Thoughts on Maps, Illusion, Reality… and Life

Recently, a friend of mine signed up at an online dating site. He filled out the profile materials and started interacting with possible matches. Before long, he had identified a few candidates, and one woman in particular, he believed, held great promise. Following protocol, they agreed to meet.

The day after their initial meeting, my friend and I met for lunch. “Well, how was your first date?” I asked. “A huge disappointment!” he responded, without hesitation. “I’m sorry… what happened?” “That’s just it—nothing,” he said. “No chemistry, no connection… our conversation was strained and based on her profile and photograph I might add, I was questioning whether they’d sent the wrong woman.” As my friend continued, I was reminded of Alfred Korzybski’s statement: “The map is not the territory.”

Korzybski’s axiom refers to more than a simple road map. He was distinguishing between a representation of reality and reality itself. While it may seem obvious, confusing the two is more common than not.

In the case of my friend, his perceptions and expectations were based on the map—the woman’s description and image. Then he confronted the territory—the real woman. Because the map didn’t align with the territory, he was disappointed. Confusing the map for the territory is a frequent occurrence… and typically operates on a subconscious level.

Starting at birth, our parents, relatives, teachers and society imprint us with maps, instructions and beliefs to follow. In our effort to understand the world, be accepted and communicate with others, we accept them. As the years pass, based on personal experience and observation, we challenge and revise some of the old maps and create new ones to follow. The more closely our representation (map) aligns to reality itself (territory)—the more useful. Still, being cognizant of the map and territory helps us avoid confusion and opens our mind to new levels of awareness.

Consider these examples: the executive who believes in a marketing plan rather than his customers; the consumer who is more influenced by the package than the product itself; the doctor who accepts a misdiagnoses and prescribes the right treatment for the wrong illness; the publisher, who by adhering to old categories, can’t see new opportunities; the advertiser who promotes features not found in the product; the person so focused on the problem, they can’t see the solution; the woman who refuses to wear red clothing because as a child she was told it wasn’t her color; the young man afraid to try again because he failed in the past; the expert whose worldview is shaped by a TV station; the politician who twists words to justify unkept promises; the radio evangelist, who distorts meaningless numbers to match his beliefs… the examples of maps misaligned with reality or mistaken for territory is exhaustive.

By consciously distinguishing between the map and the territory and ridding ourselves of misaligned maps, we find peace of mind… and naturally engage in finding real solutions. No doubt, accurate maps (those closely aligned with the territory) can help us… but confusing them for the territory is misleading. This applies to all symbolic structures and mental representations… words, labels, categories… and photographs of online dates.

Since the territory is ever-changing, all maps—even good maps—become outdated. Sometimes a good map is mistakenly applied to the wrong territory. Examples of this can be seen in education, business and government. Regardless, when maps don’t align with reality, confusion arises. When this happens, do we continue following the old map, embrace a new one… or explore the territory with no map at all? Ironically, by continuing to follow the wrong map we become more lost than if we had no map at all. It’s like living your life in a fashion that misaligns with your moral code, or trying to find your way around Manhattan using a street map of Chicago.

The territory (reality) doesn’t seek or require our approval. It doesn’t care about our beliefs, perceptions or maps. It has and will continue to exist independently. This point is important to acknowledge… especially when your life becomes compromised… when you’re struggling to find answers and searching for truth. Rather than put reality on trial, I suggest spending time revisiting your maps. Do they align with reality? Remember, maps influence our beliefs, expectations and perceptions… but have no bearing on the territory.

While this advice seems logical, many people (consciously or not) reject it. Instead of questioning the map, they defend it. This can be seen in most societies, tribes and organizations. Those who defend certain maps frown upon those who question them. In some cases, the mere act of questioning a map is considered taboo. That’s because those who defend maps find the territory threatening. When the territory doesn’t align with their beliefs, it necessitates twisting and distorting reality until it appears to fit the map.

Individuals who violate this taboo are typically assigned labels like rebel, anarchist or heretic… the list of derogatory labels is long. As history shows, many have been persecuted for questioning or suggesting alternative ideas that challenge the accepted map.

Distorting reality to fit an unfounded belief or ideology is not only delusional, but it typically leads to disastrous results—personally and collectively. A quick glance at history supports this point.

Just as the territory exists independently of the map, it’s also true of our beliefs, perceptions, images and labels. And that’s the point! Questioning our maps shouldn’t be scary—it should be invigorating and enlightening. Especially when you realize most maps exist only in our minds and with effort, can be easily updated. In order to expand our understanding of reality, be freed from illusion (delusion), and find real happiness and meaning… remaining aware that “The map is not the territory,” is a prerequisite.