The Map Is Not The Territory

How Our Models Mask True Meaning


Our world is complex. It’s impossible to understand it with all details, in all relations and from all perspectives. Reality is a labyrinth of limitless randomness.

To not get lost in it, we need maps.

Sometimes, those are literal maps. Often, those are mental maps. Models of reality.

Like the way city maps abstract from the chaos of multi-faceted urban life into streets names and directions, our mental maps create simplified models of the reality we live in every day.

A job description abstracts the complex intellectual, emotional and social aspects of a role into a list of tasks and responsibilities.

A history book abstracts the nuanced and intertwined events of the past into written descriptions we can imagine.

A training plan abstracts the metabolic reality of stimulus, response and adaptation into descriptions of exercises.

A business strategy abstracts the reality of intention, cause, and effect of large systems into a description of goals and processes.

A CV abstracts your multi-layered ability of contributing to a bigger whole into a set of sentences trying to convey this ability.

Our values abstract the complexity of effective human interaction into a set of concepts we use as a navigation tool.

Our beliefs abstract an incomprehensible amount of ever changing, interconnected information about the world into pockets of “truth.”

All of these models are valuable. But they mask meaning.

They are descriptions of reality. Not reality itself.

Maps. Not territories.

Nearly everything we do relies on some form of mapping. However, the world is constantly changing and providing feedback on how well our maps work. Therefore, we must update our abstractions with additional information and our experiences of using them.

Google Maps is updated based on changes in a city and user feedback.

History books are rewritten when new information from the past is discovered.

Training plans are updated based on our progress and how well the plan works with our schedule.

We improve our CVs based on our job responsibilities and feedback from recruiters.

Similarly, we must update our values and beliefs based on the experiences we make with them and what we encounter in the world.

When we believe that our maps represent the ultimate truth and 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 map appears to us more real than the land.”

— D.H. Lawrence

“All models are wrong but some are useful.”

— George Bo

Here are 3 other concepts you might benefit from:

The Dunning-Kruger-Effect

Asch Conformity

Causal Reductionism