Are You Keeping White Elephants?

January 3, 2013 Personal Branding 1 comment

Do you know what a “white elephant” is?

Well, it is an idiom representing a valued possession where its costs far outweigh its usefulness. The phrase originated from age-old traditions in Indochina (Thailand, Myanmar). Back then, monarchs kept these rare (and burdensome) animals for the purposes of showcasing their wealth and power.

These days, huge “ego” projects by governments around the world are labelled as white elephants. They can be anything from tax-funded sports stadiums, military jets, hydroelectric dams to public offices.

Public listed companies are occasionally accused of building white elephants – sprawling HQ offices, luxuriant bathroom fittings, corporate jets, and more. While these are sometimes justified for “branding” and “image” purposes, stakeholders (particularly shareholders) usually point accusatory fingers at these when revenue and profits nosedive.

Wait a minute, I hear you say.

What do these exorbitant and rare animals have anything to do with me?


Like it or not, we all have white elephants in our lives. These can take the shape of materialistic possessions, hobbies, habits, social media properties, jobs and even people!

Examples of such white elephants could include the following:

– An expensive luxury car which you clean and polish every other day, but which you don’t use so that you can avoid rising ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) and parking charges;

– A bejeweled gown that scintillates and sparkles, but which you don’t wear as its too ostentatious for mostly casual Singapore;

– A highly popular YouTube channel that scores lots of views for its zany weekly videos, each of which is a bitch to produce;

– A jet setting career as a regional director in a MNC earning tonnes of cash which you don’t have time (or energy) to spend;

– A relationship with the most gorgeous “trophy” hunk/babe who costs an arm and a leg to feed (and whom you need to constantly keep vigil over lest he/she stray). 
Like public and corporate white elephants, personal white elephants are not only costly to acquire but costly to maintain. They exert a disproportionate influence on our lives, sapping our energies, resources and emotions while offering comparatively little benefit in return.

Unlike organisational white elephants, personal ones are often the hardest to divest. Because they are personal, such possessions or positions were acquired after much thought. Often, they represented the best decisions one could make at that point of time.

(Admittedly, we also loved the darn things/persons because they’re so beautiful/cute/exquisite/etc)

However, circumstances and contexts change. That luxury automobile served its purpose when you were a fast rising star in sales. Now that you’re retired without any income, the monthly maintenance costs (road tax, insurance, parking) is a strain on your resources.

As you start the new year, think about those personal white elephants. Re-evaluate their relevance to your life as it is now. If necessary, do a cost-benefit analysis and make an objective decision about whether that ego project/possession/partner is worth keeping.

At the end of the day, remember that we are not the sum of our possessions. Our lives are worth much more than that. 

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.

One Comment

  1. Hi W! This is a really good and thoughtful post, I couldn’t agree more. I think many people put up with things that they think they need but they don’t realize that they were just ‘wants’, ‘wants’ in a particular moment or fleeting period of time. It’s amazing how many people I know put up with something because of something else they want. I admit we all have our white elephants, but I would never go so far as to sacrifice bigger things like a loveless marriage for a certain lifestyle, a friendship for money, etc. Would you? 🙂

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