Metaphors for Careers

Metaphors for CareersWhen people talk, or even think, about careers, they typically use metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one concept, usually a relatively abstract one, is substituted by another, usually more concrete, to provide clarity and dramatic effect. Thus, Nelson Mandela did not title his autobiography My Career or My Life, but Long Walk to Freedom. In this metaphor, his career becomes a journey, on foot, to a known destination. The metaphor gives clarity, additional meaning, and color to the subject matter.

In their career discourses, people employ metaphors frequently. Many of these are variations on the journey metaphor: for example, career path, career trajectory, career plateau, career ladder, fast track, rat race, getting to the top, zigzag career, roller-coaster ride. All of these attribute “journey-like” characteristics such as movement and direction to the career, and some of them provide cues as to the kind of career that one should have (moving upward, fast, in competition with others, etc.). Career talk is not confined to journey metaphors, however. There are many different associations that people habitually employ when talking about their careers. Each of these metaphors reveals particular truths, and by considering each one in turn, we can develop a multifaceted view taking us closer to understanding some total truth about careers.

The focus here is on (a) the influence of metaphor, not just on language, but on ways of thinking about careers; (b) the strengths and weaknesses of the metaphor as a means of understanding and gaining insight about careers; (c) the metaphors and their implications most frequently employed in discourse about career; (d) the recent development of new metaphors in response to new characteristics of the career environment; and (e) the use of metaphor in career practice.

Metaphor: A Way of Thinking

A metaphor is not just a “figure of speech.” Scholars of the relationship of language to thought advise us that metaphor is more than an affectation, more than a smart way of talking, and more than a means of persuasion: It is a representation of how we think. Consider the metaphorical implications of the common career-related phrases, wrong side of the tracks, silver spoon in his mouth, story of my life, self-made man, playing a part, square peg in a round hole, loyal company servant. Each phrase depends on the literal meaning of the words that constitute it but also conveys more than that literal meaning. People’s metaphors embody and betray their internal images of the world around them. Using metaphors in our speech, we influence others to share our pictures of the world, and by listening to others’ metaphors, we modify our own internal images and develop new ones. While some might worry that metaphors are inherently deceptive—Nelson Mandela did not literally walk to freedom—they are apparently inevitable. If that is the case, it is important to understand both the strengths and limitations of metaphors.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Metaphors

One strength of the metaphor as a tool of thinking and talking is its ability to represent difficult abstract concepts by means of clear, familiar, often concrete, parallels. People find it easier and more interesting to work with such images.

Another advantage is that metaphors, particularly novel ones, can enable us to gain new insights and to use these to solve problems. Generating multiple metaphors for the same phenomenon may enable people to see things in a new light and thereby act innovatively to solve career problems.

The advantages of the metaphor can be observed in the common representation of the career as a journey. Most people can identify in their own lives career associations with travel-related phenomena such as planning the trip ahead, having a smooth or bumpy ride, making choices of direction, trying to keep up a good pace, overcoming obstacles, losing momentum, getting stuck, going astray, and reaching a destination. Recognizing the parallels between physical journeys and career journeys may therefore bring fresh insight. On the other hand, excessive and dramatic focus on the career as a journey might inhibit alternative potentially helpful images. Much imagery relating to careers, such as fast track, rat race, winners, getting to the top, and so on, constitutes a rhetoric of progression, competition, and pressure that may fairly represent some careers but make unwarranted assumptions about many others. A metaphor can be used not just to assist comprehension and to extend vision but also to persuade and politicize.

Seldom is a metaphor a complete and perfect representation of the concept that it stands for: Carried to their logical conclusion, most metaphors eventually break down. But metaphors should be judged not just by how accurately they appear to describe the reality they are supposed to represent but also by the extent to which they facilitate productive and new thinking. For those seeking to understand their own careers or careers in general, the method of multiple metaphor is recommended: Each new metaphor enables complementary layers of understanding and meaning to be added, until a more compete and balanced understanding of the phenomenon is reached.

Predominant Career Metaphors

A number of major metaphors for careers have special significance in career studies. Most likely, they represent generic ways of thinking about careers both by theorists who frame their concepts of career through them and laypeople grappling with their own careers.

For example, much theorizing on the sociology of occupations and careers is based on an inherent metaphor of the career as an inheritance. This metaphor reminds us how much of our career behavior and success is predetermined by characteristics such as gender, social class, education, and genetically inherited abilities. Understanding careers in this way might lead career actors to accept the status quo and the inequality it may entail or to attempt to improve people’s career chances by altering the social structure or protecting “disinherited” individuals from it—rather than by empowering people to overcome their inherited handicaps through proactive behavior.

Another common way of considering careers is as a cycle or cycles. This metaphor tells us about cyclic stages and transitions that careers typically go through in sequence. The cyclic metaphor the seasons of a life, for example, provides the message that careers take place in inevitable stages that are uniform across different individuals. Acceptance of this metaphor might lead individuals to plan their careers carefully in light of their expectations that their priorities and career issues will change (predictably) as they age. However, it might also handicap them under conditions in which either unpredicted changes in their own experiences (for example, seeking to leave an established occupa­tion and “start again”) or radical change in the environment (for example, organizational failure leading to layoff) have disrupted the expected cycle. A cycle metaphor emphasizing that the career is not a single cycle but a sequence of transition cycles between employment experiences might provide a more flexible outlook.

The metaphor of the career as action or construction adds to both of the above by emphasizing the power that individuals may exercise over their careers as they create them through proactive action and “construct” them cumulatively in their own ways, regardless of the constraints of either inheritance or sequence in the cycle. Individuals who hold this model of career might emphasize the planned development of their careers through the careful, self-directed construction of new experiences and achievements on the basis of what has gone before. A variant metaphor, careers as jazz, proposes that careers, rather than being preplanned, are actively improvised around particular themes in response to changing conditions.

The fit metaphor sees the career as resulting from an interaction between the individual and the work environment aimed at achieving a good match between the two. An individual with an implicit fit model of career might become preoccupied with understanding both himself or herself as well as the environment of work within which a good fit must be found and maintained as the career progresses. Indeed, this metaphor appears to underpin much of the work of those in the career development and guidance movement who are concerned with providing clients with good self-measurement devices and advice on “adjustment.”

The resource metaphor emphasizes the career as a repository of the person’s accumulating energy, talents, and skills that can be utilized in combination with other resources in the efficient production of goods and services. The career management theories developed in business schools and the human resource management and organizational commitment-building practices of many business organizations implicitly adopt this metaphor, seeking to engage the career resource productively. This may be accomplished through the encouragement of “organizational careers” in which the individual’s resources are developed and his or her progression in the organization is planned and implemented according to operational and strategic company requirements, yet in a way that utilizes human potential and provides individual fulfillment. This very common metaphor raises interesting issues about the ownership of the resources embodied in a person’s career and about the long-term mutuality of interests between people and their employers. Whatever the benefits to organizations, individuals who consider their careers to be company resources may gain benefits (e.g., pensions) from reciprocal company patronage but risk overdependence on the sole controller of the resource. On the other hand, conceptualizing one’s career as an accumulating repository of knowledge and consciously building the resource as a form of tradable “career capital” may be a smart career strategy.

As mentioned, the journey metaphor for careers is the most common of all in public use and emphasizes that careers involve movement toward destinations that sometimes emerge only as the journey proceeds. The metaphor’s main strength—and weakness—is its wide applicability. There are so many different kinds of journeys (short-long, fast-slow, planned-unplanned, upward-downward) that career experiences might be hard to find that do not have convincing “journey” parallels. This perhaps makes the journey metaphor conventional and commonplace, but at the same time, it creates a common imagery for discussion about careers and may, for example, enable counselors to assist their clients to find new forms of travel imagery (e.g., “So, your vehicle has broken down on the road. Could you jump-start it? Could you get out of the vehicle and explore the surrounding country?”)

As indicated earlier, one criticism of the journey metaphor is that its associated imagery often appears preoccupied with vertical movement, such as climbing ladders and getting to the top. This possibly idealizes hierarchical journey making to an extent that alternative models, such as horizontal movement, free movement, and non-movement, appear to be stigmatized. In that respect, the recent recognition of the validity of “downshifting” is to be welcomed.

New Career Metaphors

Recent changes in structures of employment opportunities, particularly for organizational restructuring, downsizing, and outsourcing, and the rise of contingent forms of work have apparently led to changes in the typical forms of careers and their general destabilization. This has created a need for new metaphors to represent new career realities.

Two important metaphors developed by theorists are the protean career and the boundaryless career. The protean career is based on Proteus, a character from Greek mythology who could change shape at will; it represents the notion of career as being self-directed by the individual based on a strong inner identity plus the adaptability to be able to make good career changes in a rapidly changing environment. The boundaryless career crosses boundaries and barriers, for example, between organizations, occupations, and industries, enabling the individual to keep his or her career essentially independent of external control. The boundaryless career is based also on a “boundaryless attitude” by the individual. The shape-changing and boundary-crossing virtues inherent in these metaphors make them attractive as idealized formulas for career development in a changing society, but if pushed too far, they may appear intolerant of alternative models (for example, those whose under-privilege prevents them from being self-directed or mobile).

Another increasingly common career metaphor, driven by the development of postmodern approaches to social science and the recognition that careers may be socially constructed rather than having objective reality, is of the career as a narrative or story. The story-like characteristics of most accounts of careers is striking, whether they are individual monologues, vitae, material elicited by counselors, or barroom boasting—as are differences of “fact” and emphasis in accounts of the same career given by different individuals or by the same individual to different audiences and for different purposes. Talking about one’s career as a constantly developing and changing story may enable individual adjustment, rationalization, and perhaps even sublimation in fantasy and self-mythologizing. For this reason, there is an increasing recognition of the potential of narrative approaches to career guidance.

Metaphor and Career Practice

It is likely that the interactions of career guidance counselors and their clients are characterized by much metaphorical discourse indicating interesting built-in career models. However, so far this remains unresearched. The material in question is not confined to generic models of career. Often a client will use a metaphor to describe a momentary part of the career, for example, “I’m in a rut” or “I want to fly.” Can these spontaneous metaphors be utilized by the counselor to facilitate the client’s development? Some progress has been made on the deliberate utilization of metaphor as part of the guidance process. One question is whether the process should always be based on the metaphors spontaneously used by the client or whether it is legitimate for a counselor to attempt to stimulate a client’s thinking by providing a new metaphor for the client to consider.

Another imposition of metaphor in career practice comes in the publication of metaphor-based “self-help” books urging the reader to “Reinvent yourself,” “Be a brand,” “Become Supermom,” “Pack your own parachute,” and so on. The attractiveness and popularity of such books is a testament to the power and rhetoric of metaphor, but a single powerful metaphor may constrain one’s breadth of thought. Readers of such books need to think through the validity and limitations of the metaphor carefully and to consider how it might be supplemented by others.


Career metaphors are more ubiquitous and powerful than most people realize. Those interested in careers need to surface and explore their own characteristic metaphors. They may benefit, too, from giving thought to alternative metaphors and being creative about generating possible new metaphors.

See also:


  1. Amundson, N. E. 1998. Active Engagement: Enhancing the Career Counselling Process. Richmond, Canada: Ergon Communications.
  2. Baruch, Y. 2004. Managing Careers: Theory and Practice.London, UK: Financial Times/Prentice Hall.
  3. Grant, D. and Oswick, C., eds. 1996. Metaphor and Organizations. London UK: Sage.
  4. Inkson, K. 2002. “Thinking Creatively about Careers: The Use of Metaphor.” Pp. 15-34 in Career Creativity: Explorations in the Re-making of Work, edited by M. Peiperl, M. B. Arthur, R. Goffee and N. Anand. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  5. Inkson, K. 2004. “Images of Career: Nine Key Metaphors.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 65:96-111.
  6. Ortony, D. 1993. Metaphor and 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.