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A Story Is Not the Territory

A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.

Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski made this now-famous statement in a paper he wrote in 1933. Although the paper was ostensibly about math and physics, it’s clear he was talking about something deeper as well.

For those who haven’t ever run across the phrase “the map is not the territory” before in an art or philosophy class at some point, it’s basically saying that there’s a difference between a thing and the way we perceive or represent that thing. Phrased another way, maps and words and ideas are how we take something from the real world and package it up nicely so that A) our brain can make use of it and B) we can all talk about it.

This is an important concept to grasp when we’re talking about our own personal and professional stories. After all, we are not our stories, and our stories are not us.

And yet, like a map, stories provide us with a powerful tool for better understanding and sharing the “structure” of who we (or our businesses) are, what we do, and what we stand for. For instance, here’s a story of mine …

When I was in third grade, I choked on a sour ball candy that I earned for getting an “A” on my multiplication tables test. I don’t remember which number it was that week, but I vividly remember the flavor of the sour ball (lemon) … and the name of the boy who frantically stumbled over a desk when he saw my face turn blue … and how the substitute teacher tucked me under her arm and ran me down the hall to the nurse’s office, slapping my back every few steps … and how this eventually made the sour ball shoot out of my mouth like a slippery musket ball and skitter down the hallway. I’ve been telling this story in detail to people for decades. And it almost always gets a few gasps and laughs when I do.

Of course, for all I know, it didn’t really happen the way I just told it to you now. Maybe it was actually a spelling test. Maybe the sour ball was orange flavored. Maybe it wasn’t the boy I think it was … and maybe he didn’t really knock over the desk trying to get to me. Maybe the substitute teacher actually walked me down the hall rather than carrying me.

Short of inventing a time machine, I’ll never know for sure.

In other words, it’s entirely possible — even probable — that in the process of telling that story for more than forty years, I’ve unintentionally added or changed the details of it. And I’m okay with that.

Because stories have a life and a truth all their own. Which isn’t to say that we should go out of our way to tell false ones. Simply that stories are by their nature incomplete and sometimes inaccurate. If they weren’t, they’d take too long to tell, in much the same way that (as Lewis Carroll and other writers have imagined) a paper map for which one map inch equals one actual inch would be too big to ever unfold and look at, making it effectively useless.

It’s also worth noting that there’s a time element to maps and stories. Places change, and when they do, the maps that represent them have to change as well or risk getting somebody lost. And the same goes for people. The story we told about ourselves yesterday or twenty years ago may not serve us today if it doesn’t reflect not only who we’ve been but who we are now.

This is why we rewrite our resumes and LinkedIn profiles and the About pages on our websites every so often. It doesn’t mean that we were telling a false story with all the previous versions. Only that we’ve evolved over time, that our perception of ourselves or our business has likewise evolved, and so the “map” we give others to better understand us, in the form of stories, needs to evolve as well.

The details we choose to include in our story, the tone we use, the length of it, the ordering of events … all of it is open to change if doing so helps us better serve the goal and mission we have today.

So to paraphrase the Korzybski quote we opened with …

A story is not the person or business it represents. But if we get a story right, and keep it updated over time, then it can convey to others the essence of that person or business. Which makes it not only a useful but a powerful way to connect with the others we wish to serve.

Randy Heller
Randy Hellerhttps://randyheller.com/
Randy Heller is a writer and storytelling guide for small and solo businesses who aren't sure where to get started. Randy began his career with a Master's degree in Creative Writing and a love of computers, which then translated into 25 years as a digital marketer, web developer, and Marketing Director. Most of those years were spent in publishing, bibliographic data, trade magazine, and libraries space, always keeping him close to the world of written words and ideas that are his lifeblood. In 2018, Randy shifted gears to focus entirely on writing and storytelling and is now able to leverage his natural creativity and decades of corporate marketing experience and insights to help small businesses pursue their dreams. He can be found posting weekly about the secrets to business storytelling and owning one's personal narrative (often with a decidedly nostalgic bent) at StoryHeller.com, as well as on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (see links above). He can't wait to meet you and ask that magical question: "So ... what's your story?"

1 COMMENT

  1. Randy, as I grow older because I see the past through more different eyes than I did at a younger age. The story does change while the essence may remain the same. Memories and stories are meant to be fluid and ever changing. Thank you for your insights.

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