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A Good Map and a Compass

“A map in the hands of a pilot is a testimony of a man’s faith in other men; it is a symbol of confidence and trust…. A map says to you, ‘Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not.’ It says, ‘I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me, you are alone and lost.’” – Beryl Markham, West With The Night

We use maps less in everyday life than ever before in modern times. It isn’t that we aren’t going someplace, it’s more that we have devices that keep track of where we are for us. And we lose something in ourselves when we aren’t part of the conversation between that GPS and the satellites silently flying above us. If maps represent faith in others, those “others” now extend to the network of technology that swirls around us, landing in our pockets with an advertisement when you stop at traffic lights.

There’s something elegantly beautiful about a great map or nautical chart. Far more detail than the average person would ever notice, with lines and numbers most ignore. But for all the detail, a map is just a representation of what the world is, not the actual world. It can’t account for weather and downed trees and bad judgement and other such variables. Just the facts as they were, and might still be. We can be sure that the path shown on the map took somebody from here to there. Most likely it still does, but you can’t be sure until you get there. Maps represent the past in this way, but also our future as we place ourselves on them in hopes that our physical selves meet the expectations represented inside the grid.

“We need maps and models as guides. But frequently, we don’t remember that our maps and models are abstractions and thus we fail to understand their limits. We forget there is a territory that exists separately from the map.” – Shane Parrish, The Great Mental Models

It’s one thing to use someone else’s map to figure out where to go. It’s another thing entirely to map out our own path through uncharted territory. Where do we go from here? This thing we’ve grown familiar with has changed, we’ve changed, and now we wish to go in a different direction. Where to begin? Choose a direction and set your compass. Map it out. Figure out what the obstacles are and how to get around them. Use the paths others took to your advantage until you jump off in a new direction.

“Every man has to learn the points of the compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction.” – Henry David Thoreau

The fact of the matter is that most of life happens to us. We might diligently map out our career path and pick a major based on where we think that might take us, but much of life is about seeing the terrain we stumble upon and figuring out where we’re going to go next. Few of us get the map completely right, we sort it out as best we can along the way. And that’s where the compass helps set our direction or brings us back on course when we deviate from the path.

“Don’t mistrust the compass — your judgement will never be more accurate than that needle. It will tell you where you ought to be going and the rest is up to you.’” – Beryl Markham, West With The Night

The problem for most of us isn’t the absence of a good map or compass, the problem is abstraction and having too many directions to go in. With so many options, which do we choose? You can’t just walk in circles of indecision. Pick the most logical direction, map it out as best you can, and go. But bring that compass too. You’ll need both to get there.

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4 Comments

  1. An observation: After diligently planning a course, then following a detailed map toward a cove or coastal area, I’ve marveled at how the reality upon arrival is seemingly quite different. Not necessarily better or worse- but always different. So then we adjust plans to suit our findings and enjoy our exciting “new” discovery!

    1. I felt like I could have made this a much longer post. But I think you’ve got more to say on this topic and should write a post about this discrepancy between expectations based on the chart and what you arrive to

      1. I’m only sharing back basic musings invoked by your writing. You’re the true writer putting thoughts into words; I’m a simple dreamer but taking a different course, metaphorically steering (and often stumbling) into actions. Often the intended result isn’t expected.

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