Using Metaphor to Unlock Career Narratives: The Sailboat Metaphor

Sailboats at sunset, metaphor to unlock career narratives

As career professionals, we utilize creative tools and strategies to unleash our client’s career story in a compelling way. One of the strategies I’ve enjoyed success with is metaphor. Recently, while driving to visit my parents, I was about to cross a bridge. Before I could cross, I had to wait for a ferry to pass by. Watching the ferry gave me time to ponder about using metaphor to unlock career narratives.

Crossing the Bridge

It was a beautiful ferry. I was immersed in the scenery and captivated by the stillness of the water and the horizon. It was clear this journey was going to take some time, so I relaxed, tuned into classical music, and started meditating. I could see that some people were growing impatient, frowning at the thought of having to wait in their cars for the ferry to pass. As we enter the last stage of reopening in Ontario — after a long wait — even small distractions can seem like hours rather than minutes. The ferry crossed quicker than imagined, the bridge gate lifted, and cars began driving across the bridge. To some, it must have seemed like an obstacle course.

To our clients, crossing the bridge represents the pivotal point where they decide to make a career transition. Society often encourages us to keep moving ever so quickly to reach our destination. But the ironic thing is that we can never fully plan for the unexpected — roadblocks may arise, forcing us to evaluate our direction or take a detour.

In my teens, I recall taking the bus with my friend to go shopping one Saturday afternoon. We somehow took the wrong route, which meant having to walk much further. My friend explained to the bus driver: “We took the wrong route. Please, won’t you make a detour just this one time?” We chuckled afterward, realizing how unrealistic this request had been. We then embraced our fate of having to take a longer walk, but we were awakened to planning for future mishaps. The truth is that we often lean into optimism bias — we become overconfident about the likelihood of positive events happening to us, without addressing all the possible negative outcomes or risks involved.

Taking a Detour

Since the pandemic, many of us have been forced to take a “detour” and switch our direction or even mindset. We have had to sacrifice our patience, resilience, and tenacity as we “wait for the ferry to pass.” Or, we’ve simply had to find a better route. I have learned that the quickest route may not always be the best route in the end. And we have been learning to rely on our own resources and sharing our experiences with our loved ones, neighbours, and peers to make the journey engaging.

While I was waiting for the ferry to pass, creative thoughts started stirring. How many of us, including our clients, feel like a ship in the night yearning to see the “lighthouse” as we pass other sailboats in the fog without direction? During a career transition, clients sometimes feel like a sailboat without a compass. They may feel alone in the dark without any real support.

Reaching Out for Anchors

However, if we look within ourselves, we will discover that we do have internal resources and external supports that we can reach out to like “anchors” to help us make it through the dark, stormy waves of the night. We can stay safe and strong, draw strength from other sailors, and learn to navigate choppy waters.

Ironically, the universe was trying to convey an important message to me as I pondered the metaphor of a journey by boat. The next day, I received an interesting resource in my inbox. It was designed by Hugo Alberts and talks about using the sailboat metaphor with clients.

This quote caught my eye:

“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.“ – Louisa May Alcott  

We cannot give into fear because each of us represents the captain of our own ship. We must learn to steer our own course and take responsibility for our actions. And, if we trust in ourselves and our abilities, we can focus on and delight in the journey.

I would like to share this empowering exercise based on positive psychology. You can tailor the exercise to your clients, however you wish. The goal of the sailboat metaphor is to understand how we function from a holistic perspective, considering both the positive and negative factors that influence our wellness.

Dissecting the Sailboat Metaphor

Metaphors are powerful.

By dissecting this metaphor, we can understand the various parts of the sailboat that represent valuable pieces of our clients’ career stories.

The water — represents the reality and workplace environment in which clients navigate their careers. The water is not always calm. It can be murky, even unsteady, but we need to navigate the water (environment) or change it altogether for the sake of wellness, meaning, and fulfillment.

The steering wheel or tiller — reflects the needs and core values that steer your clients’ direction. Adaptive values enhance our well-being while maladaptive value patterns reduce well-being. When clients have lost connection with their adaptive values, one or more elements of the boat receive unequal attention.

The destination — represents the goals and wishes of our clients.

Leaks in the boat — symbolize the internal weaknesses or ineffective coping strategies that impact performance and goal achievement. The key is guiding our clients to transform their weaknesses into strengths and seal the “leak” or the “gap.” Yet, fixing the leak is not always enough to drive momentum. It may only be a temporary solution.

Sails — represent personal strengths necessary to not only cope with negative situations, but to thrive, grow, and move forward.

A compass provides valuable feedback on direction and helps to successfully navigate a course. Similarly, our clients can draw on their feelings, emotions, and intuition to help them navigate their career journey.

The weather — is beyond our control and yet impacts the progress of a journey by sailboat. We need to guide clients on increasing their resilience and learning to steer around uncontrollable events or “storms” that can take the wind out of their “sails.” And we all need to know the difference between what we can control, what we cannot control, and what we simply need to accept.

Other boats — represent employers, peers, colleagues, or stakeholders that surround us. These people can either champion our successes and remind us of our value and purpose, or persuade us to get off course. We need to discern the people that are supportive, stay true to our own values and ideals, and let go of unsupportive people.

Guiding Our Clients to Use the Sailboat Metaphor

As a lighthouse to our clients in time of need,  we can use this metaphor to help clients:

  • Talk about their current and past experiences as a vehicle for healing and career storytelling, and guide them in identifying future goals.
  • Discover their “ikigai” or “reason for being”.
  • Find their ideal work environment and culture.
  • Understand and gain awareness through career development theory.
  • Realize that all elements of the sailboat need to balance. For example, if we focus too much on the destination of the boat, we will lose sight of the essence of our journey.
  • Navigate the “stormy waters” in their life and career, including the changing labour market.
  • Increase their awareness of their values, goals, strengths, and weaknesses, then help them to evaluate their environment and identify and plan for changes.

Whether you decide to use this sailboat metaphor individually or in groups with clients, it offers an interesting way to understand your client’s experiences from a positive psychology lens and multi-dimensional, wellness-based perspective.

To gain more information on life and wellness coaching, enrol in CPC’s Work-Life Strategist course and earn your CWS certification this year.

“Think creatively and visualize a new career horizon!”

Lori Jazvac is a passionate, award-winning Master Certified Résumé Strategist and Certified Employment Strategist through Career Professionals of Canada. As a multi-certified Master Résumé Writer and Certified Career Transition Coach, she specializes in helping clients navigate challenging career transitions. In 2013, an empowering vision inspired Lori to launch Creative Horizons Communications, a holistic career services firm where she virtually supports jobseekers around the globe to embrace their next career milestone. In her spare time, Lori enjoys dance, blogging, watching comedies and reality shows, yoga, and taking long walks in nature.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash



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Thank you for another excellent article, Lori. Metaphor is a beautiful way to connect to our clients, help them and their prospective employers understand their life and career stories. When helping my clients write their résumé and prepare for job interviews, I coach them to tell a compelling story that aligns with their value proposition. We are wired for storytelling and remembering stories. Metaphors enrich our vocabulary and job search “toolkit” and make us stand out from other applicants. 

Ksenia, thank you for the valuable feedback. I agree! Incorporating metaphor drives holistic meaning into the career narrative and fuels engagement with the audience. Stories are powerful vehicles for connectedness and healing. As always, your approach with clients is very thoughtful and strategic 🙂

Thank you for this article Lori! Metaphors really have a powerful effect because they address different parts of our brain than the ones activated when we go through the usual “Would, Should, Could” type of advices. They often spark those Eureka! moments that help clients gain a new perspective and renewed hope.

You’re welcome, Catherine! Thank you for providing this very interesting insight about metaphors and their impact on our cognition and perception. I agree that metaphors are meaningful and transformative, sparking those moments of epiphany that serve as pivotal points for growth.

Hello there. I am teaching a University Foundations course at Concordia in Edmonton. May I share your article with my students? Mary Frances Fitzgerald, M. Ed.

Hello Mary Frances,

Thanks for your reply and interest in this blog post!

We would be delighted if you could share the article with your students at Concordia.

Please attribute CPC as the original source of the material via link to the original URL if you are sharing the hardcopy. Alternatively, you are welcome to share the URL as freely as you like via email or online.

Kind Regards,