Picking up the pieces; or How I learned to stop worrying and embrace weird metaphors

Metaphors are fractals of language: once you start to examine them closely, you end up seeing the same pattern over and over and over again.

I tend to find myself re-using the same (usually tired) metaphors in all sorts of different situations. But let’s not chalk it up to laziness right away. Once I start seeing a particular pattern that’s useful for solving problems, well, as they (I) say, I’ve found my hammer, and everything becomes a nail.1

Helpful Metaphors

Travel metaphors are always useful, bringing in words like eyeline, takeoff, and landing into conversations makes work feel more like a swashbuckling adventure than a boring slog through a checklist.

Eggs rolling towards the edge of a table is a particularly good image I’ve borrowed from Matt Work. It’s so damn useful when you need show how to deal with decision overload. All management problems work like this:

There are a dozen eggs rolling toward the edge of the table. You can only catch one.

It’s an argument against micromanagement and interventionism, while offering practical advice for most types of people wrangling problems.

Unhelpful Metaphors

Have you ever found somehwere in the middle of the back half of a sentence when you realize you’re using an obtuse or obscure metaphor, and the feeling sinks in that your captive audience is making a face, because you are in the middle of a cognitive leap so bizarre it would make an anti-comedian blush? Me too.

This is not my first rodeo but it is my first day

I call that an “unhelpful metaphor.” Even if it does make sense without being a stretch, if it makes the poor audience question the sanity of the speaker it’s safe to say it should probably be left out.

Finding balance

Usually when I start employing these colorful turns of phrase it’s because I’m trending to frame a concept, and I’m using roughly hewn idioms in an imprecise language to do it. Like how a charcoal rubbing brings out the detail hidden to the naked eye, an applicable metaphor, however weird, can help drawn out a details that might not be readily apparent.

So these days I just say it, whether or not it’s a weird comparison. I’m lending my point of view, and in a subjective world, the sooner you understand someone’s perspective, the sooner you’l be able to establish empathy.