Indian on camel.

Hunt Down Your Metaphors and Kill Them

The metaphors we use influence how we live our lives. They impact everyone around us.

We use metaphors to understand abstract concepts that aren’t easily understandable through our senses and direct experience —things that are complex, multi-faceted, hard to delineate and in general too big to ever know totally. Metaphors simplify things for us by focusing our attention on certain aspects of an experience or concept that we can’t comprehend totally. Since, by definition, a metaphor is a tool to describe something else it never is the thing itself. Metaphors will always highlight parts of reality while hiding other parts. They are imperfect.

Metaphors shape our understanding of the world and as a result they influence how we interact with the world. They are the gateways to new realities. A good metaphor can empower us and drive positive, creative action. A bad metaphor can blind us to reality and be destructive.

Metaphors shape our thoughts and drive our actions at every level of life —often without us realizing it. Level of life is itself a metaphor, designed to help you temporarily compartmentalize the concept of life into categories so that we have a similar enough understanding of “life” to talk about how the idea of metaphor relates to it. But we both know that life doesn’t actually have levels. I’m only using it as a phrase of speech to help us talk about something else.

When we are blind to the metaphors we’re operating from we can mistake the metaphor for reality. This limits our range of possible actions and our freedom.

THE METAPHORS WE OPERATE BY

In the U.S., we’ve been using the metaphor war on terror since 2001. It’s been incredibly effective in mobilizing us as a nation towards a particular set of goals. We developed a color coded “terror alert” system. We invaded Iraq. We hunted down and killed a very hard to find man named Osama Bin Laden. Sixteen years later and our nation’s conversation is intensely focused on “securing borders” and building walls.

Indian camel guide
My camel guide and cook during an over night camel trek in the Thar Desert, India.

How might a marriage play out if the dominating metaphor for both partners was love is war? What if it was love is negotiation? What if it was love is play?

There certainly are aspects of each that are true:

LOVE IS WAR: You have to fight for her. He won my love. I didn’t give up any ground with her on that, I held strong.

LOVE IS NEGOTIATION: We compromised, I’m taking the kids on Saturday. I’m cooking dinner tonight and in exchange she’s agreed to go to the PTA meeting tomorrow.

LOVE IS PLAY: He makes me feel like a kid again. Being with her is so much fun. I won’t play her game.

But which marriage would you prefer to be in?

Anyone whose been in sales instinctively knows the importance of using the right metaphors. Being on the same team leads to finding “win/win outcomes”. But if your prospect sees you as an opponent then someone must lose for the other to win. It’s going to be hard to build a long term relationship around that. Sometimes you can’t change the operating metaphor but if you know what it is you can cater to it.

We use metaphors in our day to day life all the time. In your work are you a weekend warrior? A martyr for a cause? A cog in a machine? An agent of change? A linchpin? A breadwinner?

All of these metaphors structure our language, actions and reality differently. Do you live for the weekends? Is work killing you? Are you grinding? Making the world a better place? Are you required for the project to work? Bringing home the bacon?

WHEN METAPHORS COLLIDE

When the metaphors we use conflict they can cause incongruence and anxiety in our lives. For example, freedom is a core value for me. Recently I’ve realized that two of my dominant metaphors around time are time is money and time is freedom.

This has led me to equate money with freedom and think that I must buy my freedom. It motivated me to work hard, reduce my expenses and save money. Now I have the freedom to do what I want: travel and write. I’m writing this post from the top of a sandstone fort overlooking the Thar Desert in India. It’s unlikely my current reality would include camels, long dark mustaches and sand dunes without the help of those two metaphors.

Camel ride on the dunes
Riding camels over the dunes of the Thar desert.

But in other ways these two metaphors have been really limiting. Am I not already free? Who or what was I a slave to?

Most days now I wake up and I can choose to do whatever I want. It’s an incredible privilege. But still I’m often operating under the time is money metaphor. So sitting around and relaxing or reading a book just for the fun of it sometimes creates stress for me. I’m wasting money! If I’m not making money I will lose my freedom! I’m not using these actual words but this is my underlying fear.

I’ve found that time is money is also not a good metaphor for learning new skills. It discourages me by making it feel really costly when I’m first learning something new. I’m not being productive with my time! This triggers the same fear that I might lose my freedom. Sometimes I lay another metaphor on top of that metaphor and see learning new skills as an investment. Then I can soothe myself by picturing a chart with an exponential learning curve. But what then if my new skill doesn’t seem to be paying off? How do I even measure that? Was it a waste to learn something just because I was curious about it?

The same metaphors which enhanced my freedom are now limiting my freedom. The rabbit hole goes deep.

HUNTING FOR METAPHORS
SHHHHH!!! Be vewy vewy quiet. I’m hunting for wabbits.
-Elmer Fudd

We can get clues to where the metaphors we’re operating from are hiding by closely observing the language we use. This is hard —our operating metaphors are often deeply embedded within our culture and our own psyche. They can be so obvious as to be hard to see —even when they are standing right in front of us. It’s also tricky because the same metaphor can be helpful or harmful depending on what our goals are and what aspect of our experience we apply them to.

Metaphors map meaning onto our lives. Life is a story is one of the most ancient and most powerful metaphors in all of human history. If we explore the metaphors we’re using we can better understand why we do the things we do —and why others do what they do. We might even kill a few sacred cows.

A large part of self-understanding is the search for appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives. Self-understanding requires unending negotiation and renegotiation of the meaning of your experience to yourself. […] The process of self-understanding is the continual development of new life stories for yourself.
-George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

If you are feeling frustrated or lacking purpose or motivation it might be because of the metaphors you are using. What metaphors are you using for life, work, money, relationships, time? Look at all the important areas of your life. Can you spot the metaphors you’re using there? Are they helping you or hurting you?

While considering this it helps to know what your goals and values are. You can then use those as a measuring stick for the effectiveness of the metaphors you are using.

As we become more aware of our metaphors we can begin replacing them with better metaphors. Think of metaphors as a technology we all have available to us at the tip of our tongues. The more we upgrade this technology the better we can understand our experience, relate with others, motivate ourselves, focus our attention and energy and influence the world around us. And the potential for this technology —a technology that you already have— is massive. We are only limited by our lack of awareness of the metaphors we are currently using and our ability to find new metaphors.

Sand dunes and sky.

We can become better at observing our own language the more we understand what language is. Reading books on language and metaphor or works by authors, poets and artists with a masterful command of metaphor can help us become more aware of our own metaphors (see the end of this post for a couple places I’d recommend starting).

Becoming aware of our unconscious metaphors is more than half the battle. If we can continue to bring attention to the ones that aren’t working for us we’ll have no choice but to change them —or stay unhappy. When we notice them in our thinking we can insert a new metaphor in their place. This new metaphor may take a while to stick or it may not stick at all and you’ll need to try another. It takes time to change deeply ingrained ways of thinking but if we continue to notice and replace, over time we can kill the old one by transplanting a new, healthier one in its place. Where can we find fresh metaphors?

FINDING NEW METAPHORS

There’s no lack of metaphors in our world but I do find it takes quite a bit of effort and practice to come up with my own metaphors. It’s much easier to steal them.1 Here’s a few of my favorite places to steal new metaphors from:

Books – Typically books that are written by people much smarter and more experienced than me. People from different time periods, geographies and cultures and people interested in different things than I am. Here’s a free, lifetime supply of good books for you to read.

Nature – Oceans, deserts and mountains are my favorite places to look but a park, your backyard or a potted plant will do.

Learn a new skill – Any new skill can be a rich metaphor in itself and each domain uses it’s own lexicon of metaphors to instruct and motivate. Here’s two places where you can learn a new skill from home: Linda.com & Khan Academy.

Teach a skill you already know – Teaching forces you to find creative ways to connect and explain what you know in ways that are understandable to those that know less about a subject than you do. You will be forced to find common ground. Metaphor is a great way to do that. Volunteer locally, start a craigslist meet up, or teach a friend informally. You don’t even need a willing audience for this…just start recording your lessons and posting them on YouTube.

One on one conversations – Whatever someone says ask them “why?” Then just listen. If the conversation stalls ask them why again. This works for email too but people will stop responding to you after a while so don’t be annoying.

Travel – Each culture has it’s own metaphors. It’s also much easier to see our own culture’s metaphors once we’ve stepped outside them. You may have to leave your home but you don’t have to leave your town or city to immerse yourself in someone else’s culture. Go to a synagogue, a church, temple a meditation hall or a mosque. Religion is full of great metaphors.

Create a vision board – I know, this one sounds kind of woo woo. But I did it and the results were freaky. Giving ourselves space to imagine new possibilities can help us imagine new metaphors as well.

The wider I cast my net, the more metaphors I have at my disposal. The more metaphors I have, the more creative I can be in understanding and shaping my reality. The more creative I can be, the more freedom I have.

Relentlessly hunt down your old metaphors and kill them. 

I’ve noticed that people sometimes tell me I think “differently,” “creatively,” or “originally.” I’m not sure any of these are true. I’ve just spent more time on the hunt.

Sunset over the sand dunes of the Thar desert.
Sunset over our camp in the Thar Desert.

FURTHER READING

Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson – If you want to dive headfirst into the world of metaphor this is required reading. I found it profound. It’s a convincing effort in bridging what often seem like distant realms: reason and imagination. It’s also a very jarring exploration into the way language shapes our world and the meaning it gives to our lives. Two warnings: 1) The first half is technical and dry but it is worth working through to understand the conclusions the authors’ come to in the second half. 2) It’s a philosophy book.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts – An entertaining albeit head spinning read on exploring who we are and how the language we use plays a big role in our understanding of that. Watts doesn’t focus on metaphor specifically and only speaks about language generally but his message incorporates both: the limits of our language has lead us to a grave misunderstanding of who we are. But you can just observe the language Watts himself uses —he is a true master of metaphor. Two warnings on this book as well: 1) It’s “spiritual.” It wouldn’t be Alan Watts if it wasn’t. 2) It’s also a philosophy book (although much more fun than your average philosophy book).

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  1. I stole the hunting metaphor from Taylor Pearson.

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.