Hari Patience-Davies on the three things a good analogy needs.
I’ve been listening to a lot of parenting podcasts recently. With a 4 year old and a 1 year old, my own business and a huge bit of remodelling work on the house that has left us exiled from home for seven months, I’ve got a lot on. And while I know that there isn’t a magic combination of factors or schedule that will make it all flow smoothly, I’m always on the lookout for more parenting hacks.
On one podcast, the hosts were discussing some of the additional challenges that come from raising special needs children, and they recommended an essay called, “Welcome to Holland.” I was blown away by it. It’s short and easy to read – written by Emily Perl Kingsley in 1987 – and it features a central analogy that just makes sense. It might be one of the best analogies I’ve ever read.
I’d recommend you read it – as I said it’s super short so it wouldn’t take long – but for the TLDR crowd here’s a summary. Having a baby is like planning a trip to Italy. You’ve done the research and you’re looking forward to it. But when the plane lands (the baby is born) you find that instead you have arrived in Amsterdam. Not Italy, and not bad necessarily, but just not what you were expecting.
Even if you’ve never been on a plane before, you’ll have planned a trip, or dreamed of a trip, and the idea of having the destination changed on you, without your knowledge, is unsettling. We can empathise with someone disoriented and stuck in a place they never expected to be.
We get it.
A good analogy needs to be three things. Firstly, it must be simple. You don’t want to use brain surgery to explain rocket science – not when there’s a really simple way to explain rocket thrusters using a balloon and a straw.
Secondly, a good analogy has to be familiar. You want to make sure that the analogy you choose is something your audience already knows about and understands. Think of it for popular sports – if you were developing an analogy for use in the USA you might use baseball or American Football. Neither of these sports are well known enough in the UK to work – instead you’d want to use football or maybe rugby.
Thirdly, a good analogy has an Aha! moment. That’s the moment when suddenly you see the topic being explained in a whole new light. It’s the lightbulb moment, if we want to use an analogy to explain an analogy.
If you can come up with an analogy that is simple, familiar and enables an Aha, you’ve hit gold!
Welcome to Holland does it. It’s short – quick and easy to read with plain language. It’s familiar, using travel and expected changes at the core of the metaphor. And there’s a clear Aha.
I get it. And I have increased empathy because I get it. From the first to the last line, it’s an incredibly good piece of writing. And so I will share that last line, because it’s so well done.
“But… if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things … about Holland.”