It’s funny how the brain works. Sometimes when I read books or articles or listen to speakers, I easily understand and connect with their lessons.  Other times I can spend hours thinking about material I’ve read or heard without really understanding anything – then later while I’m walking down the street, the lesson pops back into my head and I understand it completely and effortlessly.  It can take weeks or months for that moment of epiphany to arrive.  Sometimes longer.

It usually doesn’t take 12 years and a fineable offense.

During my sophomore year of high school, I took a philosophy class with a teacher named Lou Rosenblatt.  “Dr. Lou,” as the kids called him, was a tall, gentle man with a soothing voice.  Each class, he would sit behind a desk at the front of the classroom and calmly, from memory, take us through the lesson of the day.  Although we talked about a lot of different topics in that class, it seemed that every lecture really had the same meta-theme:

If the map doesn’t make sense to you, throw out the map.

I spent a lot of time thinking about these words, but they never really made sense to me.  I wasn’t the only one.  I distinctly remember one class where Dr. Lou was telling us about two friends who had gone hiking in the woods.  I was sitting on the right side of the classroom and Dr. Lou narrated the story from the whiteboard.  In his smooth, soft voice, Dr. Lou explained that the friends lost track of the hiking trail and didn’t know where they were.  They took out their map and started walking toward the direction of a road.  After walking for some time, they did not find a road and it seemed as though they were heading deeper into the woods.  At that point, the way schoolteachers do, Dr. Lou turned to the class and asked: “What should the friends do?”

A few students suggested that the friends re-examine their map, use a compass to help them better read the map, and make sure they knew their correct position on the map.  After ten more minutes of prodding, students were still hung up on the map.  In frustration Dr. Lou blurted out the answer he was looking for, “Throw out the map!”

I remember this being a very confusing lesson for me.  After all, why would someone have gone through the trouble of producing a map if it were wrong?  Wouldn’t the park ranger who was responsible for the safety of hikers make sure that the map was correct?  Were these the first people to have ever used the map?  Needless to say, I didn’t get the point.

Last week I found this lesson popping back into my head.  I was on my way home from work, entering the 23rd street subway station on the F line.  Reaching the bottom of the stairs I noticed an unusually large crowd of people waiting at the four subway turnstiles that marked the entrance to the subway platform.  As I approached the crowd, I realized what was wrong: three of the turnstiles were broken and the one that was “working” required several card swipes before registering correctly.  A crowd of 30 people (and growing) was waiting for the one working turnstile.  For a few minutes I waited patiently in the pack of people as one person after the next carefully swiped their way through the turnstile.  The familiar long “beeeeeeeep” noise of a failed card swipe soon became drowned out by the roar of an approaching train.

With the crowd of people growing and the train pulling into the station, a few people started to jump over the broken turnstiles.  At that moment I heard Dr. Lou’s voice in my head: if the map doesn’t make sense to you, throw out the map.

Placing my hands on either side of a broken turnstile and vaulting over onto the subway platform, Dr. Lou’s lesson finally made sense to me.  Conform to convention as long as it makes sense, but when it stops making sense, make sure you think for yourself.

Know When to Throw Out the Map
Tagged on:         
  • “The map is not the territory” … and all that jazz.

    I think you example is slightly different, however. More – it only makes sense to obey convention in a conventional situation. As the situation becomes non-conventional, so should you…

    Or: react to your environment, do not become entranced by the idea that you ARE, and that you ACT, independent of your situation. You do not create your reality… you react to reality, and in doing so transform it. Quite a bit different.

  • Dadio

    I agree with Drew & MG. But, from a different perspective, our mental image of the map of our planet is based largely on the pictures we are offered in geography books. Recently, I saw an image of the African continent that showed how many of the largest countries in the world, such as China and Canada, would fit within the outline of Africa. My point is that the generally accepted map of the world misrepresents the true size of this increasingly important continent. Realizing this fact made me even more aware of the impact Africa will have on the world economy as countries hungry for natural resources exploit it. Throw out your mental image of the map!

  • Dadio

    One more thought on this post: there was a famous astronomer, whose name escapes me, who said that when faced with a problem that he could not solve with his concious mind he would put it aside and allow his unconcious mind to work on it. In time, the answer would reveal itself. There may be a name for this technique of problem solving.

  • Andrew Eifler

    MG re: “The map is not the territory” – it’s funny. Took me a long while to really understand what that meant. Looking back it seems silly, but it’s a difficult concept.

    Dad – i like it! Thanks.