Work-life metaphors offer insights about the dynamic interaction between work and life spheres. In this second part, we will explore four more common metaphors that offer lessons for managing the many roles and responsibilities we have everyday. If you didn’t see Part 1, you can find it here.
Many years ago I saw a skit with a person on the stage spinning plates that were perched at the top of tall poles. The main character ran quickly from pole to pole to keep the plates spinning so they wouldn’t drop to the ground and shatter. Each plate was named for a different role or responsibility the individual held. As more spinning plates were brought on stage, the person ran faster until eventually the plates began to fall.
The metaphor, like the skit, illustrates the way we run from one thing to another trying to keep it all going. Our lives pick up speed until we are running around at a frenetic pace trying to keep up. Our biggest fear is letting the plates crash to the ground. While this metaphor may reveal a problem, it offers little in the way of a solution. We have two options: let the plates fall or remove some of the plates so we have fewer to keep spinning.
In a study by Jennifer Lois, one of the participants explained bowling as the best metaphor for managing work-life tasks. Each day we take aim and roll the ball trying to knock down as many pins, representing items on our to do list, as we can. Some days we will knock down more pins than other days. Sometimes our aim is off and the ball swings into the gutter, while occasionally we get lucky and hit a strike. The goal is to keep bowling, taking aim and releasing the ball.
The bowling metaphor focuses on task management and staying positive about getting things done. It moves the emphasis away from how many pins are left standing, or items are on the to do list. It also puts the occasional gutter ball or strike into perspective. True failure only happens if we stop bowling.
While dancing is not as quickly associated with work-life specifically, it is popular as a metaphor for life or relationships. Dancing is a series of dynamic movements that culminate in a form of artistic expression. It portrays the dynamism and grace necessary to move through the twists and turns of life. Add a twirl here or step sideways there to move to the rhythm of the music that’s playing at the time.
The vision of a dance reminds us that life plays different music at different seasons. We must match the steps of the dance to the season of life. When it’s time for something peppy, we do our best fancy footwork. At other times, we enjoy the pace and intimacy of the slow dance.
Walking the Line
Similar to keeping the scale balanced (mentioned in Part 1), sometimes the demands of work and life are compared to walking a tightrope or balance beam. We must walk purposefully and carefully to keep from falling. My daughter was a competitive gymnast for many years, so I watched her learn to do amazing things on a 4-inch beam approximately four feet off the ground.
When you walk on a balance beam, one foot goes in front of the other. There’s simply no room for anything else. You must maintain focus at all times and try not to lean to one side or the other. Balance requires body alignment. Usually, when a gymnast falls from the beam, it is because a hip or a shoulder twisted or shifted too far from center. Most importantly, when the gymnast falls, she must re-mount the beam and continue her routine with a smile on her face.
Each of these metaphors offers insights into navigating the spheres of work and life. Some people find one metaphor more helpful than the others. The goal in applying a metaphor is not to create a box that all comparisons must fit within but to employ a lens that helps us see the work-life challenges and solutions in new ways. Each metaphor reveals work-life lessons and contains nuggets of wisdom we can use in our everyday lives.
Reference: Lois, J. (2006). Role Strain, Emotion Management, and Burnout: Homeschooling Mothers’ Adjustment to the Teacher Role. Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 29 (Issue 4), pp. 507-530.
Tell us what you think! What work-life metaphor offers a new perspective for you?