Metaphors… And all that Jazz


Have you ever stopped to consider the presence of metaphors in our every day language?  Have you ever reflected on how they might both reflect and influence your thinking and understanding about important concepts or ideas?

A core belief that I have is our words reflect our thinking in very deep ways.  There are reasons – often unknown to us – that we choose specific words to convey images and meanings.  Thinking is often abstract, and language is imprecise.  As a result we often use metaphors in an attempt to clarify our thinking to ourselves and others, which is both natural and normal.  But an often unintended side-effect is that how one person understands the metaphor is different than the first person intends it.  This is especially important when slight differences in one’s interpretation can impact deep understandings of important issues.

Let me offer a short story I believe may help make my point… There’s an episode from the 1990’s television series Star Trek: The Next Generation (stay with me here…) called “Darmok” where the Enterprise has a run-in with an alien race called the Tamarians.  While the two ships are in orbit around a planet with the first officers struggling to communicate, Captain Picard and the Tamarian captain face the same struggle on the surface of the planet.  As much as each side tries to understand the other they both keep falling short.  The Tamarians keep repeating phrases such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Shaka when the walls fell” (here’s a link to a 90 second excerpt I found on YouTube showing the confusion).  By the end of the episode (spoiler alert!) we learn that the Tamarians only speak in key summaries of important stories from their history to communicate an idea.  It would be as if someone were saying to me, “I just feel like I can’t win.  This problem is too big – I’ll never overcome” and I responded with “David and Goliath” as a way to encourage them, or someone complained they failed at something and I said, “Thomas Edison and the light bulb” to remind them of the story where Edison reportedly said, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.   By the end of the episode Captain Picard finally figures this all out; here’s a link to a 2 minute excerpt where he successfully communicates what happened on the planet with the Tamarian first officer (though you’ll have to watch the whole episode if you want to know what he’s saying).

So what’s the point in telling you this story?  Language (and metaphor) can often provide a barrier to understanding, even though the intent is to build mutual understanding.  During the Race to the Top grant in North Carolina (about 5 years ago) a common metaphor that some people used was “building the airplane while we’re flying it”; another one was that trying to get people to transition to the new Common Core State Standards was “like herding cats”.  While these were fun metaphors (I guess technically the second one was a simile) that often resulted in a good laugh (there were even videos to go along with them), I remember sitting in a training thinking, “If you’re building it while you’re flying it you don’t know much more than I do – and that doesn’t give me much confidence.”  I felt a little like this:

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The fact is that every new initiative, new idea, or new concept, once put into practice, goes through growing pains (metaphor alert).  There are unintended “things” that happen as a result of the changes.  And everyone who embarks on journeys of exploration (another metaphor) generally understands this principle.

So one of the things we decided at the beginning of our work with DEEL in general and on R3 in particular was to be intentional about our metaphors.  We aren’t building an airplane while we’re flying it because, well, that’s just a dumb idea…. Seriously, who does that sort of thing?  I’ve known plenty of pilots – some who built their own planes – and I’ve never seen or heard of that happening.  Building a plane takes a great deal of expertise, time, commitment, and resources.  It’s not something people just stumble into one day when they’re bored, as if they were flipping through TV channels and the only thing on was Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes so they said, “Hmm, I don’t want to watch that… What should I do?  Go for a walk?  Work in the yard?  Nah, I’ll go build a plane! That sounds like a good idea – and just to make it extra challenging I’ll build it in the air!” (I digress..)

So… we offer another metaphor, one we believe better reinforces our values, goals, and beliefs for this program and initiative.  DEEL isn’t building an airplane while it’s in the air, we’re playing improv jazz.

I’m a musician – so music is both a part of what I’ve done and it drives who I am.  Music is deeply personal, even spiritual.  It is at the core of my being (wow, another metaphor…. these things are all over the place!).  Musicians who play in a jazz band don’t simply make stuff up on stage, they improvise.  Making stuff up is random, it’s thoughtless, it’s accidental.  But improvisation?  That’s intentional, it’s structured, and it abides by rules.  The trumpet player can play anything he wants or feels in improve – within the boundaries.  There are structures to be followed (and learned); there is freedom within form.

And that’s what we’re doing here in DEEL.  We have ideas that are new and sometimes push the boundaries of what we’ve thought and done in the past (Captain Kirk said the mission of the enterprise was to “go where no man has gone before”).  But our ideas are not being implemented before researched, thought out, or looking to others for advice and direction and feedback.  They may not be perfect, but they aren’t random either.  You don’t go for a hike in the mountains without proper equipment, you don’t swipe your debit card or write a check if there’s not money in the account, and you certainly don’t build an airplane in the air.  That’s just chaos.  But playing improve jazz?  Well, that’s magical (kind of like this…).

Or, if I was going to write Tamarian from Star Trek: The Next Generation… “Shaka when the walls fell?*  Ghobe’**. Thomas Edison and the light bulb!”

(okay, maybe I had to insert a little Klingon in there just to make it interesting…)

* http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Tamarian_language

**https://www.kli.org/about-klingon/klingon-phrases/

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