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The Map Is Not The Territory

Definition

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.

Next Step

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.”

What Are Mental Models?

Mental models are thinking tools that help guide and shape our perceptions of the world. They simplify complexity so we can understand life better, make decisions confidently, and solve problems.

Deep Dive Into Mental Models

Deep Dive Into Mental Models

Mental models are thinking tools. They simplify complexity so you can solve problems and make decisions more confidently. Sound interesting? Get my newsletter.

 

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