Hills Not Walls

The choice of our metaphors matters.

Marco Giancotti,

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Sometimes you hit against a wall. Your plans are cut off, a link in the chain is broken, and you're forced to a standstill, in frustration. A pierced tire, a failed entrance exam, a broken promise. Cases like these happen, and when they happen you either give up what you were trying to do or you look for a breakthrough. You look for a new weak spot to hit with a sledgehammer.

Breakthroughs are gambles, and most of the times gambles are a bad idea. Besides, metaphorical walls are rarer than it seems. More often, in life, we aren't crashing against a wall, but lost on the way to somewhere else.

The feeling is similar—frustration, helplessness, not seeing the way forward—but the difference is enormous. We need a better metaphor for that state.

Looking back at my own life, most of the key turning points weren't breakthroughs but something qualitatively different: something like hills I must somehow cross to continue my journey. I think the same is true for everyone else.

In each of those pivotal moments in my life, I only took an infinitesimal step forward, like all previous steps. Yet suddenly something crucial had flipped. Everything that happened after those moments was like before, but simpler—not easier, but filled with confidence and momentum, with a clear sense of direction.

The sensation is like tipping over the top of an upward slope.

It was like that with my self-study of Japanese. I began learning kanji in the summer of 2006, but for a year I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know if I would ever get anywhere. I learned at a slow pace, and spent more time reading about learning the language than doing the actual learning.

It took me eleven months to go through the first three fourths of my kanji textbook, and the book wasn't even teaching me how to pronounce the symbols. One year in, I could recognize a bunch of Chinese characters, but I was utterly unable to speak or understand any Japanese, I had no one to practice with, and I knew no more than a couple dozen basic words. It felt like counting grains of sand in a desert.

I (barely) remained interested enough to continue for those eleven months, until one day (it was late August, 2007) I read a blog post. It was written by a man who had learned Japanese to written and spoken fluency in a year and a half, all outside of Japan. The post was about how he'd immersed himself in the language, and how he'd only used material that actually interested him. I don't even remember the contents precisely, and it doesn't matter.

That blog post made something click for me. After that, I stopped counting grains. I finished the last fourth of the kanji book in a week—a speed-up of more than 40x—and dove head-first into my full immersion in the language. Although I worked much harder than before, I felt lighter.

It was as if I'd been slogging up a hill for a long time until I finally reached the top. After that things went downhill, in a good way. The frustration and the feeling of being stranded gave way to elation as I flew down the slope on the other side. Like a ski mountaineer who, after hours of trudging with skis on his back, finally puts them on and hops into a swift descent.

A green downward slope between misty mountains, covered in sheep.
Photo by Mingheras Cosmin, Unsplash

One year after finding that post, I was already reading my way through my first novel in Japanese. One more year, and I was reading thousands of pages of prose per month, and I understood 90% of all the movies, TV shows, and anime I watched without subtitles. Five years after that August evening I had moved to Japan, and I was speaking Japanese all day as part of my job.

Was that blog post so revolutionary or—to use another violent metaphor—so ground-breaking? Not really. It was persuasive, but nothing prize-worthy. Had I read it a few months earlier or later, I don't think it would have had much effect on me. It just happened to be what I needed to enter the inflection point, but it was the eleven months of plodding, searching, wandering that I'd done before reading it that set me up for the phase transition.

Something of the same kind seems to have happened in many of the so-called scientific "breakthroughs". For example, the theory of special relativity was epochal, but it was the culmination of centuries of advances, to which Albert Einstein added a single catalytic idea: the speed of light is constant. That set in motion a transformation that only gained speed over the next several decades.

I like the hill-crossing metaphor, because it isn't merely a more peaceful variant of the breakthrough metaphor. It offers a different way to look at things, and because of that, it can lead to new ideas.

For one thing, hills differ from walls in that they work in all directions. Imagine an oval hill: you don't need to reach the very summit, the highest possible vantage point, before gravity starts to gently pull you down the opposite slope. Any point along the climb could serve as the beginning of a good downhill glide.

Here is an element of free will that the wall metaphor won't give you: you get to choose your path up the hill. Climb too steeply, and you'll exhaust yourself early on. Jump on your sled or skis too soon, and you'll slide right back to where you came from. But you can take slanting trails on your way up, longer but more sustainable trails. While these diagonal climbs may not take you to the summit, that's not the goal anyway. Those paths may lead you to a high enough point to get across and on with your journey.

Besides, hills come in all shapes and sizes. They often have multiple summits, varied crests and cliffs, knolls and thickets. This geographical ruggedness is like the vexing unpredictability of real-life projects. We have the free will to choose our path—how we tackle our challenges—but the options we choose from are constrained by the shape and state of the world we're in.

Most of the time, we don't find walls on hillsides, spots where the only option is to go back or destroy something to open a passage. Usually, in life as on hills, we have the choice of going left or right, up thornier trails or windier routes, and all come with tradeoffs. In choosing, you're guided by the knowledge that all you need to do is find the next ridge from which you can slide down and past the hill—not the straightest path, not the highest peak, not the most predictable course, but one good enough to get on with your life.

Perhaps most importantly, getting over a hill teaches patience. It gives you a way to channel your frustration for something useful: climbing a bit higher and getting creative with the path you take. No brute force required.

What's in a metaphor? There are skeptics who will say it's a harmful fiction that distracts you from real life. I disagree with them, because a metaphor is a model that works in more than one context, and we can't help but think with models. To improve your metaphors is, I think, to become wiser. Thinking in terms of "reaching a sliding-off point", as opposed to "breaking through", deploys a whole different set of considerations and options that would otherwise remain hidden. Don't bang your head against your problem: take a few more steps in it. ●

Cover image:

Carta orografica ed idrografica dell'Italia Settentrionale, David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries.