According to the National Geographic, a map is, “a symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface. Maps present information about the world in a simple, visual way.” Maps are critical to how we understand and navigate the world. Today, most of society is reliant on a version of a maps app on their phone to help them navigate to even the closest of locations. While maps first appeared long before William Smith was born, Simon Winchester in The Map that Changed the World, discusses how the genius of one map revolutionized society, and subsequently the world, by his development of “the first true geographical map of anywhere in the world”. In this historical work, Winchester recounts the life of William Smith, born towards the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a genius not commonly seen, who ventured to take a risk — “just one man, doing it all by himself, imagining the unimaginable.” While his life was marked by significant challenges beginning with the death of his father at 8 years of age, Smith’s tenacity in finishing an inconceivable project led to a host of other discoveries and changed what was considered possible in the sphere of geology.
At the time Smith was growing up, the term industry was beginning to have an advanced understanding throughout society. The steam engine and water-powered cotton spinning machine were created; farming methods and education were drastically improved. Winchester writes, “in all corners of the industrial world there was change, development, innovation, the shock of the new.” While these ushered in new opportunities for individuals and families, Britain saw an “unanticipated consequence” as they realized they could not produce enough white bread or meat, two staples that were making significant contributions to the “fall in the nation’s death rate” as health improved. It is in this context that Smith understood that geology was a field that needed to be seen in three dimensions, in patterns, and one that could make the invisible underground visible. While reading this work, I was continually thinking of how the influence of growing up in the country, on a farm, and spending so much time in an isolated environment in nature developed a natural inclination towards Kahneman’s System 2 thinking. The slow and methodical mind – the patience alone – that would be needed to create the type of map that Smith did could not come from someone that lived in a System 1 mindset.
Another connection that stuck out to me was how well-differentiated Smith must have been to create this map. Specifically, I was fascinated thinking about Friedman’s understanding of sabotage considering what happened with Smith and those in the Geographical Society that copied his map as their own. Was it his “deep, obsessively felt need to be given wider recognition for what he was sure were profoundly important discoveries” that were truly the motivation or perhaps, was there a dopamine hit each time he completed another section? Was what we could define as well-differentiation actually a personality flaw that actually led towards his financial ruin and imprisonment? Was the brilliance of his curiosity and exploration of the created world influenced by the religious environment he was raised in and in effect, used by the Creator to advance society? Winchester writes:
“His genius — the unanticipated genius of this uneducated farmer’s son – was that he realized it was not simply a matter of noticing the difference. It was also possible – desirable, and perhaps important – to find out just why there was a difference in the first place.”
I can’t help but think Smith would be an expert in Bloom’s Taxonomy as he explored the world and the patterns that emerged from it. While there are many contributions to society and industry that Smith’s accurate maps had, there are a few key learnings and questions that I walk away from after reading this account:
- Our strengths can contribute to our weaknesses. Smith’s focused brilliance did not allow him to see the ruin that awaited him.
- A bad map does me no good. I need to ensure that the map I am following is as accurate as possible or I will be led astray.
- What am I thinking about that perhaps requires being able to see it from/in a new dimension?
- What challenges in my life and leadership do I need to see from a different perspective?
 Winchester, xviii.
 Winchester, 193.
 Winchester, 17.
 Winchester, 20.
 Winchester, 74, 78, 127.
 Winchester, 84.