The Quest To Find The White Elephant

It was in 2015 when I traveled with a small group of people to Namibia. We started at the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and went through Botswana all the way to Namibia. Botswana is an incredible country with lots to offer. The Chobe National Park has huge herds of elephants and other animals. However, it wasn’t the highlight of our journey.

It was the Etosha National Park in Namibia we were particularly looking forward to. This national park spans 22.000 square kilometers, 4.800 of that is the Etosha pan. A large salt flat plain with a unique ecosystem. And it has white elephants. At least that was the one thing we were particularly curious about. We heard people talking about this unique peculiarity and couldn’t wait to see them with our own eyes.

Finally, we arrived at the Etosha National Park. The plan was to spend here three nights and do a bunch of safaris to see all its wonders. And wonders they were. I traveled to a couple of East and South Africa countries before but one animal I didn’t see before was a rhino.

I’ve got this opportunity plentifully in Etosha. I even could observe the large, quiet animals at a watering hole close to our camp. It was a unique experience. Even with that, the major attraction was still ahead of us. And we were so looking forward to it.

The second day we jumped into a car and drove to the salt plains in search of the white elephants. The air was hot. The plain was white and vast. You could see for miles, and the air shimmered at the horizon. And then we saw them.

A couple of huge white elephants were slowly moving at the outskirt of the plain. They looked exactly how we imagined them. As we were getting closer and closer, our anxiety grew. They were even bigger than we expected. It was a dream come true.

We got really close. One of the animals walked several meters from our car. It was huge. And it wasn’t white! It was a fake! The seemingly white color wasn’t the color of the skin, but white dust.

We reached our goal. We saw the white elephants. And it wasn’t exactly what we imagined. They were still beautiful animals, but they were just regular elephants. We have seen many normal elephants at that point in our journey, so this particular encounter didn’t feel that special.

So what does this have to do with you and your life?

The main lessons I learned from this encounter was that you can’t rely on your imagination and on other people describing how you would feel about something in the future.

Too often we dream how life will be great when something happens in the future. We are even willing to suffer for this future greatness, and when it comes, we are disappointed. It is not what we expected.

It has a name. Psychologists call it the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation. We pursue our goals with the idea that their achievement will make us happy. When the day comes, we may even feel a bit happy, but very quickly we get to our standard level of happiness. Each of us has our own level of happiness and satisfaction with life, and we are resistant to sudden fortunes or misfortunes. They don’t have a long-term impact on how we feel about life.

Why is that? The thing is that with each success our appetite and desires increase. Let’s say you are living in a small apartment you took a mortgage on, having an old car and your salary covers all your expenses. You are fine, but you don’t really have any free cash. And then someone comes and offers you a job that pays twice as much as your current one.

Your thoughts will go along these lines, “This is great! Life will get much more comfortable for me. I will also be able to repay my mortgage faster.” So you jump on the opportunity and get the better paying job. Fast forward a year. You are living in a bit bigger apartment, you have bought a nicer car. And you have a bigger mortgage and still no free cash in your bank.

Your income has increased, but you immediately used that as a way to improve your lifestyle. You are dinning in more expensive restaurants, having more fancy things, and you are still short on cash. You are still complaining about not having enough money. Your happiness levels are exactly the same as when you had the job that paid half.

Very few people are able to resist this urge. I’m a great example of this phenomena. I see myself as someone who has very few needs. And I live in a country with great public transport where no one really needs a car. When I graduated I believed that I won’t ever own a car as it is just an unnecessary luxury item.

I started to work. I was more and more successful. I’ve got a bunch of money and guess what. I bought a car. I didn’t have to, but since I had the money to spend and it would make my life easier I went for it. It was a second-hand Mazda, and it served me well. I changed my internal narrative, “OK, maybe having a car is not that bad, but I will never buy a brand-new car as it is unnecessary and it loses value really fast. Bad investment.”

My second car was still a second-hand. But guess what. Couple more years, more successes and more money meant that my third car was a brand-new Mercedes. What happened with my “no one needs a car, and definitely no one needs a new car”?

As we go through life, our expectations keep increasing. The target keeps moving. Once you think your already reached what you want, you discover that you want something more.

There a better way. Learn to enjoy every single day of your life. Don’t wait for the next promotion to feel happy. Learn to enjoy the work that is leading to the promotion. That way if the promotion doesn’t happen as planned or if you realize that it didn’t make you feel that special you will still have enjoyed the journey.

When I started my career, I had a clear goal where I want to be in five and ten years. I still follow the general direction and have a specific type of role in my mind, but it is not the goal anymore. Every single time I have a conversation with my boss about my career aspirations I don’t talk about the distant goal of what title do I want to have.

I talk about what I want to do every single day in my career journey. I want to build things, I want to learn, and I want to help other people to grow. The title or type of work doesn’t matter that much. It is the building, learning, and growing others that keeps me going. It is the everyday work that fuels my satisfaction with my career.

So if you are on your quest to find the white elephant, learn to enjoy all the regular elephants you encounter on the road. They may not be that special, but they are still beautiful and majestic creatures that deserve your attention. Live in the moment.


Photo: kellepics /

I’m gathering material for a book about introversion, leadership and successful careers, and I would love to hear from you! If you are an introvert, who has a successful career and/or who moved to a leadership role, I would like to ask you to share your experience with me. I prepared a couple of short survey’s that will make it easy for you: Strengths of successful introverts (What strengths introverts have that can help them be successful?); Blueprint of a successful career (What is required for a successful career?); Strategies for introverted leaders (As an introverted leader what strategies do you use to lead and manage others effectively?)

Categories: Career, Life, Travel Stories

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