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Metaphors Open Career Vista’s

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Photo by Beata Ratuszniak on Unsplash

Your metaphors have power

Metaphors are essential to understanding the world, making meaning of your life, and communicating with other people. We humans use metaphor in our natural everyday talk with one another, in what we read and write, and in the way we gesture as we say something.

So forget what you learnt in school, that metaphor is simply a rhetorical flourish or literary adornment.  Are you aware that metaphor reaches beyond just a fancy synonym that describes something by making an easy comparison with something else? Metaphors are at the heart of how we think and act. Yet, you often don’t notice your own or others metaphorical language during a conversation.

Take the abstract concept time: “Time is money”, “Times are a changing”, “Times are tough”. Consider how often people use time in relation to a more concrete or physical experience, such as time in terms of space, distance, and movement: TIME AS AN OBJECT MOVING TOWARDS YOU i.e.,  “The meeting was brought forward to Monday.” This simple example should give an indication to just how much metaphor there is in every talk.

Career is a metaphor

The word ‘‘career’’ is a metaphor drawn from its origins of a course, a track, or a chariot.  People often use expressions that career is a lifelong path towards a goal: CAREER IS A JOURNEY. It is difficult to talk about and think about career without using metaphors (e.g., career described as construction, as matching, or a story). These structural metaphors in an A is a B format are one way of describing our experience of one concept in terms of another. 

Journey, path, upward, motion …

Orientational metaphors are used to organise a system of concepts by way of their relationship to each other. For instance, GOOD IS UP which underlies expressions such as climbing the career ladder and indicates an upward path to potential success. The latter can orientate positive as well as negative concepts and feelings. Now consider when these metaphors get mixed up in normal talk about career. “My career is way off track, and I’m feeling down in the dumps about it all, and have no idea how to pull myself back up and get back on track”.

How many career counsellors have heard something like that? Plenty. The statement is awash with metaphors. Empathy in coaching and counselling requires an understanding of the client’s perspective and understanding metaphor is essential for comprehending the client’s perspective.

Metaphors can help, hide, and hinder your career

People use metaphorical language frames to make concepts coherent and systematic as they are reliant on the person (i.e., the human body), the context (i.e., the physical environment), and the emotional and relational experience (i.e., our feelings). Metaphorical frames are a reflection of a personal world view involving deeply held attitudes and beliefs about self and others, and life experiences.

city buildings on eyeglasses view

Research shows how linguistic or symbolic priming with imagery using different metaphorical frames can affect the way people think, infer, or act.  However, people are not usually aware of the metaphorical nature of their language that frames their perspectives. Career coaches can assist clients to better understand their perspectives–helpful or hindering–by making their language more clear and insightful (and note the metaphorical dimensions of clear and insightful). For example:

  • Landau et al (2014) used the journey metaphor to frame a possible academic identity for a sample of university students (i.e., an image of themselves as academically successful graduates). The researchers found students who were primed with the GOAL AS JOURNEY, in contrast to students primed with the GOAL AS CONTAINED ENTITY, showed increased effort for academic tasks and reported stronger academic intention.
  • Similarly, in the paper “Metaphor identification as a research method for the study of career” (Creed & McIlveen, 2017), conception of career and education as AN OBJECT was a dominant metaphor in univeristy students’ talk. This conceptualization gives the status of an entity (a thing) bounded by a concrete surface to a non-living object. As such, students talked about education by way of a physical action for a specific purpose as in being able to take (as in pick it up and take it away) what they had learned to apply to their future career.

It is important to remember that metaphor has the power to help, hide, and hinder communication. Therefore, attention to metaphorical language use is important because it can have a powerful effect on considerations, judgments, choices, and emotional responses; yours and those around you.

First published 8 November 2017, Career Development Association Australia (CDAA) :

Comments (2)

    1. Hello Lane Skye Roybn.
      My suggestions as a writer (always aspiring/learning) is to read widely and regularly (take notes too), identify and fuel your strengths, and recongise what ignites you and bring you feelings of joy. Coming soon…I am preparing a short mindful leadership course with the goal of helping people to understand who they are, what they can do, and pursue their vision and passion into the future. Take care of yourself and stay tuned!

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