A Map is Not the Territory

Hiker Hillary ends up lost, the trail nowhere in sight.

“This can’t be!” She frets. “The map says there’s a trail right here!”

Hillary curls into a ball and waits for the trail to materialize.

A map is a useful abstraction of the territory, but it’s imperfect—it may be dated, insufficient, or just plain wrong. The “map” can be any artifact (data, documentation, mental models), and “territory” can be any form of truth (the physical world, a field of knowledge, human experience). The map is our understanding, and the territory is reality.

Like Hillary, holding false beliefs about territory is wishful thinking. Our thoughts don’t change reality.

Understanding the limits of a map makes one aware of their ignorance, whether it’s their assumptions, incomplete documentation, or bias.

  1. Understanding (a map) isn’t reality (territory).
  2. Changing a map doesn’t change the territory.
  3. Accepting one’s ignorance enables one to keep updating their map to understand reality better.