Metaphor. A word as powerful as it is cliched. I learned firsthand of its power as I battled through a difficult decision recently.
What a tumultuous year! I quit my job of almost fifteen years to join a startup. I had risen from the ranks at this job and ended up at the very top of my career ladder. More importantly, I had achieved a work-life balance that was the envy of many. I worked two or three days a week, making time to be with Maya. I was working on interesting projects and was engaged in highly visible activities. But, I quit all this to go join a startup.
I consciously thought that the reasons for joining the startup were purely technical and because I wanted to work in smaller organizations. Little did I realize that unconsciously, money had played a key role in that decision. This painful fact was brought to the fore when I realized that I was not interested in the ideas being pursued at this startup. My interests lay elsewhere. But the sums involved had me in their thrall, forcing me to engage in painstaking convolutions to convince myself that staying back was good. In other words, cognitive dissonance was in full flow, and my brain was marshaling all the arguments it could to rid me of this dissonance.
In a world increasingly driven by commercial exchange, money is all powerful. For most of us, money is the attractive, more easily pursued cousin of happiness, even if we’re pilloried by pastors and their ilk about the dangers of that attraction. I’ve also heard the refrain, especially in the Silicon Valley, that a key advantage to having so much money is that we can give it away to causes that we value, thereby making a difference that we cannot otherwise make. Conspicuous benevolence as the sibling of conspicuous consumption.
In many ways, I thought that I was above pursuing money. Back in 2004, I had consciously told myself, after being part of one successful startup, that I had enough of pursuing career and money; I wanted to focus on the things that most people at the end of their lives regret having spent little time on. I consciously chose to not pursue a possible opportunity at another startup. I almost quit the industry back in 2007, wanting to devote my time to working with a local non-profit and to writing. But I was offered a chance at working part time and I took it. Part time work meant less pay, bonus and all other sorts of perks plus it meant a longer stint stuck in the same spot in the company hierarchy. I didn’t bat an eyelid to any of that.
So, I was surprised to find myself captive to the charms of money again. Money wasn’t the only factor, of course, but it soon became apparent that it was the crucial one, the one I couldn’t get my head out of. I lost sleep as I was ripped asunder by cognitive dissonance.
Metaphors As A Basis For Action
George Lakoff is a famous and controversial linguist. I first became acquainted with his work through the now famous essay (and later book), “Don’t Think of an Elephant”. The main thrust of his work, something that he has pursued since the 1960s, is the central role metaphors play in our construction of our conceptual frameworks of the world. He lays out his ideas in a groundbreaking book, Metaphors We Live By, that he co-authored with Mark Johnson. The best explanation I’ve come across on this theory is by a new rock star in linguistics, Lera Boroditsky. She writes:
“How do we come to represent and reason about abstract domains like time, love, justice, or ideas? There are at least two interesting puzzles here. First, how do we learn about abstract domains despite the dearth and vagueness of sensory information available about them? And second, how are we able to coordinate our mental representations of these domains enough to agree (at least some of the time) on the fairness of a decision, the strength of someone’s love, or the worth of an idea? As a potential solution, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) proposed that the human conceptual system is structured around only a small set of experiential concepts – concepts that emerge directly out of experience and are defined in their own terms. These fundamental experiential concepts include a set of basic spatial relations (e.g. up/down, front/back), a set of physical ontological concepts (e.g. entity, container), and a set of basic experiences or actions (e.g. eating, moving). According to this view, all other concepts that do not emerge directly out of physical experience must be metaphoric in nature. Lakoff further proposes that these metaphoric, or abstract concepts are understood and structured through metaphorical mappings from a small set of fundamental experiential concepts.”
Lakoff and Johnson provide many examples of how we make sense of the world through metaphors that we use to construct our conceptual frameworks. For example, expressions such as “he shot down every argument I made”, “your claims are indefensible”, “I demolished his argument” illustrate how we use the ideas of physical warfare as a metaphor for its linguistic equivalent, the argument. Lakoff and Johnson write:
“It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—attack, defense, counterattack, etc.—reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.
Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing “arguing.” Perhaps the most neutral
way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance.”
Other examples of how employ metaphors in everyday life are expressions that equate ideas with food: “what he said left a bad taste in my mouth”, “this paper is full of half-baked ideas” or expressions in which resources are employed as a metaphor for ideas: “he ran out of ideas”, “that’s an useless idea” or that ideas are money: “let me put in my two cents”, “he’s rich in ideas”.
Lakoff’s work was attacked by many, including the most famous of all linguists, Noam Chomsky, and their debate became known as the linguistic wars. Chomsky won the first round. But Lakoff’s ideas have been resurrected and argued for by a new generation of linguists such as Lera Boroditsky. These linguists are gathering evidence based on anthropological data and experiments they devise to show how metaphors are used to construct conceptual frameworks which then become the basis for how we act. This debate is ongoing.
As I struggled with whether I should stay or leave, I slowly came to the realization that I had employed the metaphor of money as an attraction or a force. Associating money with temptation and attraction meant that it could be resisted. To fail to resist that temptation, nay to even admit it, I saw as a character flaw. As I tossed and turned in bed at 3 am, unable to sleep and unable to decide which way to turn, my mind latched onto a different metaphor of how I could view money and its power.
The metaphor was drawn from Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Until Einstein formulated the General Theory of Relativity, gravity was seen as this unexplainable force that attracted two massive objects together. Newton in his theory of gravitation had described gravity as a force, something that every object with mass exerts on other objects around it. This force was transmitted instantaneously i.e. felt by the other objects instantaneously. The only thing that changed was that the force grew weaker with distance.
When Einstein formulated the Special Theory of Relativity and said that nothing could move faster than the speed of light, he was initially stumped by how to fit gravity in accordance with this law. His brilliant insight and exposition, which became the General Theory of Relativity (general instead of special because it now incorporated gravity), was that gravity was not a force at all, but just a curvature of the space-time caused by a massive object. Just the way a ball placed on a flat piece of paper causes it to sag and curve, a massive object such as a planet or a star causes the space-time to curve around it. In other words, massive objects warp the space-time continuum. Here is a picture that demonstrates the effect of a massive object on space-time (Image credit: nasa.gov), as explained by Einstein.
Money is a massive object in the mind’s continuum. It warps (some prefer twisted to warp) the mind. By denying the warp, I was denying a basic human condition, almost denying a law of physics. As long as I stayed far away from massive amounts of money, such as when I had not even applied for a position at a second startup, I could deny its effects because my mind had not been warped. But once I got close to it, I could no longer avoid the warp. And in my case, the object was massive.
Once I had this metaphor, I somehow found it easy to acknowledge that I was tempted by money, as easily as the next guy. This acceptance then allowed me to decide more easily. I had to acknowledge that my mind had been warped by money. The metaphor had helped me rid my cognitive dissonance.
Was It Loss Aversion ?
More recently, I’ve wondered if loss aversion was also not at work. Loss aversion was a theory formulated by two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, which postulates that people strongly prefer avoiding losses to making gains. A group of people were randomly assigned to be either buyers or sellers. The buyers were given a coffee mug and asked what was the minimum amount of money they required to give the mug up. The sellers were not given anything, but were asked how much money they were willing to pay to acquire that coffee mug. Sellers priced their mug much higher than buyers. This and other corollary and similar experiments led Tversky and Kahneman to propose that losses loomed larger in people’s minds than equivalent gains.
When I was thinking that I was above money by not even attempting to join a second startup after a successful first, according to loss aversion, I was evaluating this in terms of gains (I was akin to the buyer in the experiment above) while this time, I was thinking of what I stood to lose (akin to a seller). Thus, I was faced with a far more difficult choice than the one I faced a few years back.
Loss aversion did not cross my mind while I struggled to decide. That doesn’t mean that it cannot be implicated. But, I clearly remember how the metaphor or money as a massive object in space-time helped me resolve my decision. As far as I’m concerned, I was saved by a metaphor.