A metaphor is not an ornament. It’s a necessary lens of perception that allows us to experience and think about ourselves and the world more clearly. Metaphors have a way of relating to us in the most profound way, by clarifying immense truths and intricate lessons in fairly minimal space.
Marc and I have shared the following metaphors and corresponding stories with our students, readers, and conference attendees dozens of times over the past decade, and we usually get thanked for doing so. The specifics differ slightly every time we share them, but the core lessons carry forth.
My challenge for you today is to read the first metaphor below. Then come back tomorrow and read the next one. Give yourself a little extra perspective every day this week. See how doing so gracefully changes your thinking from day to day.
1. THE WEIGHT OF THE GLASS
(Note: This first metaphor is an excerpt from our NY Times bestselling book.)
Twenty years ago, when Marc and I were just undergrads in college, our psychology professor taught us a lesson we’ve never forgotten. On the last day of class before graduation, she walked up on stage to teach one final lesson, which she called “a vital lesson on the power of perspective and mindset.” As she raised a glass of water over her head, everyone expected her to mention the typical “glass half empty or glass half full” metaphor. Instead, with a smile on her face, our professor asked, “How heavy is this glass of water I’m holding?”
Students shouted out answers ranging from a couple of ounces to a couple of pounds.
After a few moments of fielding answers and nodding her head, she replied, “From my perspective, the absolute weight of this glass is irrelevant. It all depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute or two, it’s fairly light. If I hold it for an hour straight, its weight might make my arm ache. If I hold it for a day straight, my arm will likely cramp up and feel completely numb and paralyzed, forcing me to drop the glass to the floor. In each case, the absolute weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it feels to me.”
As most of us students nodded our heads in agreement, she continued. “Your worries, frustrations, disappointments, and stressful thoughts are very much like this glass of water. Think about them for a little while and nothing drastic happens. Think about them a bit longer and you begin to feel noticeable pain. Think about them all day long, and you will feel completely numb and paralyzed, incapable of doing anything else until you drop them.”
Let our past professor’s words be your wake-up call today.
If you’ve been struggling to cope with the weight of what’s on your mind, it’s a strong sign that it’s time to put the glass down.
2. LIKE ELEPHANTS
Zookeepers typically strap a thin metal chain to a grown elephant’s leg and then attach the other end to a small wooden peg that’s hammered into the ground. The ten-foot-tall, ten-thousand-pound elephant could easily snap the chain, uproot the wooden peg, and escape to freedom with minimal effort. But it doesn’t. In fact, the elephant never even tries. The world’s most powerful land animal, which can uproot a big tree as easily as you could break a toothpick, remains defeated by a small wooden peg and a flimsy chain.
Why? Because when the elephant was a baby, its trainers used the same methods to domesticate it. At the time, the chain and peg were strong enough to restrain the baby elephant. When it tried to break away, the metal chain would pull it back. Soon the baby elephant realized that trying to escape was impossible. So it stopped trying. And now that the elephant is fully grown, it sees the chain and the peg and it remembers what it learned as a baby—that the chain and peg are impossible to escape. Of course this is no longer true, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that the two-hundred-pound baby is now a ten-thousand-pound powerhouse. The elephant’s self-limiting thoughts and beliefs prevail.
If you think about it, we are all like elephants. We all have incredible power inside us. And we have our own chains and pegs—the self-limiting thoughts and beliefs that hold us back. Sometimes it’s a childhood experience or an old failure. Sometimes it’s something we were told when we were younger. The key thing to realize is this: we need to learn from the past, but also to be willing to change our assumptions—our perspective—about the way things are now. Life is not static. You can break free.
3. SEE THE FLOWERS
Once upon a time there was an elderly woman who needed to walk down to the river every morning to fetch water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. She carried two buckets with her, filled them up at the riverbank, and walked back with them to her rural cottage home.
One of the buckets was newer, perfectly sealed, and held its water flawlessly. But the second bucket was older and contained a few thin cracks that would leak water onto the ground as the elderly woman walked. By the time she arrived home, typically about one third of the water in the second bucket had leaked through its cracks.
One day, on the walk down to the river, the cracked bucket—who had always felt like it wasn’t as good as the other bucket—said to the elderly woman, “I want you to know that I’ve been leaking water every morning for the past several years. I’m so sorry for being cracked and making your life more difficult. I understand if you need to replace me with a better bucket.”
The elderly woman smiled. “Do you really think I haven’t known about your cracks this whole time?” she asked. “Look at all the beautiful flowers that grow on the path from my cottage to the river. I planted their seeds, but every morning it’s you who does the watering.”
Remember, feeling good enough in life, in work, in business, and in our relationships has everything to do with how we personally judge the cracks in our own bucket. Because we all have a few cracks!
But are they cracks that wreck us, that taint us, and that ruin our experience and desirability?
Or do our cracks water a trail of flowers we haven’t even stopped to appreciate?
Choose to see the flowers through the cracks in your own bucket—choose to see how it’s exactly those cracks that make you good enough—and your whole universe will shift!
4. THE TANGERINE
Imagine you had a ripe, juicy tangerine sitting on the table in front of you. You pick it up eagerly, take a bite and begin to taste it.
You already know how a ripe, juicy tangerine should taste, and so when this one is a bit tarter than expected, you make a face, feel a sense of disappointment and swallow it, feeling cheated out of the experience you expected.
Or perhaps the tangerine tastes completely normal—nothing special at all. So, you swallow it without even pausing to appreciate its flavor, as you move on to the next unworthy bite, and the next.
In the first scenario, the tangerine let you down because it didn’t meet your expectations. In the second, it was too plain because it met your expectations to a T.
Do you see the irony here?
It’s either not good, or not good enough.
This is how many of us live our lives… unhappily.
It’s why so many of us feel let down, disappointed, and unexcited about almost everything.
Because nothing really meets our expectations.
Now, imagine you try this instead: remove your expectations of how the tangerine “should” taste. You don’t know, and you don’t expect to know, because you haven’t even tried it yet. Instead, you’re genuinely curious, impartial and open to a variety of possible flavors.
You taste it, and you truly pay attention. You notice the juiciness, the texture of the pulp, the simultaneously tangy, tart and sweet flavors swirling around on your tongue, and all the other complex sensations that arise in your awareness as you chew. You didn’t know how this tangerine would taste, but now you realize it’s different than the rest, and it’s remarkable in its own way. It’s a totally new experience—a worthwhile experience—because you’ve never tasted THIS tangerine before.
Mindfulness experts often refer to this as “beginner’s mind,” but really, it’s just the result of a mindset free of needless, stifling expectations.
The tangerine, of course, can be substituted for almost anything in your life: any event, any situation, any relationship, any person, any thought at all that enters your mind. If you approach any of these with expectations of “how it should be” or “how it has to be” in order to be good enough for you, they will almost always disappoint you in some way… or be too plain and unexciting to even remember. And you’ll just move on to the next disappointment or unworthy life experience, and the next, and the next, and so on and so forth…
Until you’ve lived the vast majority of your life stuck in an endless cycle of experiences you barely like or barely even notice.
5. ONLY WATER AROUND YOU
Most of the things we desperately try to hold on to, as if they’re real, solid, everlasting fixtures in our lives, aren’t really there. Or if they are there in some form, they’re changing, fluid, impermanent, or simply half-imagined in our minds.
Life gets a lot easier to deal with when we understand this.
Imagine you’re blindfolded and treading water in the center of a large swimming pool, and you’re struggling desperately to grab the edge of the pool that you think is nearby, but really it’s not—it’s far away. Trying to grab that imaginary edge is stressing you out, and tiring you out, as you splash around aimlessly trying to hold on to something that isn’t there.
Now imagine you pause, take a deep breath, and realize that there’s nothing nearby to hold on to. Just water around you. You can continue to struggle with grabbing at something that doesn’t exist… or you can accept that there’s only water around you, and relax, and float.
Today, I challenge you to ask yourself:
- What are you desperately trying to hold on to in your life?
- How is it affecting you?
Then imagine the thing you’re trying to hold on to doesn’t really exist. Envision yourself letting go… and just floating.
How would that change your situation?
6. A GAME OF CHESS
No one wins a game of chess by only moving forward.
Sometimes you have to move backward to put yourself in a position to win.
The same is true of life.
Because sometimes, when it feels like you’re running into one dead end after another, it’s actually a sign that you’re not on the right path. Maybe you were meant to hang a left back when you took a right, and that’s perfectly fine. Life gradually teaches us that U-turns are allowed. So turn around when you must! There’s a big difference between giving up and getting yourself moving in the right direction again.
7. THE MIND IS A MUSCLE
Think about the most common problems we deal with in our lives—from lack of presence to lack of exercise to unhealthy diets to procrastination, and so forth. In most cases, problems like these are not caused not by a physical ailment, but by a weakness of the mind.
Just like every muscle in the body, the mind needs to be exercised to gain strength. It needs to be worked consistently to grow and develop over time. If you haven’t pushed yourself in hundreds of little ways over time, of course you’ll crumble on the one day that things get slightly challenging.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You have a choice…
You can choose to pay attention when it would be easier to pick up your phone. You can choose to go to the gym when it would be more comfortable to sleep in. You can choose to create something special when it would be quicker to consume something mediocre. You can choose to raise your hand and ask that question when it would take less nerve to stay silent. You can prove to yourself, in hundreds of little ways, that you have the guts to get in the ring and wrestle with life.
Mental strength is built through lots of small, daily victories. It’s the individual choices we make day-to-day that build our “mental strength” muscles. We all want this kind of strength, but we can’t wish our way to it. If you want it, you have to create positive daily rituals in your life that reinforce what you desire.
Now, it’s your turn…
Please let us know:
Which metaphor above resonates the most with you right now?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
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