Maps Aren’t Territories

The Idea

Contributed by @philhagspiel |  Edited and curated by @philhagspiel

The model of reality is not reality itself. The abstraction is not the abstracted.

World View
Mental Models

The world is complex. As it is impossible to comprehend and account for all details from all angles and for all relations between parts, we need simplifications that help us navigate reality.

Actual city maps abstract from urban complexity to streets and buildings — usually good enough to help us get to where we want to go.

Performance reviews and evaluations at work are an abstraction from the nuanced complexities of everyday processes, communications, choices and outcomes in our job.

A full-fledged training plan with daily exercise routines is a map to the complex systems of health, physiology and metabolism.

Values and norms (such as honesty and integrity) are simplified navigation tools for what we believe is true about the complex reality of effective human interaction and cause and effect.

While basically everything we do relies on some form of map, the world both constantly changes and repeatedly provides feedback to us regarding how well the maps we use actually work. Thus, our abstractions need to be updated with more information and our experience of using them.

Google maps needs to update regularly, performance review processes need to be adapted over time, training plans should adapt to your experiences with them, our values to life should evolve with our understanding of it.

When we believe our maps to be ultimate truth and if we close off feedback loops, we become rigid, dogmatic and ignorant.

"Maps describe a territory in a useful way, but with a specific purpose. They cannot be everything to everyone."

— Alfred Korzybski

“The only way we can navigate the complexity of reality is through some sort of abstraction.”

— Shane Parrish

“The map appears to us more real than the land.”

— D.H. Lawrence

“All models are wrong but some are useful.”

— George Bo

Go Deep

  • 📝 A great view on the map-territory relation regarding reasoning and decision making can be found in this blog post.
  • 📝 For an overview of the origins of this idea as well as its widespread applications, read through this short Wikipedia article.
  • 🎥  For a 10-min. rather philosophic discussion about what this concept means in terms of abstraction from the real world, check out this vlog video.

Go Beyond

A few further resources you might like if you find above idea interesting: