I want to share a story about a missing trail in Montana, corporate executives ignoring reality, a teenager hiding alcohol, and mental maps.
How do these things connect?
It all boils down to a failure to accept reality.
But let’s begin by talking about our aversion to change, discomfort with uncertainty, and why we often struggle to understand and adapt to our current environment accurately.
It’s not our fault. We prefer a static, unchanging world.
As humans, we have a natural inclination to seek certainty. A stable world feels safer to navigate, predict, and inhabit.
We use mental models (like mental frameworks) to guide how we move through the world. A mental model is a simple map we create to help us understand and make decisions about our surroundings. It helps us grasp situations and make choices. These mental models are shaped by what we know, believe, and have experienced, affecting how we see things, solve problems, and interact with our surroundings.
In his work “Deep Survival,” Laurence Gonzales investigates how people remain alive during disastrous situations and analyzes who survives, dies, and why. Gonzales emphasizes the significance of maintaining accurate mental maps in wilderness survival contexts [Listen to my interview with Laurence Gonzales]
When people are lost in the woods, unable to locate where they are, Gonzales claims, “it’s a failure to update their mental map.” Being lost means your mental map doesn’t match reality. A lesson from the best navigators: it turns out that Indigenous people’s infamous navigational skills come from a finely tuned ability to notice subtle cues in their environment, essentially creating accurate mental maps in real time.
Keeping an accurate mental map of your surroundings is crucial for knowing your location. A common problem under stress is sticking with and defending your outdated map even when it’s wrong, refusing to adapt to new information, which navigators call “Bending the Map.”
The missing trail in Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness
Once, we faced a challenge while backpacking in a remote Montana area with heavy gear and no nearby roads. The map showed a trail, but we had to navigate around miles of fallen trees. Our mental map expected a clear path for hours, repeatedly saying aloud, “The map shows a trail here. It must be here somewhere.”
On the second day of our eleven-day, 100-mile journey, we grappled with the consequences of the disappearing trail. Our mental map had painted a picture of quickly covering numerous miles by following a well-maintained path. However, this expectation clashed with the harsh reality of burned trees resembling stacked Lincoln Logs, significantly intensifying our challenges.
A choice stood before us: should we “bend the map” by stubbornly insisting that the trail was still there and sticking to our initial plan, or should we acknowledge that the terrain and maps we had were not an accurate representation of reality? Our reluctant acceptance wasn’t immediate-exhaustion and frustration clouded our judgment. We’d invested months in planning, logistics, food-packing, travel, and physical training to execute our ambitious 100-mile route.
Bending the Map Checklist:
- Unfamiliar environments.
- Refusal to accept new information.
- Persisting, “The lake must be over there.”
- Then we compound the challenge by our brain’s functions negatively impacted by stress.
According to Laurence Gonzales, Our brain creates the maps we use, but stress can affect this map-making process. The hippocampus in the brain builds these maps, which help us navigate even without seeing. The hippocampus is like a spatial cognition machine that creates mental maps matching the real world. For instance, it lets you walk in the dark at home without bumping into things. Stress messes up how the hippocampus works, making creating and updating maps hard. This can be tough, especially in unfamiliar places.
“You must make a new mental map of where you are to calm your brain.”-LG
Back in Montana, on day four
We huddled in our tent during heavy rainfall (another unforeseen inconvenience), discussing Gonzales’ Bending the map concept and our temptation to persist. Over 48 hours, we slowly surrendered to accept that the outdated maps in hand were inaccurate due to the obvious wildfire that had significantly altered the landscape explaining the missing trail. Although a painful process, we let go of the map in our minds and the dreams of “getting to the lake with Golden Trout” to form a new plan, make a new route, and build a new map.
Bending the map happens in corporations every day
Like adventurers in the wilderness, companies can face challenges when they disregard changing signs and refuse to adjust their mental models according to reality. During a recent meeting, the CFO asserted, “The financial model predicts a return to profitability in Q3 of 2024.” However, despite six preceding quarters of no growth or declining sales, the spreadsheet projection insisted we would regain profitability.
This projection relied on an outdated prediction of the future. Much of the meeting revolved around defending the accuracy of this projection (akin to an outdated map). Yet, the truth remained unchanged: negative sales growth and increasing expenses would result in something other than stable profits.
This “Bending the Map” insistence was driven by the company’s historical inclusion as one of “Forbes Magazine’s Fastest Growing Companies,” a story that held true until seven quarters ago. It signifies a failure to accept reality (now) and persistently sticking to an outdated map (in this case, the financial model and Forbes’s old narrative) even when it’s incorrect. This resistance to embracing new information is a recurrent business narrative – exemplified by the struggles of Kodak, Xerox, Enron, Blockbuster, and recently Silicon Valley Bank, all facing the consequences of “failing to adapt to changing market conditions.”
Bending the Map parenting
This pattern also emerges in relationships and parenting. We struggle to recognize and adapt to reality instead of our desires. At seventeen, our son had a box of wine in his car shortly after getting his driver’s license. “Whose is that?”
“It’s probably my friend’s. It’s not mine.”
We chose not to see the truth. Looking back, we ignored many updates to the map – slipping grades, detachment, and inconsistencies in stories. After he graduated, we uncovered the extent of his addiction. We had been distorting reality for years, unwilling to confront it. Now, he’s been sober for eight years, and we’re grateful. Our inability to face reality held us back.
Survivors remap the world
Gonzales promises that Survivors -those who transcend the bitch of unwanted change build a new map. “Survivors must accept their situation and create a new mental map. The process might be difficult. Remapping the world takes time, but it’s necessary for settling the brain and adapting to new circumstances.”
Dear friends, remember your ability to adapt and choose to locate yourself during disruption. Pay attention to the slight hints in your changing surroundings. Embrace your new situation (however big a shit-show it may be) and give yourself time. Stay aware of misguided paths. When tempted to distort reality, or persist with the original plan, build a new accurate map instead.
You can do this.