08 Mar

The Monsters in Our Maps


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.