Metaphorically Speaking

If you go online and look up “Bad Metaphors or Similes,” here are a few examples you’re likely to find:

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon.

He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

What makes these so comically terrible? For one, they each violate the blueprint of a good joke: recognizable set up, a moment of tension, then a hard right turn.  With the examples above, the turn, rather than being poetic or descriptive, is blunt and obvious- a U-Turn.
 
I realize that being a former English teacher makes me part of the home team so to speak, but it's difficult for me to imagine understanding anything complex or abstract without having a coinciding metaphor illustrating it. I would even go one step further and say that metaphors can become a part of our personal stories, and that like personal stories, they become our "compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice." Solnit, Rebecca (2013-06-13). The Faraway Nearby (p. 3). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

Working with Meaning (Introduction)

When my niece and nephew graduated from high school, I saw each struggling with the same question- "What now?"

I was reminded of the predicament you’re in when you’re 18 and start fumbling around with answers to this quandary. On one hand, you want a career that provides financial security, yet you also want to pursue something that offers a sense of meaning and purpose. Of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that pursuing one often leads in a different, sometimes opposite, direction from the other. So… What's one to do?

To try and answer the question, I have begun writing a series of essays that I’ll be posting here titled WORKING WITH MEANING. When I finish, I will shape them into a documentary that will include interviews with individuals who’ve cracked the code so to speak and are getting financially compensated to do meaningful work they enjoy along with interviews from scholars who have spent their professional lives researching and writing about this very topic. If you're interested in this idea, subscribe to my blog in the right column and you will get an email every time I post something new. Hope you enjoy!

Working with Meaning (Part 1)

There's a great scene in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey where HAL says “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”  The fact that HAL is a computer is disconcerting enough but even more unsettling is how it nudges the viewer, who is in fact a conscious entity, to ponder am I putting myself to the fullest possible use? 

Occasionally, I'll hear the phrase What's the meaning of life? spoken in a casual conversation. I say "phrase" and not question because it's usually said more as a punchline than an honest inquiry.

The meaning of life is at the core of HAL’s quote.  He (it) has found it: I am putting myself to the fullest possible use. Of course, the word "use" here does seem subjective. If HAL were a philosophy professor, I doubt he would tell his students that his reference point for usefulness was, in an a priori sense, THE reference point. HAL seems content because he has found his own fullest possible use.

Working with Meaning (Part 2)

In Part 1, I quoted a passage from an essay by John T. Price suggesting work in and of itself is redemptive. I hear echoes of Price's essay in this passage from Jack Schaefer's western novel Shane when the father of the narrator is laboring with the title character, Shane, to uproot an enormous tree trunk:
What impressed you as Shane found what he was up against and settled to it was the easy way the power in him poured smoothly into each stroke. The man and the axe seemed to be partners in the work. The blade would sink into the parallel grooves almost as if it knew itself what to do and the chips from between would come out in firm and thin little blocks.  
[My father] picked a root on the opposite side from Shane. He was not angry the way he usually was when he confronted one of those roots. There was a kind of serene and contented look on his face.   Shaefer, Jack. Shane. (pp. 25-26). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
When the boy's mother, Marian, comes to see what they are doing, she is surprised because initially her husband intended to take the day off and rest.  Not sure what to make of the behemoth task her husband and Shane are attempting, Marian says: 
'Humph... [t]his is a funny kind of resting you're doing today.'  
The boy's father puts the axe on the ground, leans on the handle, and responds, 'Maybe it seems funny... [b]ut this is the best resting I've had for about as long as I can remember.'
Of the entire passage, I find these sentences to be the most interesting. Shaefer is working with a paradox here- not only illustrating the physical strain required to accomplish their task, but suggesting one can simultaneously feel "rested" within and during the task. 

Working with Meaning (Part 3)


Earlier, we discussed the scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Brick is looking for an ever-elusive click "that turns the hot light off and the cool one on."  A few years ago, Wright Thompson wrote a great article titled “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building” that illustrates Jordan looking for this same click.  Why is it soothing to hear that in spite of his accomplishments Michael Jordan is still a restless, unhappy soul? Is this the sentiment Shakespeare's Richard II suggests when he says let's sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings? It's clear this is the appeal Thompson's article is trying to foster. He even uses some of Jordan’s material possessions as pointed metaphors: his cigar not staying lit, a lost championship ring, a missing pair of glasses.  It's an easy story to tell:  If I can't be like Mike, I want him to be like me. 

Obviously, work is how many turn the hot light off and the cool light on. Yet, why does some work provide meaning while other work offers only boredom or dread?  Similarly, how was the narrator's father in Shane able to feel "rest" while actually doing a grueling task? Is any of this related to what Jordan experienced as an athlete that he seemingly hasn't found as an executive? I think a possible answer to all these questions can be found within the work of Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has spent decades studying the phenomenon of FLOW which he describes as a sort of hypnosis where all sense of self, time, and place drift away and only a singular focus on the task at hand remains. For Flow to occur, some fundamental components have to be in place. For one, a person's skill has to be in proportion to the difficulty of the task being performed, and as one's skill increases, so must the challenge.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow can be achieved within a wide variety of activities- athletes, musicians, artists, even a mother piecing together a puzzle with her child can all experience it. Within each scenario though, there are always 3 common denominators:

Working with Meaning (Part 4)

In Parts 1-3, we discussed the three common denominators for reaching a state of Flow:
  1. A clearly defined goal as well as agreed upon rules and boundaries that dictate the terms of how this goal can be accomplished.
  2. Freedom for decision making and creativity within these set rules and boundaries.
  3. Immediate feedback for the incremental steps made toward achieving the goal and recognition when the defined goal has been accomplished.
In the previous posts, we were primarily discussing how these components related to work, but Csikszentmihalyi's ideas expands to even game theory. Of the three components, the second is the most nuanced and I would argue, often what makes one game more or less enjoyable than another.  In fact, the next time you’re playing a game and find yourself sort of bored, it’s likely from an inability to make creative decisions within the game's rules or boundaries. 

For participants and fans alike, professional sports display a nearly perfect execution of the these three components. Most of the major sports have not only rules in place but referees and umpires to enforce them, as well as instant replay to enforce this enforcement. The vast differences among players in style and skill illustrate the range of creativity and decision making allowed within the rules set into place. Immediate feedback is not only displayed on the scoreboard during each second of the game, channels like ESPN and sports radio provide recognition and commentary about each accomplishment. In addition, there are a myriad of awards presented each season, culminating with the most gifted players being inducted into a Hall of Fame.

Working with Meaning (Part 5)



In my prior post, I referred to Csikszentmihalyi describing how many people feel “Sunday mornings are the lowest part of the week, because with no demands on attention, they are unable to decide what to do….For many, the lack of structure of those hours is devastating.”  

Years ago, I read Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and heard echoes of the same theme: 
The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”  Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (p. 133). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.