Years ago I participated in a professional development workshop for arts administrators. It was so long ago I don’t remember who led the workshop; only that it was excellent. But I sure remember the message: choose your metaphor — choose your life’s outcome.
It was a workshop on how we view ourselves in the world through metaphors. And how this plays out in the institutions where we work and within our professions.
All the world’s a stage?
In the workshop, we started by listing metaphors for life on a flip chart, everything from “Life’s a box of chocolates” to “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
Using our big list, our workshop leader winnowed these down into 4 primary metaphors. We found that related metaphors could often be grouped around a single overarching one.
We discussed the general mindset that goes along with each of these metaphors, and then we were asked to identify which metaphor we were most aligned with. Try it yourself.
Which of these metaphors is most like how you experience life?
Note: all of us cycle through various metaphors in the course of a day, a week, a year. But we all have a primary metaphor we gravitate towards—one that captures our usual stance in life and how we habitually view things. What’s yours?
Life is an adventure (a journey, a roller coaster ride)
There are highs and lows, happy accidents and unforeseen consequences, and random $#*! we all have to deal with. There’s the part of life we can control—our behavior, choices we make, and our responses to what we experience. And then there’s the part that we can’t control—including natural disasters and other people’s behavior.
But there are nuances in word choice here.
If you experience life’s adventure as a “roller coaster ride,” you may feel at times as though your life is completely out of control and that you are powerless to change things. That you’re a victim of your circumstances.
That’s very different from feeling like your life is a big adventure and you’re the hero of your own journey. If life feels like an adventure to you, check to see that you are choosing your direction and taking steps to move in the direction of your choice.
Or maybe your go-to metaphor is . . .
Life is a test (a battle, competition, or race)
In this version of life, there are winners and losers. It’s not surprising that in our competitive profession this metaphor is common. Like any life metaphor, it has its positive and negative sides.
On the one hand, this metaphor can help cultivate the motivation to work hard and strive for excellence. Musicians typically feel driven to prove their worth and reach their potential.
But this metaphorical stance in life can also breed or reinforce perfectionism, competitiveness, and social isolation. All that plus scarcity thinking—the notion that we’re never “enough.”
A common variation of this metaphor is “life is a race.” (The rats are optional.)
Many musicians operate under a looming internal deadline—the need to “make it” by a certain age. This can exacerbate the sense of competition, frustration, and fear behind our music making. We may feel impatient for the success, reputation, and opportunities we work so hard for and feel we deserve.
But of course, life isn’t fair. It doesn’t work according to our pre-conceived timelines. This can lead to frustration, envy, resentment, and anger—a sense of thwarted entitlement. It’s not a happy way to live.
So you might want to choose to try on this metaphor . . .
Life is Art
For some of us, life itself is experienced as participatory art. Not just because of what we do in the studio as musicians, but also because we’re alive and awake to the beauty around us. And because there’s an art in interacting with others. There’s an art to living, as well.
The danger in this metaphor lies in flipping it to mean Art IS Life. As in, music is everything.
When we prioritize our music and our careers over all other aspects of our lives—and over other people in our lives—things can get ugly.
As a teen I was so obsessed with music and with playing the cello that nothing else even felt real to me. Music was a kind of escape hatch, an alternate universe. It was a way to avoid difficult truths about myself and my background—that I wasn’t yet equipped to deal with.
But avoiding reality—avoiding our shadow selves—only works for a so long. Hiding inside your music isn’t sustainable. Eventually it all erupts: truth will out.
As adults and as musicians we need to make peace with who we really are. Music at its best is about self-discovery and sharing our truths, not hiding from them. It’s about bringing our whole selves, shadows and all, to our art so that it becomes a vehicle for sharing and creating community.
So be careful with how you use your metaphors. Here’s another . . .
Life is a gift
No matter what our challenges are, we still have the opportunity of this day, this hour, this moment. We have the opportunity to be present, to experience beauty, to learn, to help ourselves and others, and to grow.
These gifts deserve to be acknowledged. You might thank the universe, your lucky stars, a higher power, or any available gods. Gratitude is always appropriate.
This matters because your grateful heart is the secret to a fulfilling life—not just for you but the people whose lives you touch. So the more we can dial in to gratitude, the better.
If there’s a negative version of this metaphor, I suppose it might be a determined rose-colored view of the world, a willful blindness of the problems in life. Maybe you’ve known people like this who refuse to acknowledge or deal with their failings or the consequences of their actions.
Seeing life as a gift doesn’t mean that everything is rainbows and unicorns.
The gift of life includes challenges. It includes things falling apart and forcing us to re-group and re-build. That’s necessary. Dealing with the dark times is how we grow as people and as artists.
Choose your metaphor — choose your life’s outcome
In the workshop each metaphor was posted in a different corner of the room. And we were invited to move to the corner with others who had identified with the same primary metaphor. In these group we discussed both the positive and negative sides of our shared metaphorical viewpoint. And how seeing the world this way affected our experience in our institutions and our profession.
And then we got to hear from the other groups. We got the chance to hear how the world looks and feels to people who operated from very different views of the world. It was a revelation.
I invite you to explore the metaphors you encounter this week. And to play with trying on a new metaphor and seeing life from a very different perspective.
What metaphor do you want to carry forward in the coming year?
The metaphor you operate from determines your life’s outcome—what you are able to achieve. Instead of using your default metaphor, why not choose how you want to show up in the world?
If you’re ready to make real change in your career in the new year, I expect to have a few openings in my Beyond Talent Power Group program. If this seems like a fit, let’s set up a time to talk—I’d love to help you gain real traction in your career in the new year.
Here’s to your forward motion,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well