The Map is not the Territory

Maps are tools that convey information about a complex reality in a simpler, more approachable way. While you can’t expect a map to represent reality’s every single detail, it can be extremely useful as a roadmap to reach your destination.

You may not realize how frequently maps are used. For example:

  • Financial institutions use formulas and models for assessing risk.
  • Companies establish policies to deal with all kinds of situations.
  • Kids are evaluated at school based on standards of what a typical student should learn.
  • Buying decisions for equipment are evaluated based on the equipment’s technical specifications.
  • Managers make business decisions based on budget estimations which are in turn based on several assumptions.

The problem with maps is that you may mistakenly take the map for the reality it represents. Also, that you may consider adherence to the map as more important than the information it conveys. Even mental models are only tools, abstractions that help us consider reality from different points of view. You can’t say you understand a model or tool unless you understand its limitations.

A model might show you some risks, but not the risks of using it. Moreover, models are built on a finite set of parameters, while reality affords us infinite sources of risks.

— Nassim Taleb, Fooled by Randomness

Some things to remember when using maps:

  • Maps reflect the values, standards, and limitations of their creators.
  • Maps are created in a context and at a specific moment in time. They may lose context or become outdated.
  • The map can influence the territory. For example, a road that appears on a map makes it more frequently traveled than a road that does not.
  • When possible, confront the map with reality. Decisions are better made by people as close to the problem as possible.

The map is not the territory. Question assumptions and remember that reality is more complex than what a map can show.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash
mental models maps

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