Thoughts About Perspective, Part 1: Maps

Maps inevitably distort the size or placement of countries. What does this mean about perspective?

By Heather Adams, Director of Marketing, Arbinger Institute | January 23, 2019

In high school, I took a month-long math course called, “Maps.” It was fascinating—an entire month dedicated just to the art and science (and math) of making maps!

The teacher, Steve, was a six-and-a-half foot tall, red-haired genius with a beard that fell to his ample belly. I still remember him standing at the front of the class, shifting his weight from side to side, imparting this gem of wisdom:

There is no way to project a three-dimensional object onto a two-dimensional surface without distorting something. You must decide what to represent clearly and what to distort. Be aware of the priorities and trade-offs.

The Mercator Projection

For example, the Mercator projection is one of the most common maps of Earth. It was developed by the legendary cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569 and solved some of the most pressing navigational problems of the day. The map projects the sphere that is Earth onto a cylinder, making every line on the map a constant course. This helped nautical navigation quite a bit at the time; today, the projection is useful because online mapping applications (e.g., Google Maps) can display a seamless global surface.

The Mercator map has taken quite a bit of heat, however, because it distorts the size of countries more and more dramatically the further from the equator they are. This means that Europe, North America, and Russia appear far larger than they really are. Since people tend to equate size with power and importance, the map inflates the importance of the European colonial powers and diminishes the importance of the historically colonized nations near the equator. Mercator also placed Europe at the center of the map, doubly inviting viewers to unconsciously think of European countries as superior to others.

In response to the distortions and limitations of the Mercator projection, cartographers have developed many alternate maps of the globe—each, of course, with its own strengths and limitations. This article gives a fantastic overview of this history.

Mapping Our Reality

Nearly two decades later, I hold onto Steve’s teachings as a reminder of one of my favorite life lessons: there are lots of different ways to see the same thing. Most often, what we think is “reality” or “the truth” is, in fact, a projection (a map) that only partially represents—and inevitably distorts—the entirety of what is. Other people may be looking at the same situation using a different map. To see clearly, we must first identify and then rid ourselves of the distortions we’ve brought to the situation.

The key shift that Arbinger talks about—the shift from an inward mindset to an outward mindset—is a fundamental shift in perspective. When we have an inward mindset, we are self-focused and self-deceived. We see a distorted view of reality based on our own needs, challenges, and objectives; we see what we need to see in order to justify ourselves.

Outward Mindset: Seeing Clearly

With an outward mindset, by contrast, we see clearly. It’s as if, instead of looking at our own two-dimensional map of the world, we have access to a three-dimensional globe! We can see things as they are, without distortion. Sometimes this means we have some difficult news to face: maybe we aren’t as big or important as we thought we were. But at least we can move forward with a clear, undistorted understanding of what is. That is a good place to be.

Coming soon: My Favorite Reminders About Perspective, Part 2: The Ladder of Inference