Imprecise Metaphors and Their Benefit for Your Thinking

David Perell wrote a fantastic blog post on the importance (or lack thereof) in the accuracy of maps. Side note — if you don’t follow David Perell, you should.
In a similar vein, I want to talk about the importance (or lack thereof) in the precision of one’s metaphors.
This is not an argument against being precise. It is not permission for ceasing to care about choosing the right metaphor.
This IS an argument that explores the nuance of metaphors as a vehicle for thinking — because they’re something I’ve become more and more dependent on, and dependency as complacency is a dangerous thing.
As I explored in an earlier post, I use whiteboards as a framework for thinking. They give me a structure that allows me to explore random ideas with a sense of familiarity — because there’s a framework that I know, and love, and can win.
Metaphors work in a similar way. I’ve become very fond of mathematical metaphors, because I love their streamlined efficiency. I love using mathematical metaphor to describe non-mathematical principles (like how the coaching process works, or how hiring managers think about candidates. I use mathematical metaphors in my work a lot).
The ideas are sometimes far-fetched, sometimes abstract, and sometimes things I’ve never endeavored to grapple with before — or even looked in the eye. The metaphoric framework gives me a space to explore them without having to define context.
I wonder sometimes if the metaphors are too limiting. Does an (a-b)=c equation give me enough flexibility to cover everything that matters? Am I missing important information by being artificially exclusive?
I wonder the same thing about whiteboards. Does the structure artificially constrain me and cause me to miss pivotal information that just doesn’t fit?
Here’s the thing: we can never be open to every possibility and still be conclusive. It isn’t possible. We must have absolute information in order to be definite.
Creativity likes working with definite quantities — but it isn’t static. What’s definite now can become a variable quantity in future.
The purpose of the metaphor isn’t to be absolute — the way the purpose of a map isn’t always to be exact. The purpose is to give a framework within which the information that’s most pivotal to our advancement and survival can be explored, articulated, and conveyed.

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