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The Map is Not the Territory

In 1931, in New Orleans, Louisiana, mathematician Alfred Korzybski delivered his paper on mathematical semantics… and made the statement that has formed the basis of all coaching since then. The map, he said, is not the territory.

The map of reality we may have, is not, could never be, and was never, reality itself. A map is a reduction – a representation – of reality. It is not reality itself. If the map was a perfect representation of reality, we would have London, and the map of London would be identical, with the buildings, the pollution, the black cabs, the temperature, the culture… everything.

This is foundational to helping us have a more meaningful, fulfilling life. It has enormous practical consequences for us as coaches, and for our clients.

Maps are necessary. But they are flawed. A map is any representation of reality. It can be any abstraction of reality – a description, our perceived view of experience, a theory, a model, a framework… The abstraction is helpful for us, as it allows us to get the concept without having to traverse the entire territory – we don’t have to walk every inch of London to get the idea of how it is laid out, for instance.

Because reality is so… big… we create maps of reality in our mind as a way to understand it, because the only way we can process the sheer complexity of reality is through the abstraction. However, what we do is forget that our mental representations of reality – our maps – have their limits. Even the best map has limits, can be incorrect, can be inadequate for the decision we need to make, can have deletions that make the map flawed and without us knowing it, unusable.

Our brain takes shortcuts. It wants to predict what is going to happen, it wants to be right, it wants to know, and it does not like to face gaps in our awareness. And because of this, we all form inaccurate, flawed maps of reality, simply because something, our brain believes, is better than nothing.

Someone could believe, for example, that having a great relationship is impossible. They have a map of reality that has deleted all evidence of great relationships, and they have not updated their map of reality in years – since that bad relationship twenty years ago. They have an inaccurate, flawed, and limited map that will then determine what they find in the world. Because our minds search for confirmation of what we believe to be true, this person will search and find evidence to confirm their map of reality. It becomes a perpetual feedback loop of confirmation.

Unless this person becomes aware of the map they are using to traverse relationships, and addresses it (this is what coaching does), they will perpetually keep experiencing the same reality, over and over. Simplifying reality, then, is a problem if we want a great life and to be happy, fulfilled, and have a sense of well-being.

Subjective Reality

We are all operating within our own subjective realities. None of us are operating with objective reality, no matter how much we think we ‘know’ and are ‘right’. We simply cannot have all the variables, all the time. Reality is in a constant state of flux, always changing, always presenting new ‘truths’, new risks, and different variables.

My dad insisted for his whole life that animals don’t have feelings. He was operating from faulty, limited research produced when he was young. He had not updated his map of the territory, and clung to this perception for his entire life. Even presenting him with research showing this is not true did not dissuade him of his belief. He had his ‘facts’ and would not move.

We all do a version of this, simply to function in the world. We have to make assumptions, draw conclusions, and feel resolved about topics or we would operate in a constant state of reassessment of everything, all the time. It would be exhausting. However, what we conclude, and decide is ‘good enough’ as a proximation for reality, becomes problematic when our conclusion is miles from any version of reality. Our subjectivity becomes our guide for our life, our decisions, and our assumptions about reality itself.

Subjectivity in itself is not problematic. As long as our map approximates reality, we are fine. But when our subjective ‘truth’ is miles from reality, is not useful for a life of well-being, hurts us or others, or sabotages our attempts to make progress, then our map needs an upgrade.

Ideally for Our Map

Ideally, our map of reality in certain areas of our life are going to be as relevant, useful, accurate, and fit-for-purpose as possible.

We would want accurate, useful, fit-for-purpose maps of reality in the areas of:

  • Self-regulation

  • Self-awareness

  • Personal health and well-being

  • Happiness

  • Relationship health

  • Financial stability

  • Career satisfaction

These are major areas of life that are linked to life satisfaction, feeling good about ourselves, being able to function optimally, connecting deeply with ourselves and others, and feeling safe and secure. When any (or several) of these areas of our life are not functioning well, cause us distress, distract us from life, or feel ‘out of whack’ then we are most likely operating with a faulty, limited map of reality.

Coaching the Map

Coaching, then, is about helping the client operate with the most relevant, up-to-date, and fit-for-purpose map of reality possible, so the client can experience well-being, fulfilment and meaning in their life. They operate the best map they can, so that they don’t have to keep getting dragged back into dealing with recurring patterns of problems.

Have you ever noticed the same recurring pattern occurring in your life? In relationships? In how you feel? In your finances? In your sense of well-being? You may notice patterns that are awesome, serve you, support you and the life you want, and feel great. Or you may notice patterns that are self-sabotaging, problematic, diminishing, and bring you down.

You, the coach, help the client become aware of these patterns. We encourage the client to do more of what works, and to deal with and address what isn’t working. To do this, we start with getting curious about the client’s map of reality. And we do this through questions.

  • How did you decide this is true?

  • What do you believe to be true about this?

  • What do you believe holds you back?

  • What do you think happens to others in the same situation?

  • What would happen if you no longer believed this?

  • What do you get from keeping this problem (secondary gain exploration)?

  • What does your family believe about this (exploring how tribal cycle informs our beliefs about reality)?

  • What would happen if you didn’t believe what your family believed?

  • Is there a potential fear there that we can bring to the surface (exploring how the client creates the problem to avoid dealing with an underlying issue)?

These are just examples of how we can help our client begin to explore how they came to their map of reality, and begin to help them challenge it, question it, and perhaps shift it, if they find it is no longer useful (fit-for-purpose) given their new awareness of how it served to hold them back and keep them safe.

To help a client with their map upgrades, we need, as the coach, to have as healthy a version of reality as possible. This is why coaching is so powerful and profound. We, the coach, are learning constantly about ourselves and our maps, and updating them as we become aware. We are lifelong learners. Ensure you get trained in doing this, and incorporate this into your life.

Self-regulation and the Map is Not the Territory

We will find a way to help ourselves feel calm, safe, and secure. We all have different ways of doing this, some more effective and functional than others. When our nervous system becomes activated (alarmed because of a perceived threat), we can feel tense, anxious, nervous, reluctant, or overwhelmed. To get back into a more secure feeling in our system, we will have thoughts and actions we do to achieve this.

For example, someone may need to cry, yell, get angry, vent, blame, and defend themselves to feel calm again. This is their version of helping themselves feel safe within their body. They don’t have conscious awareness of how damaging this is to their body, their well-being, and to their relationships. They just know this is what works and so they do it. If they knew differently, they would do differently. (Which is another major foundation of coaching – we are all doing the best we can based on what we know. If we knew better, we would do better.)

Someone else may practice breathing, sit still and be with the discomfort, bring their attention to the part of their body that feels tight, bring compassionate mindfulness practices to the moment, and return to homeostasis in a calm and grounded manner.

Same outcome. Very different pathways to get there. And both based on different maps of reality.

We will coach the client to feel a sense of groundedness and self-trust when we help them recognise how their perception of what has to occur for them to feel safe within themselves is self-defeating and contracts them.

Self-regulation – and the many self-defeating ways people try to get self-regulated – is core to the quality of our lives.


There is a lot more around this to share and explore, but this is an introduction to one of the foundation principles of coaching. To summarise:

  1. The map is not, and will never be, reality.

  2. Even if we believe we have a map that is ‘realistic’, we don’t, because we only have subjective reality.

  3. Our role as a coach is to help our client develop a useful, fit-for-purpose map of reality so they can achieve what they want, and have more well-being in their life.

  4. Subjective reality can be self-defeating, leading to poor decision-making, as we are operating with a faulty, limited map.

  5. We, the coach, need to operate with the healthiest map possible to be helpful to the client.

Enjoy your maps!