A common narrative nowadays is that we are flooded—overwhelmed—with data and information. But this narrative is misleading. Our main challenge does not lie in being bombarded with too much information (our brain is always flooded with more sensory data than it can process). Overwhelm occurs only because we lack an apt framework to make the flood meaningful.

That little insight leads me to define what “failure” and “success” looks like for me—for my next book, and for these blog posts. If I only add to the flood, that’s failure. But if I can help make the flood meaningful, then I’m succeeding.

Learning from history

On that note: Last week I was in Houston, to see the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey first-hand and also to attend a meeting of the North American Energy Standards Board.

While there, I told the board members a short story about Christopher Columbus. It’s an important story, because it offers insight into how we can make the present flood meaningful.

It’s also a story about how we should learn from the mistakes of history. Because like Christopher Columbus, we too have set out on bold voyages. Like him, we’re making big new discoveries. But like him, we’re trying to jam them into old (mental) maps.

In 1492, Columbus famously sailed west in search of a shorter route to the spice riches of Asia. He found America. But he was convinced it was Asia. (Some argue that he died still believing that he had in fact found Asia). Why? Because Noah had three sons. And after The Flood, they fathered the three races of Man: Africa, Asia and Europe. That was humanity. That was the world, full stop.

His mental map prevented Columbus from making sense of his own discovery. It’s why “America” isn’t named after Columbus, but after Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo was the Italian explorer who, some 10 years after Columbus’ voyages, popularized the insight that the lands Columbus had found were, in fact, a mundus novus. A new world. By helping Europeans to make that mental shift, Amerigo unleashed Europe’s capacity to navigate that new world—for good and ill. (From a trade perspective, explorers’ disappointments about the absence of marketable spices and silks turned into excitement about valuable new commodities this new world might reveal: tobacco, sugarcane, corn, potato…unexpected crops that profoundly reshaped Old World diets.)

To make better sense of our present-day voyages of discovery, we need to follow Amerigo’s example: don’t just try to ram all the fresh news of our age into our head (a futile and anxious task). Instead, challenge the maps onto which we are trying to ram them, so that our thinking evolves with our reality. It’s the smarter, wiser approach. Instead of feeling overwhelm, we can adapt our awareness, so that it all makes better sense.

Challenging the maps

So take politics. We cannot plot Donald Trump onto a traditional linear political map of Left versus Right. But add a second axis—say, Open vs Closed—and suddenly we can (hint: he’s Closed-Right).

Or take China. We cannot understand contemporary China through tired, monochrome clichés like “red” and “dragon”. (There is a “red China”, yes, but my own doctoral work shows that there is also a “blue China”.) Once when we start to see China’s other color(s), the information and behaviors coming out of China make a lot more sense.

Or take AI. Most public discourse looks at artificial intelligence through the lens of automation—a zero-sum game in which the machines replace us humans. But that’s only one role that AI might play in our future. We could also look at AI through the lens of augmentation—a game in which AI helps us to do more with available (human) resources. Given that most advanced countries are aging rapidly, and that workforces are going to start shrinking, that’s a game we want AI to play.

Or take urban planning. Many cities still map their land into discrete zones: commercial here, residential there. But how can that map make any sense today, when every residence is a potential AirBnB business and every private driveway is a rentable parking space?

Making new maps

Map-making is about:

  1. Becoming aware of the maps that we’re already using…
  2. Testing their validity in the face of recent events and discoveries…
  3. Drawing new maps that better describe the new world we’re in…

It’s one way that we can consciously adapt our thinking in a period of rapid change. And those communities, businesses and individuals who see the new maps soonest will, like Amerigo, be the ones that history remembers best, because they set the frame in which all subsequent events happen.