7 March 2011 5 comments

The Monsters in Our Maps

7 March 2011 · 5 comments

in Uncategorized

The plans we make for ourselves are maps. And they’re flawed.

Think about it: when we make a plan, we’re taking reality as we see and experience it and trying to draw a path to a future, an idea, we can only guess at. We’re making a plan for what we (think we) want to do, to get a result we (think we) want.

But there are goals, and then there’s reality. Reality is what actually happens, not what we hope does. Yes, that’s obvious, but it’s a fact we tend to ignore.

All maps are flawed. They have to be — because every map is a representation, a projection, a two-dimensional interpretation of a three-dimensional thing. That conversion from one set of dimensions to another means that something will be — has to be — distorted, out of scale. (That’s why most of us grew up thinking Greenland could take Canada in a back alley fight….)

When we make our own maps, we, too, need to be aware of what we distort. But most of us are terrible judges of our own reality, and thus the maps we draw ourselves are suspect.

We get blinded by what we wish were true — about ourselves, about life. We get blinded by aspiration. By desire. Even by reputation.

But distortion isn’t the only danger lurking in the plans we make. There’s another: omission. What our maps lack.

When making a map, cartographers need to be as thoughtful about what they leave out as what they put in — because usually it’s what’s not on a map (the one-way street, the new building) that gets us in trouble.

So, too, it’s what’s not on our mental maps — the realities we haven’t planned for, or refuse to see — that get in the way of our goals. We forget to plan for past behavior and the force of habit. We forget to plan for our mental health, for our need to have unscheduled time. We forget we want to keep up a behavior for life, which makes the level of change we’ve laid out unrealistic, unsustainable.

We also forget there are some things in life that can never be planned: a chance meeting, an unexpected reaction, an unrealized passion suddenly found.

So the next time you’re making a map, or making plans, or setting goals, look — really look — for those monsters. Look for the things you don’t see, or rather, don’t want to see. Seek to disconfirm what you believe to be true. Look for the things that get in your way, for the things that have failed you in the past.

And realize that no plan can cover everything. No map is perfect.

But neither are we.

  • The only problem with this post, as I've read it just now, is that I am thinking of a couple of other folks who need to read these truths with a good swift kick in the pants. And I need to re-read “for me” so I don't miss out on what you've written as well. Thanks for posting.

  • jeffcutler

    It's a like a history lesson too. Those with the power will write the history and those who have the best – perhaps more complete – view of the world will create the maps. But it's all perspective

    The map for my life is to be happy. From point a to point b. What happens in the middle is all gravy. I can stuff a bike ride on the cobblestones of a French seaside town in there or I can make the interim resemble a couch on which I practice my banjo.

    So, it goes far deeper than just examining the monsters, the missing and the map. It's a study in closing your eyes and seeing yourself. Then taking out the piece of paper or electronic tablet and crafting your journey.

    Good piece.

  • You're welcome, David. And you've hit on an eternal truth (at least, as far

    as I've seen): we only see what we're ready to see.

  • Thank you, Jeff. What a gorgeous concept you've evoked: the first step in creating any map is to understand what you want — need — a map of. That first choice is critical, and telling.

    It's easy to think that everything requires a detailed plan, or a “thing” as the end goal. While destinations can be important, sometimes it's understanding the nature of the trip we need that determines how successful (and on what terms) we'll be.

  • Great post – very thought provoking. Like Jeff, I feel that getting from point A to point B is half the battle. I create the map as I go forward these days, and have found I enjoy the process much more. I liken it to a modern day explorer seeing the beauty in everyday life for the first time and furiously scribbling it all down. Creating a map that allows others to follow the same path to those insights is the challenge I aspire to everyday.

    The monsters for me has been “physical health.” Wind the clock back 20 years, and I could have showed you maps that stretched from here to the moon (literally and figuratively). My map was going to take me to engineering school, NASA, and then the stars. Along the way, the cancer monster ate my map. It took years to re-learn the fine skills of cartography after that, and I'm happy to say I'm following a new map, without legends, boundaries, or scale.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

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