on the topography of striving

From EF Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed:

"Map-making is an empirical art which makes use of a high degree of abstraction but nonetheless clings to reality with something akin to self-abandonment.

Its motto, in a sense, is 'Accept everything; reject nothing.' If something is there, if it has any kind of existence, if people notice it and are interested in it, it must be indicated on the map, in its proper place.

Map-making is not the whole of philosophy, just as a map or guidebook is not the whole of geography. It is simply a beginning - the very beginning that is at present lacking, when people ask: 'What does it all mean?' or 'What am I supposed to do with my life?'"

I remember when I started loving maps. It was when I first learned that the map we see in schools is actually a projection (the Mercator projection) rather than an objective representation of the world. In reality, the United States neatly fits into the Sahara Desert; the Indian subcontinent is larger than all of Western Europe. Yet the Western rendition of history makes these "exotic locales" seem so insignificant.

Point being, maps are great. They show you where everything is, but they can't show you every thing, and so "everything" becomes an editorial decision. What makes the cut? What is worth looking at? The arrangement and centering of a map also tells you what the mapmaker thought was most important (notice how Mercator's projection placed Germany longitudinally in the center of the map).

Iterating on the Design of Mental Maps

As my personal grad school year winds to a close, I've been thinking a lot about mental maps. Previously, I wrote about the importance of collecting them; this time, I want to write a bit about how to draw them.

The first, and possibly most useful, map I ever collected came from my father. It was sparsely detailed -- obscure gravel paths leading into vaguely dangerous woodlands distract a young traveler from the golden road (the Ivy League Parkway). I won't lie, this map helped (and continues to help) me stay focused, even if the object of my focus back then was pretty contrived.

As I moved onto college, I realized I had the ability to edit this map by drawing directly on it. Thus, the map began to deepen in detail as my life experiences began to diversify. What was once dangerous and obscure now brimmed with happy elven creatures and mischievous tree critters (of course accompanied with sing-along subtitles). What was once golden and holy now looked stilted and weary, like a Bluth model home. I also started drawing new holy paths, though their initial renderings were overly romanticized.

During my tenure as a teacher in Florida, I learned that this map could change shape depending on who was looking at it! It wasn't purely functional; it was a piece of art, despite being sloppily inked. The map could create meaning for the beholder. Some of my students were attracted to the not-so-vaguely dangerous regions on their own maps, while I tried to steer them towards the golden paths on the map I grew up with. Even though these had ultimately lost their appeal to me years ago.

Topographical Maps

Mental maps can confer meaning, direction, and a sense of play to an eager explorer. As I've learned over the past year, they also help us understand what we can (or are willing to) endure. Topography.

For instance, some of the paths on my map are remarkably smooth, though they may lead to turbulent destinations. Others plod across jagged expanses, though their destinations may well prove worth the peril.

Topography is a vital consideration because it largely determines what parts of our map we are willing to risk exploring. 

We can't entirely escape the ups and downs of life, but we can choose the terrains we are willing to endure. These are often stated abstractly as our "principles," and they form probably the most important set of life-navigational tools for a thoughtful traveler.

How to Work on Your Mental Map

From Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Laws of Medicine:
"It's easy to make perfect decisions with perfect information. Medicine asks you to make perfect decisions with imperfect information." 
Unfortunately, we can only understand the topography of a region by either a) traveling to it ourselves, or b) letting other travelers tell us how it was.

There is an opportunity cost to each of these options. If we like to explore everything ourselves, we tend to better internalize our maps and have richer details at the edges. However, this occurs at the expense of deepening our understanding of the unexplored familiar. If we like to absorb wisdom from others, we can learn without too much experiential pain. However, this puts us in danger of vicariously living through the hard work of others.

So drawing, rendering, and re-imagining our map is a constant balancing act. If you tend towards abiding by simplistic, inherited maps, you should try drawing them yourself for a little while. Conversely, if you tend to reinvent the wheel all the time, you may want to stop overcomplicating things and just try to learn from what others have drawn.

Anyways, I wanted to share these thoughts as a way to wrap up a pretty revealing year of restlessly exploring the edges of my mental map. I had a longer, sappier, much less interesting essay drafted up, but that thankfully is going back into my chamber of secrets.

I'm back on the East Coast ready to slow down and deepen my understanding of the familiar. If you're around, let's get coffee and talk about weird things.