Yang: Misusing Metaphors

Misusing Metaphors

Use of metaphors is probably the ultimate “socially constructed reality.”  My favorite examples (from Kenwyn Smith’s Philosophical Problems in Thinking About Change: Snow blanketing the ground and snow sitting on the ground evoke different emotions in us. The former offers a sense of protection, and the latter domination. The context adds more complexity. In “the thick fog blanketed the city,” this “blanket” most decidedly does not offer any sense of protection.

We use “David and Goliath” as a metaphor for little guy’s beating the big guy despite all probability. Malcolm Gladwell challenges such misconception in his yet another TED presentation.

Even though the story of David and Goliath is biblical, the principles of our imagination and logic still apply…besides, a story is a powerful tool anywhere, any time, any how. 

In the battle between David and Goliath, David, this little shepherd boy, was equipped with only a stick, a sling, and a few stones (he used only one in the final act). Goliath was a 6’9” giant, fully armored and possessing a javelin, a spear, and a sword. Hence, “against all probability” for “the underdog” when we use this metaphor. But, was David truly the underdog?

He was small, but he was well equipped, almost as fully equipped as Goliath. (Just how many weapons can one use at a time?) In ancient times, a sling with stones was not the modern day slingshot toy. A sling in the hands of a seasoned solider was a formidable weapon. Though a shepherd, David undoubtedly was experienced protecting his herd against wild animals. He possessed a weapon he knew well, and he possessed the skills developed in years of practice (probably not quite 10,000 hours … so, might he possess some innate talent?!). 

In Gladwell’s analysis of this story, he presents Goliath as a giant with handicaps. Gladwell conjectures that Goliath might be inflicted with the disease, acromegaly, giantism manifested by slow movement and nearsightedness or double vision. Gladwell proposes this – backed by medical professionals’ speculation — because Goliath said, “Am I a dog that you would come to me with sticks” when he saw David approaching with his shepherd stick

The end of the story is: David hit Goliath right between his eyes with a stone from one shot. Gladwell further elaborates the significance of this stone. Stones from Valley of Elah were likely barium sulfate, which meant they had twice the density of a normal rock. The distance between David and Goliath was not great, and with the dense stone thrown at the velocity of “probably 35 meters per second,” David was able to knock down the giant in one sling shot. 

Whether we buy Gladwell’s modern analysis – his analytical points might not be original but he provides a compelling synthesis – the point is that we have been misconstruing the meaning of “David and Goliath.” It isn’t really about the underdog beating the giant against all odds; it’s more about an outsider’s skillful nimbleness taking down a lumbering overconfident establishment. David was not part of King Saul’s army, hence “an outsider.”

Even with this new understanding of the story, it may not be a totally accurate description of new startup ventures facing down giant corporations, such as all the small firms in Silicon Valley battling against Microsoft, Google, or Apple. In the world of organizations, taking down a giant with one shot isn’t likely to happen. However, it is true that the small firm’s nimbleness is often superior to giant’s hidebound status quo. Looking at the giant establishments all around us, including US’s standing in the world, we should all be humble about learning from “little guys.”

Do you have other examples to share?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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