i need to become stronger

maps are simple

mapmaking 2015-04-11

inherent in the map and territory analogy is a certain conception of what 'truth' means. it relies on what some might call the simple truth or the naive perspective on reality. its points are this:

another way to say this is: the truth is out there, and it's your job to map it.

this is worth pointing out because for the last century there's been a trend in western thinking to conflate the map with the territory. it pops up in theories like "truth is relative" and "reality is made by consensus". sure enough, since maps exist they are part of the territory, but this does not mean the map is the territory. maps can be built collaboratively, and we all have our own maps, but this doesn't make truth collaborative or relative: it makes map making a shared task and maps subjective.

the following short story may help make this clearer. my goal is to cause, if it has not already happened for you, a shift in the way you understand your relationship with reality. it happened for me when i read cfai section 3.1. i hope it will or already has happened for you, because fully understanding the relationship between the map and the territory is essential to making progress in the winning way.

For generations, the Shepherd had been tasked with keeping track of the village’s flock. Every day he let the sheep out to graze and then recalled them all at night to the safety of the fence. The duty passed from father to son, requiring years of training to be able to remember all the sheep and notice if one went missing.

The last Shepherd, known to his friends as Artzain, was especially skilled. He could recognize all his sheep and knew when one was missing. He never failed to notice a missing sheep, even if he couldn’t always find the missing ones before night fell and the wolves preyed on them.

Artzain’s son, Umalusi, seemed destined to lose much of the flock. Although Artzain spent many hours every day teaching Umalusi how to recognize the sheep, to tell them apart by subtle differences, and notice if one was missing, Umalusi could no better tell apart the sheep than any other villager.

Disheartened, Artzain stopped actively teaching Umalusi. He committed himself to the idea that he would have to live long enough to train his grandson, lest Umalusi lose all the sheep and the village starve.

Left to himself, Umalusi spent his time playing games and making up new, ever more creative games to occupy his time. This seemed not very useful, but since the only job available to Umalusi was Shepherd, and Artzain had no intention of letting him mind the flock, everyone left him alone with his games.

As Umalusi entered his 16th year, his father fell suddenly ill. Artzain was unable to stand, and so could not mind the flock. He had no choice but to send out Umalusi to act as Shepherd.

When he came home on the first night, Artzain asked Umalusi if he had lost any sheep.

“No, father. They all returned to the fence,” said Umalusi.

Artzain sighed. To the untrained eye it probably did look like they had all returned, but in his heart he knew that his son had probably lost a few sheep to the wolves.

The next day he was still too weak, so Artzain sent Umalusi in his place again. And again, Umalusi came home and reported having lost no sheep, and again Artzain didn’t really believe him.

After three more days of Umalusi watching the sheep and claiming that none had been lost, Artzain regained his strength and was able to shepherd again. On his first morning back with his flock, he was astonished to find that all of the sheep were there. He hollered for Umalusi, who came running thinking something terrible had happened to his father.

“What’s wrong?” said Umalusi.

“No sheep are missing,” said Artzain. “How?”


“What do you mean ‘stones’?”

“You have already let the sheep out for today, so I can’t show you, but let me mind the sheep tomorrow and I’ll show you.”

The next morning, Artzain and Umalusi went to the sheep enclosure together as they had not done since Umalusi was a child. Artzain extended his arm to tell Umalusi to proceed, and Umalusi walked over to the gate.

There, he set down two large clay pots. One was filled with river pebbles, and the other was empty. He opened the gate just wide enough that one sheep could make it through at a time. As the sheep moved out of the paddock and into the pasture, he began moving stones from one clay pot to the other.

“What are you doing, my boy,” said Artzain.

“Counting sheep,” said Umalusi.

“What is counting?”

“It’s a game I made up for tracking things. See, when a sheep leaves the paddock, I move a stone from the left pot into the right.”

Umalusi paused to move some stones from the left pot to the right because some sheep had gone out of the paddock while he was talking.

“I know you like games, son, but what has that got to do with sheep?” asked Artzain.

“Imagine that each sheep is a stone. The left pot is the paddock and the right pot is the pasture. I use the stones to know where the sheep are,” said Umalusi.

“Ah, I see,” said Artzain, “you have secretly been studying magic from Shaman while I have been out with the sheep all day. You have learned some spell to control the sheep with the stones.”

“Not at all,” said Umalusi, plopping a few more stones from the left pot to the right. “I know nothing of magic.”

“Then how can you be controlling the sheep with the stones?”

“I’m not. I move the stones when the sheep move.”

Artzain chuckled heartily. “I see. So you expect me to believe, then, that the sheep have put a spell on you, and that they are making you move the stones rather than the other way around!”

“In a way, that’s true,” said Umalusi. “But the sheep have no magical power over me. I move the stones to match where the sheep are. I only win if there is one stone for each sheep in the correct pot”

“Fine, but how do you know which stone belongs to which sheep? Now you have to be able to tell apart all the sheep and all the stones.”

“Nope. To me, all the sheep look the same. All the stones look the same, too. So it doesn’t matter to me which sheep or which stone I move, so long as there are as many stones as there are sheep.”

“But no two sheep are the same,” said Artzain.

“And no two stones are the same,” said Umalusi.

“So how can you possibly say it doesn’t matter so long as you have the right number of stones in the right pots?”

“Because although all sheep are different and all stones are different, I can treat them all the same in my game. So to me one sheep in the paddock is the same as any other sheep in the paddock, so one stone in the left pot is the same as any other stone in the left pot.”

Artzain stood silent and thought for a few minutes. Finally he said, “I think I understand, but to me it seems strange to ignore details in order to be able to do something you couldn’t do with them. Yet I can’t deny the fact that you’ve managed not to lose any sheep, even though you can’t tell them apart, by doing this.”

“I admit, I also found it a bit odd at first, and if I’m honest I’ve been secretly testing this method out from a distance while you watched the flock. When you got sick, it was my first chance to try it for real.”

“Well, I’m glad you succeeded. Now I can retire. You are now Shepard.”

“Thanks, but I’m not sure I want to stay Shepard. I have bigger games to play.”