There is an old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Elephants are synonymous with being big. We have elephant ears and there’s an elephant in the room. Similarly, I believe in having big, elephant dreams. But sometimes those dreams can be overwhelming, and our failure in trying to reach our big dreams leads to discouragement and despair, which can paralyze us.
The Mask of Zorro* is a fun movie depicting the legend of Zorro (and you thought I was going to write about Dumbo!). That legend has Zorro traveling through the southwest of the United States righting wrongs, fighting evil, and, of course, attracting women. He may have been the original superhero. But Zorro was not always a gallant swashbuckler. The movie portrays the young Zorro as foolhardy and ineffective at his quest to foil villains. He attempts great feats, but the higher he flies, the farther he falls. And the more he falls, the more he feels as if the world around him is out of control.
But an old mentor, Don Diego, is there to save the day. He takes the young Zorro (still known as Alejandro at this point) who is suffering from drinking and despair, and begins to mold him, promising him that with dedication and time, Alejandro can be the master of his own fate. In a hidden cave, Don Diego places Alejandro within a small circle and tells him, “This circle will be your world. Your whole life. Until I tell you otherwise, there is nothing outside of it.” Here is a clip of this important scene from the movie:
Once Alejandro is able to master his new world (the small circle), Don Diego slowly, but steadily, increases the size of Alejandro’s world, and allows him to tackle greater and greater feats until he has become the legend that is Zorro. But without mastering that first circle, Alejandro had no control over his world – no real skill, no faith in his abilities, and no chance of reaching his dreams. In short, before Zorro could eat his big elephant of dreams, he had to chew it up one bite at a time.
Shawn Achor, in one of my favorite books, The Happiness Advantage**, talks about the “Zorro Circle” or a person’s circle of control. Achor states, “One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters; that we have control over our future…. By first limiting the scope of our efforts, then watching those efforts have the intended effect, we accumulate the resources, knowledge and confidence to expand the circle, gradually conquering a larger and larger area.”
Anchor describes two interesting studies about people who feel they are in control (whether or not they actually are). In one study of 7,400 employees, those who believed they had little or no control over deadlines imposed by their supervisors or others had a 50 percent higher risk of heart disease than those who believed they maintained some control. In fact, the researchers concluded that feeling a lack of control at work is as great a risk factor for heart disease as high blood pressure.
In the other study, researchers found that, when they gave a group of nursing home residents more control over their daily lives – even something as simple as being in charge of their own house plants – their mortality rate actually dropped in half (and their happiness levels increased).
So dream dreams as big as elephants, but achieve those dreams one bite at a time. Starting wherever you’re at, find something over which you can exercise control, whether it’s as complex as running a multinational corporation, or as simple as planning tonight’s dinner. And as the clip of Zorro shows, sometimes you need to start out slowly, and very small, even as small as what is really inside your heart. But taking control of our circles, large or small, will make our lives more fulfilling – and happier. Who knows, maybe each of us will be able to unleash the Zorro inside of us, and be legends, if only in our own minds. But in our own minds is really all that matters.
*The Mask of Zorro
Production: TriStar Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, David Foster Productions
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenwriter: Johnston McCulley and Ted Elliott
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones
Released: July 17, 1998
**Achor, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles, Crown Business, 2010