Bite the monkey

Posted on November 18, 2013

I live with a 10-year old German Shepherd mix named Hamachi. A large dog with a large mouth, Machi gets mouthy when she’s very excited. At walk time, for example, she will have a friendly nosh on anything in reach–my ankles, her leash, my butt–while yowling and leaping around.

Years ago, I learned to intercept this behavior by giving Machi a job to do when she is excited. Now she has a stuffed monkey that we keep by the door. When it’s walk time, I say in my firm voice, “Bite the monkey, Machi,” and that’s exactly what she does. All of her enthusiasm is channelled into biting and shaking that monkey. So I can get myself dressed for the outdoors without fear of friendly fire.

When I turned 44 this week, I asked myself what I know now that I didn’t know earlier in my life. The answer came immediately and simply: I know how to get out of my own way. In teaching Machi to bite the monkey, it appears I have learned to do the same. I think this might be the absolute most important life strategy. Because though there are certainly plenty of obstacles “out there” in the world, we can make things so much harder for ourselves by creating a whole range of obstacles “in here.”  Our behaviors and our attitudes are often our greatest limitations. The good news is that we are in charge of these. And as we learn to make different choices, our range of possibilities can dramatically expand.

Some of my “bite the monkey” practices over the years have included: Making detailed schedules that I may or may not follow — primarily because it gives me the illusion of control and order — and also because it helps me see that there actually IS enough time to make all of my goals happen. I make detailed to-do lists for similar reasons. When I find myself thinking self-defeating thoughts, I will often write them down so I can see clearly what stories have power over me. Often, I will make two columns–the first of which says “I once believed” and the second says “Now I believe.” Here I might rejigger, “I am not perfect enough to ever publish anything,” to say instead: “I will do my best, and I will let editors/publishers decide if my work is worth publishing.” I will also let myself bounce around on social media for a good 10-15 minutes when I first sit down at my desk, because it lets me spin out some of my nervous energy before settling down to real work.

For me, biting the monkey means finding a way to satisfy the rebellious or fearful or inexperienced/undeveloped part of me with some meaningful activity that lets me keep the rest of my energy focused on my forward momentum.

How do you bite the monkey? What strategies work to get you beyond your own interference—and a bit closer to your goals?


  1. Doug Pendergrass
    January 4th, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

    You’ve reminded me of an image I got from the guy who wrote–I think it’s titled– The Happiness Hypothesis. Anyway, to paraphrase him, he suggests “you do something small and drag yourself over the wall.”

    This thought helps kickstart me by reminding me that big things are accomplished by doing little, manageable, things along the way. The “wall” works for me because of what’s on the other side–a happier me!
    Thanks for your examples, Sage. You were aptly named. :)

  2. Sage Cohen
    January 5th, 2014 @ 1:09 am

    That’s a great motto, Doug. Thank you for sharing it. Focusing on the small steps that move us through the big hurdles is powerful work…Here’s to the adventures that await us on the other side.

  3. Doug Pendergrass
    January 5th, 2014 @ 5:05 am

    A great toast! Thanks, Sage. Cheers.

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