I often learn best through metaphors. Metaphors take an concept that might be unfamiliar and dress it up like something that I am very familiar with. When we learn, we often visualize things better if they are presented in terms that we know well. When we teach, we try to explain our lessons using terminology that is familiar to our audience. Finding the right metaphor for our own learning or for our audience can unlock a deeper understanding. Here are a few examples of good metaphors that have recently been on my mind:
Tee ‘Em Up – My friend Richard was recently thinking about the way he wrote tasks on his to-do list. He wanted to set up his tasks in such a way that unfamiliar items could be easily tackled. He uses the automatic tees on a driving range to introduce this idea:
Growing up in Las Vegas, our favorite place to hit golf balls was Desert Pines. It was 30 minutes away, but it boasted a double decker driving range and automatic tees. After each hit, the tee dropped into the floor and re-emerged with a new ball. You could hit ball after ball without the pesky work of bending down to tee them. You could keep your stance and stay in the zone.
Imagine “teeing up” your tasks. Thoroughly prepare each task so the actual work of doing it is a simple, fluid stroke. Poorly prepared tasks require you to lean down. Well-prepared tasks are ripe for the hitting.
Bad: “Do taxes”
Good: “Find W2 forms and receipts in folder. Call accountant to setup appointment.”
Bad: “Christmas shopping”
Good: “Spend 10 minutes with pen and paper brainstorming what David might like for Christmas. Ask Mom for suggestions. Wait a few days to think about it. Order it online.”
Baseball and Perspective – Chelsea tells of a metaphor she heard in a talk at church that was presented by a BYU physics professor who wanted to explain “how he reconciles scientific theories with his testimony when they appear to conflict”.
Say you got a ticket to a baseball game, but you got a seat where you could only see the pitcher and the batter. You couldn’t see the umpire, the catcher, the other fielders, or even the other bases or the scoreboard. This is a really terrible seat!
But as you watch the game, you start to notice patterns. This is like a scientific theory. You figure out that when the hitter hits the ball, he takes off running. You figure out that there must be a catcher, since the ball keeps being thrown back to the pitcher. And after a few games (you got a season pass in this awful seat), you start to figure out more technicalities, like balls and strikes. You start feeling really confident in your theory. Every time the ball is thrown, it fits into your theory of baseball.
But then one time when you’re watching the ball, there are three strikes and the runner takes off towards first base. What?! That doesn’t fit into your theory at all. So you modify your theory. You add the “third strike drop” rule that accounts for when the catcher drops the ball on a third strike, then the hitter gets to run to the bases. Now your theory works again.
But do you really understand what it is to watch baseball? Do you really understand all the rules? I’m sure you don’t. But from your terrible seat and limited perspective, you’ve done a lot to figure out what’s happening.
Scientific laws and theories are actually both theories. Newton’s Laws are called laws because that’s what HE called them. And they’ve been proven to be wrong in some situations, but they’re still called laws. Then we have Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which has never been proven wrong but is still called a theory, because Einstein called it a theory.
So going back to the religion thing. How can someone believe in the Big Bang theory, the theory of evolution, AND Adam and Eve? Well, it all comes down to perspective. We don’t know exactly how anything worked out. The account of the creation in the Bible is very brief and doesn’t go into too much detail on HOW things were created. And from our limited standpoint, we’ve found a lot of evidence that supports the scientific theories. Should we just throw away that evidence because we can’t make it fit in what we know to be God’s truth? No. But neither should we throw away God’s truth just because we found some evidence supporting some theories that seem to contradict it.
How to Develop a Sense of Scale – In an article on his website BetterExplained, Kalid uses metaphors to help us put things in perspective. Here are his tips for understanding big numbers using smaller numbers that are more familiar:
Instead of looking up at the “big numbers”, we can shrink them to our level. Imagine the average person makes 50k/year, and a rich guy makes 500k/year. What’s the difference?
Well, instead of visualizing having 10x your money, imagine that things cost 10 times less. A new laptop? That’ll be 150 bucks. A new porsche? Only 6,000 dollars. A really nice house? 50k. Yowza. Things are cheap when you’re rich.
To understand Bill Gates’ scale, don’t think of 50 billion dollars and 5 billion/year income — it’s just another large number. Try to imagine having things cost 100,000 times less (and 100,000 is a pretty large number).
A laptop would be a few pennies. A porsche would be about 60 cents. Your $50M mansion would be a mere 500 bucks. You could “splurge”, spend $1000, and get everything you’ve ever needed. And you’re still earning 50k/year.
It’s much more vivid than “50 billion in the bank”, eh?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ – Prophets have always used metaphors, parables, and allegories to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. These literary devices are so common in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and modern scripture because these books deal with topics that are not always easy to visualize. Metaphors in scripture give us the power to understand, with the help of the Holy Ghost, things of a spiritual nature. Through the power of the Holy Ghost, God can reveal us the truth of the things we learn in this way line upon line, helping us gain a personal knowledge of things of a spiritual nature.
With all of these metaphors our understanding can increase, but we must be careful that they accurately represent the truth and we interpret them in the correct way. For example, as we seek to understand spiritual matters, we should pray for the truth to be revealed to us by the Holy Ghost, because “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things”. Moroni 10:4-5.