Practical PKM

🗺 The Map is Not the Territory

Published about 1 month ago • 5 min read

Cartography (the study and practice of making and using maps) is somewhat of a lost art.

On one hand, the rise and fall of cartography makes perfect sense as the exquisite handmade maps of ancient times have been replaced by readily available satellite imagery. The word cartography itself is antiquated, combining two Ancient Greek words that mean “write” and “sheet of papyrus.”

It’s a bit difficult to translate that to modern times.

But while you may not see any cartography shops strolling through downtown, the role of the cartographer is still very important.

Especially if we extend the metaphor of map-making to the use of mental models to the way we work with the information in our PKM systems.

Mental Models 101

A mental model is a representation of how something works. It’s a lens for gaining understanding when looking at the world.

For example, one of the more famous mental models is Occam’s Razor (“the simplest solution is the best solution”), which can be used when trying to choose between multiple options. Using Occam’s Razor to make decisions can be extremely helpful if you have a tendency to overthink things (like I do 😂).

But in order to use mental models effectively, you need to understand 2 things:

  1. Every mental model is flawed in some way (there are often times when the simplest solution is in fact NOT the best solution, for example), and
  2. You need to know when, where, and how to use them.

But when you understand the models and can apply them with skill, they can unlock new levels of understanding.

The Map is Not the Territory

One of my favorite mental models is The Map is Not the Territory.

This model states that, by definition, a map cannot be the same as the territory. If a map contained every piece of information available, it would be as big as the territory it represents.

And it would be completely useless as a map.

The map MUST show only a small portion of the information a territory contains in order to be useful.

But which information should be included? That’s up to the map maker (the cartographer).

From Wikipedia, here is a short list of the jobs to be done for a cartographer when making a map:

  • Set the map’s agenda and select the traits to be mapped
  • Eliminate the mapped object’s characteristics that are irrelevant to the map’s purpose
  • Reduce the complexity of the characteristics that will be mapped
  • Orchestrate the elements of the map to best convey its message to its audience

The goal is to distill everything down into the most essential information needed to navigate the terrain. But when you understand the process, something very important becomes clear:

Every map you have ever looked at has been the result of what someone else decided was important enough to include.

Most of the time, this isn’t a big deal. It’s pretty clear what we need to know and why we’re consulting the map. For example, if you get driving directions you need to know the street names, major landmarks, etc.

But there are lots of other kinds of maps. Like the notes in your note-taking app. The graph view in Obsidian even kind of looks like a map:

This can be confusing though because when it comes to making mental maps from the information we consume, it’s not always clear what we should include.

But that’s actually the good news: you get to decide what should be there.

YOU are the Cartographer

A map is an opinionated interpretation of what’s important. Every map you look at reflects the values, standards, and limitations of the person who created it.

So when it comes to your PKM system, you need to embrace the role of the cartographer and decide what’s important (and what’s not).

Here’s the definition of personal knowledge management from Wikipedia:

Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a process of collecting information that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve, and share knowledge in their daily activities (Grundspenkis 2007) and the way in which these processes support work activities (Wright 2005).

So map-making as it pertains to PKM requires that you gather, classify, store, search, retrieve, and share information that is useful to YOUR information workflows.

That means you have to decide what’s useful.

When you encounter information, you have to decide for yourself:

What does this mean to ME?

One of the limiting beliefs we tend to hold is that we need to find the right answers. In other words, we need more information.

But that’s probably not true. We have access to more information than at any other time in human history. Too much, in fact. The hard part for us is figuring out what matters. But when we learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff, it becomes exponentially more useful to us.

So don’t try to get more information. Try to get more out of the information you already have. The way to do that is to figure out where what you’ve collected fits on the maps you are currently making.

When it comes to productivity, what we don’t do is more important than what we do. With creativity, what we delete is more important than what we keep.

Figure out for yourself what is useful. Then discard everything else.

The more focused your mental maps become, the more value you’ll get out of them.

Something Cool: AI for Templater plugin

TfT Hacker (the person behind Canvas Candy and Cornell Notes) has just released a new plugin to the Obsidian community plugin directory called AI for Templater. And while there are lots of plugins that allow you to infuse AI into your obsidian vault, this one does something very specific: it allows you to add queries to your templates by extending Templater to interact with large language models.

Essentially what this does is give you some templated LLM queries. There are lots of examples available here, but where I see this being useful is in generating idea prompts when you open a new note to write. You could format the queries differently depending on the type of note you’re opening (i.e. articles, social posts, journal entries) and the result of the query gets embedded in your note.

This does require an OpenAI API key to use, and the syntax is not very user-friendly. But I think there are lots of interesting use cases for inserting query results into your notes, and this plugin lets you do just that.

Book Notes: The Great Mental Models, Volume 1

I can’t speak highly enough of The Great Mental Models books by Shane Parrish & Rhiannon Beaubien. There are several books in the series, but I recommend you start with Volume 1. It contains the most essential mental models and a section on how to generally use mental models if you’re new to the concept. The other volumes take mental models from specific areas and show how they can be applied more generally (Volume 2 covers models from physics, chemistry, and biology, while Volume 3 covers models from systems and mathematics).

If you want to download my notes from Volume 1, click here.

— Mike

P.S. The Library (my private Circle community for people interested in using PKM principles to be more productive and creative) is now available! It’s currently $100/year, and gets you access to ALL my mind map book notes (188 books and counting) in 4 different formats (PDF, OPMl, MindNode, and Markdown) and live events like weekly virtual coworking and bi-weekly Ask Me Anything sessions. If you’re interested, click here (FYI the cost goes up once 100 people join).

P.P.S. My wife & I are also launching the next LifeTheme cohort next week! The sessions will be Wednesdays & Fridays for 6 weeks at 10am CT (11am ET / 8am PT) starting April 24th until May 29th. Since you have lifetime access to all things LifeTheme, you can opt-in to the next cohort simply by clicking here (might require you to set up your account in the new community first).

Practical PKM

by Mike Schmitz

A weekly newsletter where I help people apply values-based productivity principles and systems for personal growth, primarily using Obsidian. Subscribe if you want to make more of your notes and ideas.

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