Metaphor as catalyst for conversation

Last fall we conducted a study among recent university grads that explored their hopes and fears about job hunting. Recently we shared the metaphoric insights that emerged from the work with a Bishop’s University mentors and protégé group. The insights fuelled a thoughtful discussion among the protégés, some of whom are searching for their place and others for whom the process of searching is still vivid.

The visual metaphor that captured the greatest amount of attention was the image that one study participant shared of an old patchwork quilt and titled “A history reduced into patches”. Like all of the metaphors in this study, this quilt spoke to both hopes and fears and elicited a strong empathetic response.

On the one hand, the symbolism of the quilt spoke to hope since the quilt is a medium of self expression in which the quilter can bring contrasting backgrounds together to create new meaning. The hope is to look at your own eclectic job history so typical of many graduating students and to stitch together a compelling resume. On the other hand, the image felt like an unattractive quilt with no discernible pattern either in shape or color. This really connected to the fear and frustration that protégés felt with their quilting skills and an eclectic list of jobs that could lead prospective employers to ask, ‘what haven’t you done?’

Some university graduates had been fortunate enough to find a mentor along the way to help them see and communicate the patterns in their own work history. However, some painfully reflected on the fact that listing ‘what they have done’ is an unsuccessful interview strategy. Finally, there were those among the group who remain open to possibilities taking positions in industries that while never on their original radar screen are giving them an opportunity to develop skills and greater insight into themselves as employees. Bottom line, the patchwork quilt as metaphor and its association with a work history reduced into patches took the group discussion in many important directions and led not only to empathy but to ideas.