Metaphor: A New Way Of Thinking About Careers

by Kerr Inkson

Have you thought about the way people often talk about their careers?

"I want my career path to be on the fast track"; "I'm a square peg in a round hole"; "It's a roller-coaster ride"; "I feel I'm on a plateau"; "I need to change gear"; What I do is a legacy from my father."

Such statements are exercises in metaphor - the substituting of physical or dramatic images for the abstract concept of "career." There is not a real "path" or "roller-coaster" or "peg" or "plateau" or "gear" or "legacy", yet these are excellent shorthand representations of the way that the speakers think about their careers. We know exactly what they mean. Metaphor is natural - psycholinguists and cognitive psychologists advise us that we do much of our thinking in metaphors (Ortony, 1993).

Metaphors can constrain our career thinking. Obsessing about one's career being a journey along a narrow uphill path to the top of a mountain, or about finding the "perfect fit" between self and job, may prevent us from seeing our careers in novel ways. Correspondingly, deliberately searching for new metaphors for career may enable us to liberate ourselves from stereotyped ways of thinking, and to perceive fresh opportunities.

Archetypal metaphors for career are that the career is an inheritance, a cycle of different seasons of life, an action or construction, a search for fit, a journey, a series of roles, a developing network of relationships, a resource, and a story. Both the thinking of people pursuing their careers, and the theories promulgated by academics and taught to aspiring career practitioners tend to cluster around these core metaphors (Inkson, 2004).

The most common metaphor of career - embodied in words such as "path", "track", "plateau", "ladder", "progress", "climb", "destination", "compass", and "map" - is that of the journey. Asked to use a metaphor to summarize their careers, over 50% of people use a journey metaphor. But journeys can be of many different types - goal-directed or autonomous, upwards or up-and-down, local or international, fast or leisurely. Different forms of the journey metaphor provide rich material for individuals to question their thinking about their careers, or for counselors to encourage them to think outside their current frame.

Career practice is likewise assisted but also constrained by metaphors. Assessment-oriented practitioners tend adopt the "fit" or "match" metaphor, seeking to learn more about their clients and about the opportunities available in an attempt to find a good fit between the two. Developmental psychologists see careers as exercises in growth. Those with concerns for work-life balance focus, and get their clients to focus, on the competing demands of different work and non-work roles, and the conflict between them. Company managers are interested in developing employees' careers as resources from which the organization can benefit. All may benefit by thinking about "multiple metaphors" that go beyond the constraints of their own favored ways of perceiving the world (Inkson, in press).

There is growing interest in the use of metaphor in counseling (Lyddon, Clay & Sparks, 2001). This can be extended to career counseling (Amundson, 1998; Inkson & Amundson, 2002; McMahon, in press). Advocates use as a base metaphor the notion of the career as a story, a personal narrative account of the career based on the client's own self-construction of his or her identity. The "truth" of the story is less important than what it reveals about the client's thinking. Frequently the story will have a metaphorical basis which can be used by the counselor to stimulate new thinking.

In an example, a client reported how her career journey had become like a car "stuck in the sand." That prompted a productive dialogue about the nature of the car, the journey and the sand, and the various strategies which might be adopted: rope-and-tackle? send for a tow-truck? get out and walk? stay there? Some counselors use physical drawings of the metaphor to assist visualization. The client's own metaphor can thus be used to assist him or her to get a new appreciation of the situation and possible actions. Alternatively, the counselor can suggest alternative metaphors to encourage new insights and career planning by the client.

The new interest in metaphor is part of a "post-modern" view of careers - one in which flexibility, creativity and personal narrative play a part, enabling the development of wider and more imaginative views of career behaviour and practice. The new approaches do not deny the utility and value of conventional methods of career development, based on rational theory, assessment, information and decision making. In good practice, metaphor supplements traditional approaches rather than attempting to replace them.

I have used metaphor to provide the framing of a forthcoming textbook on careers (Inkson, in press, see forthcoming announcement on www.sagepub.com ), including a chapter on metaphor and counseling by a career counselor colleague (McMahon, in press). I invite dialogue with interested persons.


Amundson, N. E. (1998). Active engagement: Enhancing the career counselling process. Richmond, Canada: Ergon Communications.

Inkson, K. (2004). Images of career: nine key metaphors. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 2004, 65, 1, 96-111.

Inkson, K. (in press). Understanding careers: The metaphors of working lives. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA..

Inkson, K., and Amundson, N. (2002). Career metaphors and their application in theory and counseling practice. Journal of Employment Counseling, 39, 3, 98-108.

Lyddon, W. J., Clay, A. L., & Sparks, C. L. (2001). Metaphor and change in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 79, 269-274.

McMahon, M. (in press). Metaphor and career counseling. In K. Inkson, Understanding careers: The metaphors of working lives. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Ortony, A. (1993). Metaphor and thought (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kerr Inkson is Professor of Management at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He has been active in careers research since 1990, including studies of managerial careers, new forms of career, contingent work, international careers, and the use of metaphor in career studies and development. He has completed many journal articles and book chapters, and two books, in career studies. He is currently Chair of the Careers Division of the Academy of Management. More information is available on http://www.business.otago.ac.nz/mgmt/staff/kinkson.htm,
and Kerr can be emailed at kinkson@business.otago.ac.nz.

Printer-Friendly Version

1 Comment

Catharine Craig   on Wednesday 03/05/2014 at 05:59 PM

Dear Dr. Inkson,

I wanted to take a moment to thank you for writing, “Metaphor: A New Way of Thinking About Careers” published back in ’06 on the NCDA website. I am currently in the process of preparing for a professional conference where my topic will be, “Making Metaphors and Meaning: Activities and Resources You Can Use to Engage Students In Their Pursuit of Authentic Self.” I chose this topic because I love the idea of metaphor and have found it to be of tremendous help when I am teaching First Year Students. I have found that the one metaphor that I see continually expressed is that of career as journey. I went out seeking alternative approaches and discovered your lovely article.

Thank you very much.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.