good explanations maps

Here Be Dragons

Learning is surely one of most rewarding experiences life has to offer, but it can also be deeply unpleasant — even terrifying. Tackling a new, complex topic can feel like setting off on a voyage across treacherous seas with no map or guide. You don’t know what you don’t know, and the unknown lurks ominously like the menacing dragon showing uncharted waters on an old map.

Image of the Carta Marina map, featuring a variety of sea creatures
Portion of the Carta Marina map, published in 1539. Wikimedia Commons.

I know there are people who jet-ski into difficult topics without a care in the world. More power to you. But the rest of us are often intimidated, or at least hesitant to get underway. Learning is one of my favorite things, but I still find myself procrastinating when I need to dive into something especially challenging. 

What am I wary of? Simply put, I don’t like feeling stupid. And I know that’s what’s coming. 

You’d think you would start feeling smarter as soon as you start learning about something. After all, you’re already chipping away at your ignorance. But in my experience, that’s not how it works, at least for tougher subjects. When I start researching something, the first thing I learn is just how truly ignorant I am. Every new concept, every unfamiliar term, every insider reference shows me how much I don’t know. One big dragon on the map turns into dozens and dozens of dragons. 

Of course, you are learning a lot during this stage, but it doesn’t always feel like it. There may be many setbacks and few rewards for a while. Ideally, you’ll keep going, knowing you’ll enjoy the knowledge on the other side. But it’s not learning as advertised on library posters — happily riding a magical book over castles and rainbows.

I think this is a big reason so many kids turn against school and even learning in general. If you’re struggling, it’s natural that you might start to feel stupid. And it’s natural you would want to avoid feeling that way. If you pile on negative feedback like low grades, punishment, and public shaming, it’s no wonder so many people want to walk away from learning.

All of this is top of mind when I’m trying to explain something. If I’m writing an explanation, I want to map out unfamiliar topics for the reader, and I want to acknowledge those areas are unfamiliar. As much as possible, I want to avoid introducing new dragons, like unexplained concepts, mystifying jargon, and impenetrable acronyms. I want to describe each new thing I bring, so the reader can put it on the map. A thoughtful explanation is like a reassuring guide taking the audience out where they’ve never been, steadily building up their knowledge. You’re helping your audience create their own map of the unknown.

Aside: While old maps did include maps and other creatures, it turns out they didn’t include the phrase. “Here Be Dragons” (or the Latin “Hic sunt dracones”). The famous phrase does appear on one globe — the Hunt-Lenox Globe, which was made in 1510 — but no other examples have been found. It’s not clear how it entered lore, but this article in the Atlantic includes a possible explanation. 

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