Why Your Life Metaphor Matters and What To Do About It

I’m learning that living life well is so much about expectations; and expectations are shaped by how you view life.  Your mental picture about what life is and is supposed to be really determines your life experience.  If you have a faulty view, you end up with a faulty life.  Your experience matches your picture.

photo courtesy of shutter stock.com/Darren Baker

photo courtesy of shutter stock.com/Darren Baker

That’s why author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, writes, “The hardest thing in life is to base life upon truth, reality. If our lives are to be healthy and our spirits are to grow, we must be dedicated to the truth. For truth is reality. And the more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world.”

Our metaphors for how we describe the way life is supposed to be truly impact our expectations which in turn shape our actual experiences.

Life Is Like A …

How would you finish that statement about life?  What metaphor would you use to describe your picture of how life is supposed to work for you?

Shasta and I recently watched an episode of Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday in which the interviewee was Barbara Brown Taylor.  Taylor is an Episcopal priest and best-selling author who left parish ministry with its national pulpit to teach religion in a small town college.

When Oprah asked her what was something in her life that has been particularly challenging to accept and have to get used to, here’s what she said:

“I think we’d like life to be a train–you know, you get on, you pick your destination, and then you get off.  But in reality, life turns out to be a sailboat.  Every day we have to see where the wind is, and check the currents, and see if there’s anybody else on the boat who can help out.  It’s a sailboat ride.  And the weather changes, and the currents change, and the wind changes.  It’s not a train ride.  So that’s the hardest thing I’ve had to accept in my life.  I just thought I had to pick the right train.  And I worked hard to pick the right train.  And darned if I didn’t get off at the end of it and find out that was just a midway station.”

I happen to love sailing so Taylor’s use of it as a metaphor for life really speaks to me.  And the more I reflect on this metaphor, the more I see how accurately it describes the way life in reality works for all of us.

Here are three ways the sailboat metaphor helps to shape your life expectations and subsequently your life experience.

Life is not a linear journey to your destination. Be patient.

The thing about sailing is that very rarely do you point your sailboat directly toward your destination and sail straight there.  Why?  Because of the external conditions like wind direction, water current direction and speed.

Sailboats aren’t designed to go directly into the wind.  So to be successful, you have to tact back and forth into the wind.  And when you’re on a tact taking you 30-45 degrees off of your destination compass point, it appears as though you’re truly getting way off course.

But in truth, it’s simply the way sailing works.  And so does life.  So you have to be patient.  You have to accept that in order to ultimately arrive where you want, you must allow course corrections often.  You even have to allow for what might appear to be detours.

Life is rarely simply a straight line from point A to point B.  If you don’t allow for it, you’ll go crazy and end up going no where.  Steering straight into the wind in a sailboat causes the boat to stand still.

So be patient.  Be willing to tact by making course changes, sometimes even often.

Not everything is within your control, only your response and attitude. Be strategic.

Sailing is a great discipline to learn the truth that very much of life is outside your control.

You can’t affect whether you have wind, much less how strong the wind is and which direction it’s coming from.  You can only choose to leverage the wind–to set your sails in a way that captures it as effectively as possible, or to reef your sails a notch or two, or even lower your sails completely, if the wind is too strong.

So much of life is beyond our control.  But that doesn’t mean we have to simply be victims to whatever comes our way.

Successful sailing isn’t about being passive–it’s about being strategic.

This is the part of sailing I love.  Whichever direction the wind is coming from, I get energized figuring out how to set my sails to use the wind as effectively as possible to maximize my speed and direction.  I get to choose what to do about the wind as well as the water current.  That’s the strategy of sailing.

Even so in life, I can choose how I respond to whatever challenges come my way.  I can choose my attitude.  I can choose my feelings.  I can choose my behavior.  I can choose my strategy for how to use this challenge to get me farther along my path.

I may have to tact some more–that is, I might have to make some decisions that could look like I’m going off path.  But in reality, those decisions actually are strategic in their response to what I’m facing and in their ultimate outcome.

Effective living is about being strategic rather than being a victim.

Effective living involves good companions. Be collaborative.

One of the most fulfilling and exciting sailing experiences I’ve had was when I went sailing with a friend of my mine.  I would be at the helm, steering the boat, setting the direction and tack.  He would be at the sails, trimming them to leverage the wind as maximally as possible.  He was a genius at sail trimming.  Every little shift in the wind would cause him to adjust sail tension, luft tension, and sail direction.  And I was a natural at piloting, choosing the most strategic tact, being able to adjust when conditions required.  And together, we would always get the most speed out of whatever wind condition we were in.  It was so energizing!

We have to get past the life paradigm that suggests that we have to be omnicompetent and effective by ourselves.  Successful living isn’t about independence.  It’s about interdependence.  Collaboration.  Partnership.  Mutual support and encouragement.

Effective living is about bringing other people into our lives that complement our strengths and fill our individual strengths gaps.  Its about being willing to ask for what we want and need. It’s being willing to trust others to give in ways that serve both of us.  It’s about giving and receiving in ways that matter to both of us.

So don’t be a loner.  Don’t think you have to be superwoman or superman.  Be collaborative.

We may want life to be more like a train–where all we have to do is get on the right one and watch as life passes us by, taking us to where we want to go, letting the engineer and conductor do all the work.

But life is more like a sailboat–where the journey is not linear, and everything is not in your control except your response to it, and you surround yourself with people who complement you and support you and vice versa.  That’s the way to live!

Any thoughts about how this works for you?  I’d love to hear your comments.

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2 thoughts on “Why Your Life Metaphor Matters and What To Do About It

  1. I really like the analogy of the sailing boat! I have always looked at life like a linear train ride and once I finished college this view point left me very confused I was terrified that I would pick the wrong train to get on and ended up not really getting on any train. Now that I’m older and trying to apply this idea of life choices to my reasoning it has made me a happier and more joyful person!

    • Thanks for sharing your journey, Matt. Your story reflects the truth that we all can change our life metaphors. And I’m so glad the outcome for you has been more happiness and joy. The hard work of paying attention to our life lens always pays off in rich rewards.

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