What’s your Metaphor?

As I listen to the conversations around me, I hear many uses of metaphor:

  • “Dublin is a maze”,
  • “Anna has a flood of new ideas”,
  • “Business is war”,
  • “John is a waste of space”,
  • “An MBA is a passport to a new career”.

Metaphors are supremely powerful communication devices. They allow us to understand something new, framed as a version of something we already understand.

Metaphor allows us to understand something by framing it as something we already know.  They accelerate understanding.  They accelerate our ability to deal with a new situation.

Metaphor is a Two-Edged Sword

However, metaphor is a two-edged sword.

Once we have a metaphor, we will limit our understanding of the new domain to this initial framing.

My daughter just said “This is just like temple run” (I know… simile, not metaphor…  she is referring to a new iPad game a friend has just shown her).  The game is very much like “temple run”, but my daughter has just crashed 3 times because she is trying to directly use a technique from “temple run” in this new game.

If she had not had the “this is temple run” metaphor… she would have crashed once, and then changed her behaviour.  The blessing of metaphor is that she can adapt quickly, the curse is that un-learning takes longer than learning from zero.

Metaphor is everywhere

We use them with others.  We use them to explain.  “Scuba diving is flying underwater.”

We use them with ourselves.  “Life is a test.”  “Life is a box of chocolates.”  “Life is a gift.”

“Life is a rollercoaster.”

Photo yaz36

In the same way that metaphor helps others quickly focus on important aspects of a new situation, our own metaphor focusses our attention on things relevant

Our emotive state is often strongly affected by our choice of metaphor to describe our situation. “I’m stuck” is a metaphor. It is a limiting metaphor. You are not really stuck, you feel like you are trapped in the mud halfway across a field and each step is tremendous effort.

Some metaphors for life, and how they shape or frame our attention

Metaphors: Life is a…

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  • Battle, a Test or a Game – Everything is a competition or a struggle. We are always either winning or losing.
  • Mission – We believe that we have the truth and we need to convince others that our point-of-view is right.
  • Gift – Each day is a bonus, each challenge is an opportunity to learn, each reward is worth savouring.
  • Journey or an Adventure – We travel from place to place meeting new people and exploring.
  • Building – Starting with a solid foundation, then adding floors and rooms.
  • Roller Coaster – Life consists of ups and downs, and we are along for the ride.
  • Mountain Climb – Life consists of hierarchies. We are always climbing the corporate ladder.
  • Race – always finding the fastest route, “keeping up with the Jonses.”
  • Prison – Feeling like we don’t have choices, like others have all the power.
  • Classroom – There are always new lessons to learn.

What is your metaphor?  How does it shape what you are focussing on?  How does it make you feel about your life?  Is it enhancing your life or is it limiting some aspects of your life?

Personally, I find that my unconscious metaphor is that life is a struggle, a battle, a competition and a test…  and I limit myself into modes of comparing with others, finishing one task and jumping into the next without taking time to savour the moment.

What is yours?

Author: Conor Neill

Hi, I’m Conor Neill, an Entrepreneur and Teacher at IESE Business School. I speak about Moving People to Action.

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