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A Better Metaphor Than "You Can't Make an Omelet..."

A little while ago I wrote about how the metaphor "a slippery slope" is a bad one.  Partly I was just screwing around and having some fun with the English language, but I hope I made my point clearly enough.

The problem with bad metaphors is that they lead to bad logic.  And bad logic - especially when it can be easily conveyed in a clever-sounding little saying - leads to bad thinking, bad choices, and bad actions.

So in a continued quest to try to make the world make more sense, today I want to look at another crappy metaphor and see if we can make it better:

You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

What the term is supposed to mean:  "You can't make good things happen if you aren't willing to take the risk that some bad things might happen along the way."


What the term actually means:  "The only way to make a good thing happen is to completely smash up a whole bunch of people's lives.  There are no other possible options."

The problem is that this phrase is mixing two separate metaphors in a way that sounds good because they're both food-related, but the logic doesn't hold up.

On the one hand, you have the eggs.  They represent a fragile thing that can be devastated.  Usually they are a metaphor for innocent people who may be harmed - for example, civilians during a war or bystanders who could be hurt during a police raid on an apartment building.

On the other hand you have the omelet, which represents an ideal situation that you want to work toward - for example, a country at peace or an apartment building that doesn't have any drug dealers in it.

However, the act of breaking eggs means two very different things depending on which metaphor you're looking at.

If you focus only on the egg metaphor, then the eggs are a fragile thing that get destroyed, but a good thing can come from it.  The eggshell is irreparable, but look at the yummy egg that you can eat now - isn't that great?

If you focus on the omelet only, then the eggs are just a step in a process.  Breaking them is not a destructive act - just a transformative one.  You might as well say "You can't bake a cake without mixing some batter" or "You can't make a sidewalk without mixing up cement" or "You can't make a vase without turning sand and various other compounds into glass, then shaping it into a vase-like shape and cooling it in a delicate, careful manner."

When you mix them, you end up with an extremely narrow-minded interpretation of the world.  Yes, it is true that you need to break eggs to make an omelet on a literal level, but not on a metaphorical one.

My goal is to eat something because I'm hungry.  I can either cook some eggs (not just break them), or maybe I can have a hamburger, or maybe I can have an apple.  And you know what?  I can just buy an apple.  I don't have to stab the farmer in the neck and then salt his land.

A better metaphor would be:

If you ask for an omelet, you might get some eggshell, too.

This lets you keep the general metaphor intact, but it lets you focus on the idea of expecting risk rather than holding you to the inevitability of destruction.  It's an important distinction because now you can deal with reality without being an asshole.

It's a matter of preconceptions directing your actions.  It's totally possible to accept that shit happens without insisting on causing more of it.

The truth is that all decisions in the world, however minor, carry with them some amount of risk and potential for harm. That being said, we don't actually want to cause harm, and for the most part we can avoid it.  We never set out to achieve something by starting with the thought of, "Say, how can we maximize the amount of pain and terror we will inflict on the world?"

Suppose there's a village in Afghanistan that may or may not be harboring nuclear warheads.  You're commanding a military unit that's supposed to search the village.

If you take the "can't make an omelet without breaking eggs" approach, then you're treating it as a foregone conclusion that you're going to have to hurt people along the way.  If you go into the village with that kind of attitude, how likely is it that you'll try to avoid causing damage?  You've already decided that the villagers are eggs that need breaking, so you're more likely to kill or injure people whether they're hiding anything or not.

On the other hand, if you take the "you might get some eggshell, too" approach, then you recognize that it's a precarious situation but you'll try your best to minimize any damage.  You worry that the villagers are secretly planning on killing you, so you'll be paranoid - but you also hope that they're innocent and you don't want to give them a reason to hate you any more than they might already.  Things may still end up going poorly, but at least you're not going to be in any rush to make it worse.

Or, to put it in other words, who would you rather have cooking your omelet:  the crazy asshole who just dumps a bunch of eggs into a single bowl and smashes them without looking, or the guy who is carefully cracking each one and trying to keep the eggshell separate?