Hemispheres

By the time we’re over North Dakota, gas flares flickering like bonfires below, nearly everyone on this San Francisco-to-Boston red-eye is asleep. I should be sleeping too, but instead I open a creased copy of United’s Hemispheres magazine and flip to a map of international flight routes.

I love this map. I love how the smooth blue arcs of its stylized flight plans make even the most distant South Pacific atoll feel somehow within grasp. I trace these arcs with my finger — Chicago to Dublin, Houston to Lagos, San Francisco to Tokyo — and can almost feel the humidity of a Nigerian jetway, or the aseptic stillness of Tokyo Narita.

And then I trace another arc — this one back to my childhood dinner table. It’s 1996 in suburban New Jersey: I’m eight years old and staring at my favorite placemat, titled, in grand lettering, “Map of the World.” The dinner plates have been cleared but I remain seated, engrossed in the colors and geometric figures that represent the globe. I intone country names like a mantra; with each strange syllable, I feel that I am discovering the world.

Two decades on, I’ve now lived in places I once knew only as colored shapes. In China — the giant yellow rooster — I’ve seen a charcoal sky erupt with New Year’s fireworks. In Japan — a red seahorse — I’ve seen skyscrapers flail with the jolt of an earthquake. In Alaska — that inexplicably Canada-tethered, orange expanse — I’ve seen a winter night overtaken by shooting streaks of green and pink.

Which is to say — I should know that the world is infinitely more complex than a simple map can depict. I should know that to map is to sacrifice reality for the sake of utility. I should recognize my childhood map more for what it omits — violence, turmoil, change — than for the manicured order it proffers.

And yet, fingering Hemispheres’ glossy pages, I realize that my mental map of the world remains, more or less, that of my eight-year-old self. I know that the world is pockmarked with tragedy, that the dotted line masquerading as Syria’s border means little in a universe of civil war and ISIS. But I can’t help but see the Hemispheres map as accurate still — and Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan as mere temporary lapses in our Westphalian order.

The Hemispheres map is my cartographic blankie. I’m nearing 30, and still I want to see reality as an aberration from this map, and not this map as an aberration from reality.

I’m nearing 30, and still I want to see reality as an aberration from this map, and not this map as an aberration from reality.

A month passes. I sit in the back row of a first-year business school strategy class as our discussion turns to The Economist. In a case study we’ve prepared for this session, we read that The Economist has largely weathered the digital revolution, growing circulation and revenue even as its peer publications flounder. Our question to ponder is “Why?”.

As our conversation turns to topics of branding and customer segmentation, my mind wanders elsewhere. I see an image of an Economist cover peering out from behind an airplane seat pocket. I still don’t know why others read The Economist, but suddenly, I understand why I do.

I read The Economist because it takes all the horror, complexity, humor, and intrigue of a week in the world and packages it in the same hyper-rational, sanitized reportage. No terror attack is too alarming to merit a departure from The Economist’s measured tone; no financial crisis too perplexing to preclude a reasoned editorial. I read The Economist because I want to believe in the ordered world that exists within its pages.

And, suddenly, I’m aware that it’s this urge that has brought me to business school: I have come to a bubble (campus) within a bubble (Silicon Valley) to bring order to my world. Which is to say, to become a mapmaker.

Here, we map all sorts of things — financial statements and frameworks, case studies and simulations, models and memos, competitors, products, processes. Everything we do aims to distill the thorny mess of reality into some higher order, some predictable chunk. We draw our maps not as decorative ornaments, but as guides to action; our frameworks instruct us how to value a business, manage relationships, craft policy, appear strong, appear vulnerable, negotiate, hire, fire.

Here among these maps, I begin to feel safer. The world — this manic place of bombs and bear markets — takes on the sheen of a Hemispheres routes chart. As I trace its arcs and contours, I wonder: Is this a map of the world, or of a fantasy?

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