An Extremist Position on Metaphors and Understanding

I was watching Netflix’s rebooted Lost in Space with the kids (we love it!) and got thinking about metaphors.

A character suggested draining fuel tanks to remove a blockage.  She said, “You know, like when you’re trying to sip lemonade and a seed gets stuck in the straw a-” another character interrupted and said, “Yeah, I get it.”

She was annoyed because she already understood the logic of the solution and didn’t need the lemonade metaphor to get it.  It’s a pretty common annoyance to understand something plainly stated and have someone proceed to dumb it down with a metaphor.  But the reason character two didn’t need the metaphor is because she already had one.  She could visualize the problem and proposed solution and translate the language into a mind-picture of what would result.

My friend and colleague TK Coleman and I talk about metaphors often.  He’s referenced George Lakoff’s work on metaphors so much I feel like I’ve read him, even though I’ve only skimmed a chapter or two.  I’ve come so far as to suspect that language and meaning are not possible absent metaphor.

Every conceptual breakthrough and big business idea I’ve had hasn’t crystallized until the right metaphor could be formed around it. I get inklings of ideas and solutions, and beat my head against the wall trying to clarify to myself and others.  Success only comes fully when I stumble upon the right metaphor.  I don’t think we ever really understand something until we have a good metaphor for it.  Metaphors seem to be the bridge between the subconscious and conscious mind; between impressions/intuitions and coherent descriptions/implementations.

Different Beats Better

Every time you see someone doing something better than you and that little fight or flight mechanism starts to light up, stop.

Don’t try to be better.  Be different.

Don’t play the game like everyone else and hope to be the best.  Change the rules.  Play a different game.  This shift forces creativity, self-discovery, and big breakthroughs.  It channels competition into its highest use and drives specialization and the division of labor, instead of commodification, imitation, and homogenization.  It turns everyone into valuable sources of inspiration, information, and collaboration, instead of threats and intimidation.

If you want to know what this looks like in business, check out the book Play Bigger.

Don’t Get Stuck Waiting

The worst thing in the world is to be stuck waiting on something, with nothing you can do to speed it up and no action to take until it’s done.

If you’re creating a business, work of art, or project of any kind and you’re waiting on another person before you can take the next step, I feel you.  I’ve been there and I hate it.

The first thing I like to do in such situations is to explore every possibility of what I can do.  It’s amazing how often there are things you can do to move the project forward even when you think you’re stuck waiting.  Probe every possibility, and take every action you can take, no matter how small.

Next, I like to explore any possible ways I can speed up the other party.  Can I offer to help?  Can I do some of it for them?  Can I give them a deadline?  Can I light a fire under them?  Can I break the arrangement and find another, faster partner?

Sometimes there’s nothing left to do, and no way to speed up the other person.  Here, the feeling is so frustrating – like being stuck in traffic with no way to impact the drive time – it’s easy to succumb to cathartic rage.  But if you want to prevent this kind of situation in the future, now is a great time to reflect and learn.

Step back and evaluate the task you’re working on, and the role the other party plays.  How might things have been structured or framed so that you didn’t get stuck waiting?  Work through as many permutations as you can.  What would need to be different in your situation to not be stuck like this?  Make a plan to get there.

Every time I’ve been held up, powerless to make progress until I hear back from someone, I’ve resolved to never be in that position again.  Each time, I gain understanding of how to avoid it in that specific situation, and reduce it more generally.  Now when I embark on any endeavor, I make it a top priority to arrange the project in such a way that anyone I’m working with will be a collaborator, not a permission slip or bottleneck.

“I’m going to do this regardless, but it will be better if you help” is vastly superior to, “I really want to do this but I can’t do anything unless you will do part of it”.

You Get to Make the Rules

It’s weird how easy it is to forget that you can do what you want.

When I got my driver’s license at 16, I remember going in to pay at the gas station (back when you had to go inside to pay) and looking longingly at a Snickers bar.  Then it hit me.  I’m driving, I have my own money, I am free to buy a Snickers bar any time I want.  This kind of epiphany of autonomy happened frequently for several years after my newfound independence.  After so many years of tagging along with a parent as a kid, asking if I could come in, or if she’d buy me something, the control I had over my life and its rules came as a perpetual surprise.  I needed to remind myself often.

This still happens, though not with gas station candy.  When I read Anything You Want, a delightful little book by Derek Sivers, it hit me again.  He talked about building a business from nothing.  At first, it’s pretty easy to make up the rules.  But as you get successful, you start to unconsciously slip into behavior patterns you’ve observed elsewhere and you begin to believe you have to operate that way.  Sivers described several moments when he realized, “Wait a minute.  This is my company.  I can do whatever I want.”  He ignore people who told him he had to have a boring legalese Terms of Service on his website.  He did totally odd, unscalable things like order pizza for a customer who requested it.  Why not?  It’s his company, and he thought it sounded fun.

I get hit with this epiphany often in business.  Usually when in torturous deliberation between two decisions which seem the only options because they’re both defined, standard businessy ways of doing things, it will dawn on me that I can just make it up as a go and do something without precedent.  Why not?  Isn’t that the point of building something new?

It’s a rush when you remember your agency.  It’s also a weight of responsibility.  Most of the time, most things are efficiently outsourced to common practice.  But when it’s not working or doesn’t feel right, don’t forget you can do whatever the heck you want.

When to Be Decisively Indecisive

I’m a big fan of agnosticism.  I don’t mean the orientation to theological questions, but something much broader.  For me, the greater the number of things about which I am agnostic, the happier I am and the more powerful and productive on the very few things about which I have passionate belief.

One of the challenges is that this can leave broad swaths of human experience in indecisive limbo.  When it comes to the vision for Praxis, I am clear as crystal and willing to fight to the death.  When it comes to what color to paint the master bathroom, I am agnostic.  That means when my wife asks my opinion, I have to work hard to conjure something, and whatever I say shouldn’t be taken too seriously, because I’m not that committed to it.

I hate indecision, so the way I have squared these two valuable orientations – broad agnosticism and decisiveness – is to be clearly and immediately decisive about my agnosticism.  The sooner and more firmly I can say, “This I care about, here’s my opinion on that, and these three things I am completely neutral and I want you to choose”, the better.

Just because someone expects you to have an opinion doesn’t mean you need to.  If you waver, it will make them mad and burn social capital.  But if you definitively state your indifference and suggest another person/process to decide, you get the benefits of not being cluttered with concern for everything and not being an annoying flip-flopping bottleneck.

Know Thyself, Sell Thyself

A good way to speed up your professional prospects is to learn more about yourself.  What comes easier for you than most people?  What problems that nag others are you pretty good at solving?  What don’t you absolutely hate (you don’t have to love it) that others find valuable?

It takes a lot of work to discover these things about yourself, and it’s never really done.  You can’t do it just with books or thinking either.  You’ve gotta try stuff and put yourself in contexts that provide feedback.  You keep trying anything that you don’t absolutely hate, and then seeing how much it pays in knowledge, growth, fun, or money.  Adjust for those with more returns, and repeat as your field of “stuff I should spend time on” narrows more and more.

It’s not enough to know what stuff you’re good at/don’t hate/others value if no one else knows it.  You’ve got to sell it.  You’ve got to show the relevant audiences (showing is always better than telling, the relevant audience is better than “the world”) the value you can create for them.

The nice thing is, these don’t go in sequential order. You don’t need to know thyself before you can sell thyself.  You’d spend all your time preparing and thinking, and never really know yourself anyway because you’d have no experiences from which to learn.  You have to sell yourself to win those experiences.  They feed each other.  The more you know, the better you can sell.  The more you try selling, whether you succeed or fail, the more self-knowledge you gain.

Don’t wait.  Sell your skills, even if you’re roughly guessing at first or your skills are little more than grunt work labor.  Reflect and pay attention to where you create the most value for people and what you don’t hate.  Focus on those and sell them to move into the next round and over and over again.

What if Software Ate it?

I think we’re still at the beginning of the software takeover of the world.

A good question for your interests and vocations is, “What would this look like eaten by software?”  Some things, like fantasy football, are pretty close already.  Some, like banking, are halfway there.  Others, like buying a house or going out to eat, are nowhere near consumed by software.

What would a software maximum look like in these, and every other area?

Once you start to imagine it, think about how you can orient yourself to win in that world, because it’s coming.

Single Goal, Several Tactics

Single-mindedness is probably the least appreciated prerequisite for success.  If you aren’t definite in your purpose, you’ll flounder.

But purpose is different than process.  Getting all juiced up to be single-minded and definite takes work, and if achieved, it usually spills over from ends to means.  You get single-minded in your goal and tactics.  You decide exactly what you’re trying to achieve and exactly how to go about it.

If you’re right about the tactics, this is awesome.  You cut through the crap and speed past all the wanderers and experimenters.  But you’re almost never right about the tactics with enough precision to predetermine a course and stick to it.  There are too many unknowns.  If your definiteness is with the tactics and you’re off even by a hair, you’ll miss the mark entirely.

But being tactic-flexible tends to bleed into goal-flexibility, which gets you back to the double-minded wishy-washiness you’re trying to free yourself from.

You’ve got to have something you’re willing to die for.  But only one thing at a time.  One thing that’s your all-or-nothing purpose.  Everything else should be flexible.

Flexible doesn’t mean flimsy.  More like “strong opinions, weakly held“.  You filter and choose tactics and act as if they are true unless and until new information surfaces – information that you are actively searching for.  Indecision is a killer, so there’s got to be a clear pursuit of whatever tactics currently make the most sense while constantly observing and adjusting to new information and insight, ready to completely flip tactics without fear if better ones are clear.

All without changing that fixed, definite end goal.  The purpose remains permanent and singular, while a series of temporarily singular tactics get swapped and pursued in rapid succession.

This shit is really hard.  It takes a lot of work to master either of these – definite purpose and flexible tactics – and damn-near super-strength to do both without going insane.

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