Sometimes all we need is a good metaphor

A few words might help guide us through new and difficult situations

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Not all those who wander are lost. – JRR Tolkien

We use metaphors all the time without thinking about them.

Are we on a “life journey”? A “career track” or “ladder”? Do we have a “dead-end” job”?

Those are all metaphors, terms we use to describe who we are, where we are in a process or where we imagine ourselves ultimately going or becoming.

They are figures of speech, or word pictures, with not much actual authority or relevance – except what we give them.

Some hold their meaning; others lose their power and have a short shelf-life. Anyone remember the term “You’re toast”?

I must admit that I never really understood that one; did that mean warmed up? Crispy? Buttered? Burnt? Ready to eat?

Thankfully, except for movies from a decade or two ago, we basically never hear that one.

But others hold their power

Every metaphor has its limits. What, after all, is a “career path”?

A “path” is a well-worn walkway, one used by many people and usually with well-defined beginning and end points. Maybe even milage and directional signage.

A “career path” (mine – and most people I know, at least) looks nothing like this.

Career “paths” I have known bear no resemblance to any kind of predictable career formula.

Like love perhaps, careers follow – and are derailed by – familiar and thoroughly unforeseeable opportunities, catastrophes and serendipitous intersections.

One well-known career advisor described the typical career “path” as more like a canoe “path” through water – with no distinct step-by-step charting, but with a final destination in mind. And ripples, quickly disappearing in the visible distance as the only “trail” left behind.

This seems far more accurate to me.

But what it would be called has always been a puzzle.

There is no worn path, no trail of crumbs to follow – just the open waters of time that, we presume, lies before all of us.

But of course, even that is not true.

Careers, industries, even individual lives are cut short.

Some opportunities expand, others evaporate.

Some business partners inspire us, some sabotage us, others betray us or open up potentialities within us we never could have imagined.

In my career for example I have worked alongside drug addicts and diplomats, CEOS and homeless people, some of the richest people in the world, and some of the poorest. I have walked through slums one day, and palaces the next in China.

Our choices, our reactions and life’s crazy accidents could take us almost anywhere.

Markets, business conditions, relationships, lucky breaks, and personal health are only a few of the multiple variables that impact, or even define our career trajectory.

“It’s all in who you know” is one of the few proverbs of business advice that generally holds true.

But even that semi-reliable proverb has its limits and exceptions.

It is also true that “Familiarity breeds contempt” and we all know the seemingly irresistible lure of the “expert” from the big city or the well-known organization – or the immediately recognizable family name.

Metaphors and old sayings should be held, and believed, loosely.

What, after all is a “dead-end job”?

A literal dead-end street is one that does not connect, go through or lead anywhere.

A “dead-end job” may not have growth potential (the academic equivalent for a degree that goes no further is a “terminal degree” – not only is further progress not possible, but death – literal or career-wise – is implied).

But, as one notices in the first few years, or even less, out in the world of work, not everyone holds the same criteria for job satisfaction.

For some, stability and security are primary – and a “dead-end job” is ideal.

I have known some writers and artists (and a few parents, even a few mountain climbers and “ski bums”) who prefer, by far, to focus their creative energies on their own work or passions and are perfectly content with what anyone else might denigrate as a “dead-end job”.

“When one door closes, another one opens” is another common metaphor.

I hear this one in religious, philosophical, psychological and yes, career and business counseling contexts.

And, like the “career path” metaphor, this one seems coined by, and repeated by, those who seem to have never encountered real life- or even an actual “door” before; as one observer put it, “When a door closes, you open it again. That’s how doors work.”

Every metaphor has its limits and some have stuck around long after their expiration dates.

But some are pretentious and preposterous immediately – at least if we take a good look at them.

Is an economy, or a movement within an economy, a force of nature, a tremor, a storm or even a tidal wave?

Is it a vehicle to be fixed or tuned-up? Is it a living body that needs to be restored or revived? (Does the term “economic transfusion” creep out anyone else?)

Is the marketplace a battlefield or even a state of war?

Is a business or any corporate organization a “family”?

Metaphors should help us clarify our positions and our options – they should not delude us into fantastical solutions or programs.

In other words, we need our metaphors to be our tools, not our masters. A metaphor may be obsolete, irrelevant or even ridiculous, but that does not mean that we need to be.

A good metaphor can open the way, give us insights or even inspire us through difficult times, but like every tool, no metaphor fits every purpose or situation.

Some, in fact, lead us astray. For an exploration of the many costs of believing nonsense in the boardroom I suggest this book –

A national economy, even a regional economy, is far more than the sum of its parts. It is a mix of geography, history, motives, visions and opportunities seized or lost, a few inspirational leaders and a dash of hucksterism and self-promotion.

For whatever set of historical or cultural circumstances, Americans seem vulnerable to, even enamored with, easy answers, gold-rush, get-rich-quick schemes, magic formulas and hustlers of all kinds.

Now more than ever, we need to keep our eye on the ball, think outside the box, get our car in gear and our seeds planted. And watch out for those speed bumps along the way.

For a bit more on business metaphors and what they mean, look here –