October 29, 2022

We're Losing our Patience for Metaphor and It's Killing Us

In a nod to the story of Romulus and Remus, author Karen Russell penned an imaginative story about a school for young girls who had been raised by wolves. Human by nature but wild at heart, the girls weather the transition to “proper” humanness with varying degrees of success.

Reflection Point groups have delighted in discussing this story for years. As a metaphor for everything from workplace onboarding to the immigrant experience to the sinister intentions of American Indian boarding schools, the story is a profound reminder of what happens when we force people to abandon what they know and conform to a new culture.

But lately our groups are struggling with this story. Why are we talking about wolves? What does this have to do with us? A story that used to provoke reflective and thoughtful inquiry about compliance and acculturation seems to generate confusion and even frustration for the groups discussing it recently.  

The state of the world - pandemic, war in Ukraine, political polarization and the rapidly changing future of work - has left us universally tired and anxious. Our brains are so overloaded our cognitive bandwidth is maxed out. And I’m noticing a surprising casualty – metaphorical thinking.

Remember metaphor? It's that concept you learned in 9th grade English - the trick writers use to contrast two different ideas. But metaphor is far more than the stylistic writing device.

Metaphor helps us make sense of the world. It’s often a shortcut to understanding something or someone new. It even shapes how we think and act.

Imagine a conversation is heating up. You evoke the metaphor, “argument is war,” and immediately set up a battle with only one victor. What if, instead, if we were to frame the argument as dance? Then guided by the music of this much more positive metaphor, you might move in a choreographed attempt to reach a result together. Instead of trampling each other’s ideas, you’d be watching out for each other’s feet!  

Metaphor helps us to immediately understand what we don’t know in the context of something we do. As we lose our patience with this kind of thinking, we lose a significant human advantage: the ability to surface new ideas at the intersection of two seemingly different concepts.

This may seem abstract but it’s not. As the world becomes more complex we need metaphor more than ever – and not just in the arts, but in life and at work.

Here’s why you need metaphorical thinking in your organization:

  1. Your culture. Metaphor is a driver of your culture, of the common language and shared understanding within your organization. Consider the phrase “publish or perish,” a mantra for academics all over the world. This metaphor speaks to the values and the mandates of higher education but is meaningless in the broader world. To keep a culture alive in your organization, a shared context fueled by shared metaphorical understanding creates alignment around your values.
  2. Your people. The very essence of what makes us human is our ability to think metaphorically, to think in analogies. Computer scientists working in artificial intelligence know that this ability is the chasm that lies between process automation and a sentient robot. There are many things that machines can do better than we can. But metaphorical thinking is not one of them - yet. Metaphorical or analogical thinking represents a significant human advantage, the attribute that distinguishes us from robots and AI.
  3. Your future. Our ability to innovate requires us to learn new things - to expand into spaces we don’t know. The science is clear that we learn and make sense of these things by extension from what we already know.  Metaphorical thinking is the practice ground. If we don’t feel confident or willing to think metaphorically, we stay in our literal lanes and we shy away from the new. That could cripple your growth.

I understand why we want things to be simple and easy for our overtaxed lobes to process. But if we kill metaphors it will kill us. As Robert Frost once said, “unless you are at home in the metaphor, … you are not safe anywhere. You are not safe in science, you are not safe in history.”

And our future is not safe either. Metaphor is what separates us from the machines (and the wolves). It’s what connects us to new ideas and each other. And it’s actually the very thing we need more of to navigate an ever more complex world.

Image Credit:
Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf, 1943, Museum of Modern Art via wikiart.org
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