Saturday, March 16, 2019

My 3 takeaways from “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen was in my to-read list ten years ago when I read about metaphors in Chip & Dan Heath’s “Made to stick”. However, I never got around to reading it until recently. During last decade metaphors, for me, went from being a useful communication tool to a dominant ever-present lens. “Metaphors we live by” was published in 1980 and it explores the roles metaphors play in shaping our thinking process. Here are my three takeaways from the portion of the book I have read so far.

Our thinking is metaphorical: Traditionally, we look at metaphor as a linguistic concept – perhaps more relevant to poets and writers. The book makes a bold claim quite different from this belief. It says, “The most important claim we have made so far is that metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of a mere word. We shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical.” That means metaphors are deeply ingrained in our thought process. For example, if we believe “life is a journey”, then we would use expressions like – This is an important milestone for me, I am stuck, It has been a long bumpy road, I am at a crossroad etc. However, if we believe “life is a gambling game”, then the expression used could be – We’ll have to take our chances, I am betting big on this, The odds are against me, Play your cards right, He is keeping it close to his chest. Lakoff and Johnsen write, “The way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor”.  

Metaphors provide experiential understanding: Lakoff and Johnsen say that the primary function of a metaphor is to provide a partial understanding of one kind of experience in terms of another kind of experience. My favourite example is the way Dr. Venkataswamy, founder of Aravind Eye Care, framed the challenge while starting an eye hospital in Madurai more than forty years ago. Dr. V asked himself, “How might we make eye care delivery as efficient as McDonald's?” Many of us have some experiential understanding of the efficiency of McDonald's. We don’t associate a hospital visit to a visit to McDonald's. But by asking this question, you start associating a known experience to a new experience you want to create. This example also highlights how we use metaphors – by highlighting one aspect of the experience (efficiency) over other aspects (say, product, business model or marketing).

Metaphors can create a new reality:  “Time is money” is how most of us think. We invest time, waste time, save hours by working from home, spend time judicially, run out of time etc.  The authors say that the Westernization of cultures throughout the world is partly a matter of introducing the TIME IS MONEY metaphor into those cultures. Some of the tribal cultures even today don’t think in terms of investing, saving time etc. Perhaps for some “Time is a river” – ever flowing, ever new. When I first considered “Human life is like a wave in the ocean” as a serious possibility more than twenty years ago, I was deeply shaken. It had serious implications on some of the core concepts like progress, success, death etc. I had to explore further to see what emerges as a new reality. Hence, some metaphors are called “generative metaphors”. They help you ask new questions you hadn’t asked before and they help you see a new reality not perceived by your senses.

To summarize, we looked at three aspects of metaphors. Our conceptual system is permeated with metaphors, metaphors try to express one experience in terms of another, and metaphors have the power of creating a new understanding. The book is concept-heavy. However, it uses plenty of examples to illustrate the points. “Metaphors we live by” is potentially an eye-opener.

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