Whenever I see an elephant with a rider on its back, the beast seems calm and obedient. Co-existing happily with their smiling rider. 

It’s hard for me to picture the elephant getting emotional, cranking up a bunch of Wrong Stories, and bucking the rider off.


For me personally, a better model is a bull and a rider. The whole rodeo thing. Where the bull is always challenging the rider. He’s telling him to get the hell off his back and get that strap off his nuts. (FYI, via a little research I learned that the flank strap isn’t really on the bulls nuts.)

That image works for me. Gets me more psyched up to calm that crazy beast. 

So thank you philosophy and psychology for leading me to something useful. A rodeo-based model of SELF that helps me better understand my inner workings. 

Now, maybe next time I can get around to what I planned to do in this post. 

Share with you how to get yourself in a mindset for self-exploration and self growth.

PS. You now have a scapegoat if you inappropriately lash out at uncle Billy for eating the last piece of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Blame the Bull.

Happy Thanksgiving…


***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.