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Through the Re:Mind Newsletter, delivered every other Tuesday, we unleash your full potential and upgrade decision-making. We’ll explore mental models and life design.
The Map Is Not The Territory
By Juan Carlos
A map is not reality; it represents a territory. In this context, a map is symbolic, a model of reality, and can even describe a moment in time that has passed.
Why Use It
Maps are not perfect, and that is purposefully so, as they reduce the territory. Similarly, our minds create maps of reality, and though the territory exists beyond our minds, we construct it within ourselves.
In that sense, maps help parse information. For example, a map can look similar to what it’s describing, or a map can use different structures to visualize the territory.
When to Use It
Humans are limited in what brains can process. For example, you can’t see ultraviolet light or hear an ultrasonic sound, yet we assume our eyes and ears relate the territory to our minds.
It is our nature to create maps: we are constantly developing high-fidelity maps of reality.
René Magritte, the surrealist artist, famously painted a pipe and wrote in large letters underneath, “this is not a pipe.” The painting is not an actual pipe. Examples of this in our daily lives are myriad:
- A documentary describes real-world events but is an imperfect depiction.
- An individual’s social media profile does not represent their real-life perfectly.
- A resume describes an applicant’s skill set but is not a person.
Constructing maps is a part of existing and can help illustrate past, present, and future scenarios. A map is suitable for all sorts of analysis, forecasting, and planning. In a sea of uncertainty, they can deliver reliable information.
How to Use It
When creating a map, matching it to the territory is often the most useful.
For example, when building new products, researching customer needs, analyzing data, and gathering requirements for something that doesn’t exist is how we generate a map. The hope is to create a comprehensive picture of the product territory.
But if so much time is spent discovering the most compelling product, why does it often miss the mark? Translating the customer’s needs is like drawing a perfect map of the Andes mountains from a seasoned adventurer’s description — hardly accurate. In software development, one builds iteratively, conducts rapid testing, and asks for immediate feedback to redraw the map and continuously deploy valuable updates. Over time the territory will reveal itself as innovation continues to take shape.
Maps may not be perfect, but they minimize risk by informing decisions.
How to Misuse It
Maps have several problems: they can be wrong or outdated, leave out notable information, or be misinterpreted. It’s essential to approach a map skeptically at first and ensure its validity. Sometimes a map will illuminate risk but have no risk associated with using the map itself.
Some financial models may draw intelligent conclusions, but specific markets are unpredictable, and there is no normal. Using historical data to predict the future is incorrect because the model’s result will not mirror an uncertain reality.
Often, folks confuse a map for the territory when thinking of abstract concepts. Furthermore, the more abstract ideas become, the more they are swayed by cognitive biases that favor existing beliefs.
Use maps often and choose the ones you rely on well, don’t accept them at face value. Recognize the fidelity of the maps you are using and how best to use them.
Above all else, don’t confuse a map for the territory. Mixing up a model for reality can lead to inaccurate assumptions, which become poor decisions, and adverse outcomes.
Where it Came From
Alfred Korzybski coined the term in his 1931 paper titled “A Non-Aristotelian System and Its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics.”
Unlock Clear Thinking
Fueled by a passion for storytelling and excitement for life design, I find joy in reframing narratives to illuminate paths toward fulfillment. My experience spans high-growth startups, filmmaking, and social impact, culminating in my authorship of “Mind Guide: 49 Mental Models for Effective Decision Making.” Through mentoring and coaching, I guide teams and individuals to discover purpose and cultivate a meaningful life.
I started in film, directing award-winning features such as ‘Know How’ and ‘Second Skin.’ These cinematic endeavors earned me recognition and allowed me to serve as a spokesperson for Adobe. I founded the White Roof Project, a grassroots climate activism campaign that mitigated the urban heat island effect and spurred community-led social change.
I carried my storytelling skills and passion for societal transformation as I transitioned into the startup ecosystem. Initially, I contributed to social impact apps, converting complex issues into accessible solutions. This early experience laid a foundation for my later work, where I led the development of groundbreaking products within high-growth startups. My work has underscored the potential of technology to innovate industries and amplify the quality of human life.