This article investigates the way Higher Education (HE) students use metaphors to make tangible the lived and living experience of learning. It provides a contemporary development of the ethnographic paradigm by offering a new model termed ‘proximal ethnography’ to capture the sense of inside-out-inside research, of being what one has studied. In this innovative model, the researcher shares the same experiences as the observed but does so outside their specific domain. The findings reveal that students possessed a hierarchy of motivating drivers; some of these remained stable while others fluctuated. Students' acceptance of this instability helped them succeed on their course.