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August 16th, 2018

Each of us carries around a mental map of the world.  Our idea of the way things are and the way they work.  But like any map, it’s a simplified representation of the territory and the territory we are mapping is reality. 


Google maps may be the most comprehensive map to date, even including where people were on the side walk and where cars were on the roads at the time the map was made.  But all of those details are almost instantly out-of-date by the time the map is made and available, even if it’s available seconds later. 


A map might be generally defined as a simplified model of something that actually exists.


We need maps because we need the world simplified.  There’s just too much going on to keep track of.  So we need shortcuts.


As soon as we are born, we begin building this map.  First with light and shape and slowly recognizing the familiar pattern that makes up a parent’s face.  We even start to build a map of our own body and the fact that we have some kind of conscious control over it, and once that map is strong enough we start using it to explore the laws of physics and gravity.  We fight gravity by trying to roll over and crawl.  But eventually we understand it well enough to use it instead of fight it.  We use it to balance ourselves against the planet so we can stand up and walk and run.


School is supposed to help us build our mental maps in the most important areas, and yet many people feel it totally misses the mark.


Perhaps the most comforting aspect of mental maps is that they are imperfect and incomplete by default.  If we had a perfect understanding of the world, there would be no need for the shorthand of a simplified map to try and understand it.  This means that no one has it all figured out.  Everyone’s mental map is severely incomplete.  And so when we find ourselves intimidated by someone else’s confidence on a given topic, we must realize that their map may be stronger in detail around such a subject, but even a master of any given skill can still make improvements to their map. It’s the top performers who recognize this fact most acutely: the fact that there are always ways to improve.


And to improve means erasing and redrawing one’s own mental map so that it’s a little more accurate.  so that it’s in accordance with reality just a little bit more.  The resolution is a little higher, the proportions are just a little more accurate.  The color, texture and detail are just that much more fine.


We get stuck in ruts of inactivity and depression, where we lack creativity, motivation and compassion when we stop fine-tuning our mental map.  Or, when we start drawing the map without looking at reality, which is the most dangerous thing a human can do.


When we stop seeking to understand how things around us work, and begin to make up those explanations in isolation, we start to construct a collision-course.  We can live in accordance to a wildly inaccurate mental map for only so long.


Imagine trying to navigate a mountainous hike with an inaccurate map.  If we only pay attention to the map and ignore the reality right in front of us, we risk walking straight off a cliff.  And yet, so many people make decisions and take action based on a mental map they have not updated, one they stubbornly cling to.  We may say that people cling to such out dated mental maps out of a sentimental sense of nostalgia, but really, it’s fear of uncertainty.


That uncertainty comes up at the moment between abandoning some current detail of the map and redrawing it to be more accurate. 


We can best understand this if we imagine drawing an actual map.  If we realize that some part of it is inaccurate and needs to be changed, we need to erase part of it.  And the moment before we redraw that map in a more accurate way, there’s nothing there. 


That blank piece of map is a terrifying prospect for most people.


Whereas a child’s natural curiosity doesn’t even blink at such a void, it seems the older we get, the more prone we are to fear having a void in our map, even if only briefly.  This is how we can get stuck using old maps which lead us into ruts or keep us on collision courses until reality smacks us upside the head with a big wake up call.


The only way to avoid this trap is to perpetually remember that a map is never finished by default.  The default part is the most important part.


Maps are incomplete by default, because they are simplifications of the territory we are mapping.


All of our mental maps are incomplete by default.  This should in no way be a cause for losing hope because creating a perfect mental map is impossible.    It just means that we can always become a little smarter, if only we have a better grip on the territory, and the only way to do that is to have a willingness and a consistent practice of


redrawing the map.


This episode references Episode 68: Underscore or Erase? if you’d like to fully explore the reference, please check out that episode next.

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