📚 How to use metaphors as analytical tools 📚

Metaphor Map #10

Hey, friend! Welcome to Metaphor Map.

This issue features metaphors from a diplomat, a software engineer, and philosophy professor. We’re focusing on you can use metaphors to analyze and explain your best ideas.

Let’s get into it!

I’m always struck when a communicator can tease apart the dense, taut, interlinked ideas of a complex system. Systems are like knots that get tighter the more we play with them. Untying them into separate ideas that we can see, understand, and analyze is a feat. 

Metaphors (you’ll be unsurprised to discover, since you’re reading this newsletter) are a great way of getting a grip on these ideas. 

The trouble with using metaphors is that explaining your knowledge takes different work than gathering it. Laying out all your research on a blanket of wares won’t draw any buyers. 

Instead, you have to swallow some of that investment, find the dynamic that pulses inside the system, and explain that first and foremost. That pulse provides the rhythm a reader can move to, a beat that makes the rest of the story feel coherent. 

Metaphor is your way of making that pulse felt, your way of making that system sensible.

Let’s look at three communicators who used metaphors as analytical tools and see what we can learn from them.


1. Paint

“The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time, one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through.”

- Alexis-Charles-Henri de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Systems are emergent. 

It’s hard to describe systems partially because they always consist of multiple systems emerging at once. A superficial thinker notices this fact but swats away the possibility of insight, leaving the system an unanalyzed mass of other systems. 

It’s so easy to do this you might not even notice yourself doing it. It’s easy for a system to appear as one thing, rather than many things. That’s one reason, of many, why it’s so important to return to brilliant minds like Tocqueville’s.

Here, 19th century French Diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville, takes turpentine to America’s appearance. 

Remember, at the time of writing, we’re not too far off from the American Revolution. When Tocqueville writes of aristocratic colors, he can likely see them much more vividly than we can. 

That isn’t to insult him. Tocqueville actually demonstrates the power of metaphor because he analyzes American society in such a way that the truth of his analysis can last hundreds of years.

To this day, if you look closely, you can see the aristocratic colors breaking through the democratic paint. That dynamic persists. By identifying it and explaining it via metaphor, Tocqueville created an idea so durable that it’s legible hundreds of years later. 

You could describe the colors of a past system breaking through the paint of a current system without adjusting anything but the targets of your analysis and the sentence would be just as true. 

Let’s riff on it a little to see if that’s right.

🎸 The new managers painted the company with a flat organizational model, but the old hierarchical model still breaks through.

🎸 The team presented a new way of doing research to a group of at first skeptical, but eventually enthusiastic, professors. But the professors soon learned they were naive. The new way painted over the old way, but the paint peeled up as you worked, refusing to adhere to the surface. The old way kept breaking through and you had to paint it over again, the next layer thicker and even more prone to peeling. 

Look for dynamics where the new is emerging from the old. Maybe the new isn’t as solid as it first appears. Look closer and find where the old breaks through. 

2. Basement stairs

“Consider building some basement stairs for a moment. Stairs seem pretty simple at first … But as you actually start building you’ll find there’s a surprising amount of nuance.

The first thing you’ll notice is that there are actually quite a few subtasks. Even at a high level, you have to cut both ends of the 2x12s at the correct angles; then screw in some u-brackets to the main floor to hold the stairs in place; then screw in the 2x12s into the u-brackets; then attach the angle brackets for the stairs; then screw in the stairs.

Next you’ll notice that each of those steps above decomposes into several steps, some of which have some tricky details to them due to the properties of the materials and task and the limitations of yourself and your tools. ...

At every step and every level there’s an abundance of detail with material consequences.

It’s tempting to think ‘So what?’ and dismiss these details as incidental or specific to stair carpentry. And they are specific to stair carpentry; that’s what makes them details. But the existence of a surprising number of meaningful details is not specific to stairs. Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.”

- John Salvatier, Reality has a surprising amount of detail

Metaphors come up often in good analyses. As you dissect the world into finer and finer details, you find patterns that persist across seemingly different things.

Sometimes, the best way to finding a good metaphor is to burrow deep into the details of a particular practice, entity, or structure. If you go deep enough, you’ll find a detail that other practices, entities, or structures share.

And there’s your metaphor, waiting for you.

Here, software engineer and artificial intelligence researcher John Salvatier takes apart the process of building basement stairs. 

Salvatier finds a truth that he can generalize. Building a staircase has myriad details that aren’t apparent until you get up close and personal. What else is like this? Well, everything.

In a metaphor like this, the point is the journey, the analysis. Stating the conclusion (“reality is detailed”) leaves the insight unremarkable and forgettable. Instead, he walks the reader to the insight. This vector of discovery doubles as a metaphor. 

He describes Process X. He finds Y Truth in Process X. Now, Process X is Metaphor Z and we can apply it to all sorts of things. 

I’ll only riff once here because the magic comes from just how specific it is.

Salvatier goes so deep he leaves you with some real knowledge about building staircases. To find truths worthy of analysis and metaphor, you’ll have to go that deep too. The riff here is only a gesture in that direction.

🎸 Consider playing a video game. If the button presses required to defeat the boss were merely that series of buttons, no one would ever learn them. But game developers tie those buttons to actions that occur in the game and then that dynamic, that alchemy, convinces 12 year olds to ingest hundreds of patterns and instincts as muscle memory. Everything you’ve ever learned was never just the knowledge, plain and simple. There was a game to learning it, whether you noticed you were playing or not. 

This is a weighty tool to use. Make sure you give this method space to work. We’re not looking for bland analogies here.

Find truth in the particular and you’ll find truths in the universe. 

3. Thermometer

“The method of believing whatever one’s social surroundings tell one to believe is not reliable. So, when I learn about the social influences on my belief, I learn that I’ve formed my beliefs using an unreliable method. If it turns out that my thermometer produces its readings using an unreliable mechanism, I cease to trust the thermometer. Similarly, learning that my beliefs were produced by an unreliable process means that I should cease to trust them too. 

But in the hypothetical example, do I really hold that my beliefs were formed by an unreliable mechanism? ... 

The thermometer analogy, then, is inapt. Learning that I would have believed differently if I’d been raised by a different community is not like learning that my thermometer is unreliable. It’s more like learning that my thermometer came from a store that sells a large number of unreliable thermometers. But the fact that the store sells unreliable thermometers doesn’t mean I shouldn’t trust the readings of my particular thermometer. After all, I might have excellent reasons to think that I got lucky and bought one of the few reliable ones.”

- Miriam Schoenfield, Why do you believe what you do? Run some diagnostics on it

Metaphors aren’t perfect. They never are.

When you use them, you’re saying one thing is another thing to highlight all the aspects in which they are similar and aren’t similar. The very purpose of using them proves they’re wrong.

Of course X isn’t actually Y; it’s X. 

When you’re using metaphors as analytical tools, don’t be afraid to take them to and past this breaking point.

A broken metaphor can be just as useful as an unbroken one.

Here, philosophy professor Miriam Schoenfield compares her beliefs to readings from a thermometer. She focuses on the different reactions we’d have to using them.

If a thermometer has an unreliable mechanism, you don’t trust the data it provides. If a belief has an unreliable mechanism, however, she claims, you might still trust the belief. You don’t throw it away like you would a thermometer (or any other tool).

That’s an interesting idea. But Schoenfield goes for more than interesting.

Her analysis takes her beyond the limits of her initial metaphor.

Unreliable beliefs are not just like unreliable thermometers, she decides. Forming unreliable beliefs is like buying a thermometer from a store known to have unreliable wares. There has to be a chance that your thermometer, or your belief, despite its origins in something broadly unreliable, just happens to be true in your case.

As readers, we learn more from the breaking of this metaphor than we would from being presented with the facts.

Taking the metaphor to its breaking point makes the similarities and differences she wants to highlight stand out in even greater contrast.

Let’s riff on how we might do something like this too.

🎸 To survive in a toxic work environment is to tread water. You’re paddling and expending energy as if you’re going somewhere, and yet you’re making no progress. But perhaps that comparison doesn’t get to the heart of it. A toxic work environment is worse than the gravitational pull. It’s more like a riptide that tries to drag you out to the ocean to drown. It’s tricky because swimming against it is pointless. You have to swim away from it, at the right angle, to escape. 

This kind of writing models the learning required to make this kind of analysis. Modeling your thought process via metaphor makes it as digestible as it is compelling.


The world will resist your attempts to communicate it. Ideas, especially once they’re taken up by systems, will resist simple explanation. Metaphors are one way in and if you use them well, your insight will be as powerful as it is true.