The Map is Not The Territory

January 21, 2013

It’s important in our journey to realize this.

It gives us some power to recognize that what we see/hear about something is not the thing itself.

At the literal sense, the map of a city is not the city itself. It can never be detailed enough to capture grass, wind blowing, specs of dust, etc.

The word “rose” and the actual rose are infinitely different.

(Photo Source)

Let me back up.

I had this thought.

Before language, how did humans communicate with each other? Grunts & noises?

Eventually that led to the creation of verbal languages + the alphabet. So now we have symbols that we can write down that we all agree mean the same thing.

The letters in “R O S E” symbolize a certain kind of flower. That flower comes in different colors, smells great, has thorns on its stems, etc. A bunch of characteristics of the flower is attributed to the symbols R O S E.

Just because I can write the word “ROSE” doesn’t mean I understand the flower.

I personally have no real knowledge of the flower whatsoever. Where does it grow? How does it grow? Where did it originate? Why do we love it? What kind of soil does it need? What’s the best temperature for it to grow? How did that plant evolve? What does it feel like to be that plant? We know it’s alive but does it even feel? Does it know things? If we pluck a flower off of it, does it feel pain?

Let’s use another example.

I grew up watching a lot of tv.

That was my window to reality for the longest time. Even now, I have to remind myself that what I see on tv (the map) is not the same thing as real life (the territory).

Some of my favorite shows included: Three’s Company, WWF Raw, Three Stooges, The Cosby Show, Married with Children & Martin.

All of these shows paint a certain type of “map.” But real life is never like the map.

TV shows are full of actors. They’re pretending to be real people.

Obvious, but do we really think that when we watch a show? Or do we just get absorbed into it?

On Martin, his friends are always over in his apartment in every episode.

Cole, Tommy & Pam. They all just barge in most of the time. There are no keys being used or knocking on the door.

(Photo Source)

Everyone is fully dressed and presentable. There is never a dull moment of silence. Something clever is being said every second.

Every episode has some type of antics being played out. Something absurd will happen. And it will eventually get resolved by the time 30 mins has passed.

ie: This never happens in real life!

; )

Real life is full of silent moments.

Very rarely do we have peaks of action. Most of the time, it’s just one silent moment following another.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely do not have friends over at my apartment every day. Not even close. That would be miserable!

Most of the time, I’m just in my head, thinking. When I’m driving, when I’m eating, when I’m in public, when I’m alone, I’m usually just thinking random thoughts.

Nowadays, I am practicing being more present & in the moment. So I interrupt my train of thoughts to bring myself back to the moment.

All humans are just thought machines moving from one place to another.

Silently commuting to work. Exchanging pleasantries w/ coworkers, then silently working. More pleasantries at lunch. More silence & work. Goodbyes & see you tomorrows. Then silent drive home, which is usually drowned out by radio or chatting on the cell phone. Watch tv to drown out the noise at home. Sleep. Repeat.

This is real life.

The few peaks come on a friday night when you & your friends go out to the bars for some drinks. Two drinks turn into 12 drinks + 5 shots + trying to hit on the hot waitress + late night burritos.

Next day, back to thoughts (usually negative) + body pains. The dreaded hangover.

A few text messages are exchanged with your friends talking about how great the night was (the map). The legend builds & builds until you really believe that the night was EPIC.

Now your regular days of work look even more boring compared to the epic night out. Soon you’re looking forward to the next time you can do it all over again.

You do it a few 100 times until the realization hits that the nights really aren’t epic after all!

What next?

TV shows don’t capture reality.

Because that would be super boring to watch. Nothing really happens in real life.

Even reality shows are fake.

They’re more real than scripted shows but no one really lives the fast life every day. If they did, it would be exhausting and they would burn out. One 30 min reality show is probably condensed from 72hrs of tape. Maybe more.

But that took me a long time to understand. I mean deeply understand. I just am beginning to understand it right now, at age 31. I get it.

Everything is just a map. Rarely does anything capture the territory. By definition, it can’t.

Books, movies, music, tv shows, news, even your friends/family telling you stories. These are all just one human trying to convey to another human some information.

And information will never be reality. It’s impossible.

There is only one person in the world who is living the territory right now. YOU! That’s it.

Even these words I’m writing down cannot paint the full picture of what I’m feeling or trying to say to you.

A lot of reality is being lost in translation to the symbols we call the alphabet.

What it means: This gives us power.

I used to compare my life to what I saw on tv or the stories my friends/family told me.

This made me super depressed because my life was just really dull compared to the maps everyone was painting for me.

I don’t blame them.

It’s just not realistic to paint every moment. If I’m telling you a story about the best meal I’ve ever had, I’ll just give you the bullet-point version. Cliff notes.

“Dude you won’t believe how fucking great this sushi place is. Dude, for real. Me & this other guy went there for lunch. Holy shit. Place was packed but the ladies working there were super nice. They all said hi when we walked in. They sat us immediately & apologized for the wait, even though it was only like a one min wait. Dude. Seriously. Best fucking sushi I’ve ever had. Cali rolls. Spicy Tuna. Shrimp tempura. Even their fucking edamame had pop to it.”

You get the point right?

Now that’s just a “map” of the “territory.” If I tried to convey EXACTLY what happened, the story will probably last longer than the actual event. If the lunch was one hour long, I don’t know if there is enough time for me to recount every single detail of that reality.

That’s the same thing as when your friends excitedly show you their vacation photos.

To you, it just looks like some water or trees. You pretend that you care.

To the person showing you, he’s reliving the feeling he got when he was there.

Once we realize that every single human being is living almost exactly the same life, we can relax. It puts things into perspective.

We don’t have to feel jealous watching Kim Kardashian living the fancy life.

Sure she’s rich. And good looking. And has a tv show. And is one of the most photographed women in the world.

That’s just the map.

The territory is that she also has boredom. She also has thoughts. She also has feelings. She also has to somehow pass 24 hours every day, just like the rest of us. Her body functions the same way as us. She has to poop, pee, burp, fart, has morning breath, etc. That’s just basic biology.

We also can learn from psychology that people who chase material prizes are rarely happy. That’s been proven. Nothing wrong with Kim to want the finer things in life.

But we know from positive psychology that there is a thing called “hedonic treadmill.”

There are certain things our brains get accustomed to very fast. Gadgets, houses, cars, fancy clothes etc. Material things. We overestimate how good it’ll make us feel. Once we get it, it no longer gives us happiness. Then we search for more things. It’s a treadmill.

Most humans never tell the full truth.

Either they purposely lie (rare) or their ego does it without them knowing (common).

The egos job is to make us feel good about ourselves. It makes us think we’re always right. We’re better than others. Etc.

So when we try to relate what really happened (territory) to a friend, what comes out is just the best (or worst) parts, which also happen to make us the happy/unhappy hero in the story.

Standup comedians are great at painting a worst case scenario unhappy hero map. The worse they make the situation, the more the audience laughs.

Celebrities, sports stars, ceos etc paint best case scenario maps.

The only person who is actually living true life, right now, is you. That’s it.

And the secret is, the rest of the world, including me, is living a life very similar to you. Regardless of how much money you have, how fat you are, or how badly you see yourself.

It’s all irrelevant.

Every human is a bunch of thoughts & emotions. We are all in a haze of thoughts, trying to escape them and enjoy flow state.

We are all just trying to pass time and be as happy as possible while doing it.

The map is not the territory.

The territory is the territory.

I hope I made some sense!

Part of the reason I like to be verbose is because I want to give as much detail as humanly possible to relay the message. Not sure if I ever succeed in that mission but I’ll keep trying to make my maps as close to reality as possible – knowing that’s an impossible task.


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Most news will show this type of a map when referring to the US. This is obvious but Alaska & Hawaii are not where it’s shown. We all know that Alaska is connected to Canada, up top.

It’s just more efficient to show this type of a map than to show the real map of where they are.

But I never knew how far Hawaii really is from the mainland. It’s far. Really really really far! For the longest time, I thought Hawaii was super close to California.

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This map is closer to reality. Even this is of course a scale. The reality is TONS of water separate mainland US from Hawaii. And that piece of land floating that far away is one of the 50 states!

Imagine how different they must feel than we do here. It’s one thing to live in the mainland and know that at any time, you can hop in your car and cross from your state to another state, no problem.

It’s a way different type of life knowing you’re surrounded by ocean on all sides, yet somehow you’re also part of the same country as 48 other states that are connected.

Bruce Kodish June 5, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Super post. You definitely got and give ‘the feel’ of “the map is not the territory.”

Deepak Nair June 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm

thank you for the nice words, brohammad ali!

Nis2 April 18, 2014 at 4:19 am

Good thoughts. You make me laugh while reading it (in positive way). In some points of their life people will get bored of their daily routines. Thats why people need a new things to do but you can not always be able to escape you routines. So you stuck with it. I am a housewife. I live in jakarta indonesia. I used to be a corporate lawyer but now i am just a housewife. Being a housewife is not “just” actually. But i can not helped getting bored of my routines.