The Fine Art of Map Making: Imagine Your Way Forward


in Personal Growth

Would you know what to do if you were lost and didn’t know how to find your way?

I’m not talking about being lost in the woods or in an unfamiliar city. I’m talking about being lost in your own life.

After slowly and painfully coming to the realization that I no longer wanted to practice law – and before finding my next thing – an entire year flew by. A year filled with partings and discoveries that reshaped my perspective and changed my path in life.

I parted ways with my job, my career, my marriage, my first home, and many of my “friends” after discovering they belonged to my job and my marriage.

I had no idea what to do next. I had no idea what I wanted to do next.

I was lost and I had no map.

Imagine. Your career has disappeared. Your marriage is over. Your home is gone. Your friendships have evaporated.

What would you do?

It’s either time to crawl under your blanket and never come out or step up and find out what life has in store for you.

Although I admit to spending quite a few days under the blanket, I did finally come out – like a mole afraid of the sun – slowly and cautiously. I was stripped of everything that I thought my life was about.

I was naked. Fresh. Tender. Like a baby. Reborn at the age of 32.

When I finally caught my breath after my many partings, I realized that I had been granted a rare gift – the chance to start over and rebuild things from scratch, my way.

When we are babies, this starting-out-from-scratch business seems natural. We don’t know any better. Kind adults guide us. They offer assistance and direction. They pick us up when we fell down. They tell us everything will be OK. They watch our development and suggest things we might want to try, like piano lessons, drama, and the debate team. They paint pictures of the safest careers for us, the best choices for our temperament and aptitudes. They offer suggestions on where to go to school and what to major in.

They provide us with a map – the template to get from point A to point B in a neat, orderly fashion designed to minimize risk and missteps.

Starting from scratch as an adult isn’t quite the same experience. No one hands you the map.

Finding your way is entirely up to you. You are alone. Every choice is up to you and you have no one to blame if you make the wrong choices or end up somewhere you don’t like.

Making your own map feels scary if you’ve never done it before.

You aren’t sure what you are doing or where you are going exactly. Your peers, family and friends wonder if you might have lost it altogether. Cocktail parties become an agony when the “so, what do you do?” question rears its head, is answered with stammers and long-winded explanations, and then met with silence and blank stares.

There is no socially sanctioned category in which to put someone who is engaged in the fine art of map making.

And it is an art.

Have you ever wondered how the map makers of old crafted maps when they had never seen their world in its entirety?

They simply and imperfectly imagined their way. They attempted to define their place in the world based on what they knew, assumed, and thought to be true.

They experimented their way forward.

They tried. They attempted. They did the best they could with what they knew.

With each experiment, they got a little bit closer to the truth. With each piece of information they gathered, the evolution of the map moved from its misshapen, barely recognizable form to the one we know today.

It is the same with making the map of your life.

It will not appear fully formed. No, indeed it will not. Instead, points and paths will be plotted out one step at time – as you imagine your way forward and gather information about who you are.

Likes. Interests. Loves. Callings.

Will it be easy? No.

Ink will be spilled. Tears will be shed. You’ll chart the wrong course and end up somewhere you don’t want to be. You’ll lose your way only to find it again when you least expect it. Your friends and family will tell you the world is flat and if you keep going, you might fall off.

But the journey?

The journey will be totally worth it. You’ll discover destinations of such power and beauty that you’ll be encouraged to keep going – perfectly imperfectly.

Your map will slowly take exquisite shape and it will reflect all the wonder that is you.

That year that flew by for me?

It was the start of my map-making journey. I imagined my way forward with one small experiment at a time. I played. I dabbled. I focused on what brought me joy. I had no idea what I was doing but with each success, and each failure, I knew a little bit more about the shape of my map.

Oh, the places I’ve been!! Oh, the places I’ve yet to go!!

What about you?


All good map makers need an assistant – to hold the paper, sharpen the pencils, and dig up the eraser. Let’s work together.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Vanessa Vinos March 4, 2012 at

Lovely post Andrea. As you know we have much in common, and I’m about to start another new map-making journey soon as I return to the UK after 12 years in Spain. I love that your post gives me permission to make mistakes, tear it all up and start again, have a few tantrums, but just to keep moving forward. I just hope I don’t end up at the wrong destination; the right destination via the scenic route will suit me just fine ;-)


Andrea Olson March 4, 2012 at

Van … We do have so much in common and I feel certain your new map making journey holds promise. Tantrums?? Have at it. :) It’s all part of the process my friend.


Ronna March 4, 2012 at

I LOVE THIS! Such a good reminder of a couple things for me: 1) this process is an art; and 2) the map itself is being crafted as I move, as I act, as I risk.

The image that kept coming to my mind was Christopher Columbus (though everything in me wanted to come up with a female example). One who set out on something that seemed crazy, could NOT be mapped, and offered no measurable ways of gauging success along the way. Somehow, his passion enabled a queen to buy off on his vision.

I’m off to do more map-making (and be the queen myself)!

Thanks, Andrea. As always: insightful, generous, and wise. ‘Appreciate you.
Ronna recently posted..Tell Me Your Lies (or: the other side of telling your truth)


Andrea Olson March 4, 2012 at

OK, I love your take on this. Being the queen of your own map-making voyage?? Absolutely. Love, love, love the imagery. Thanks, Ronna!


PB March 5, 2012 at

Andrea what a beautiful post and I am so happy I found it! I am 32. I am just about to embark on my map making journey. Funny, I was just thinking yesterday, what will I tell people I DO? It seems that my profession has been my identity for my adult life. But I am ready and eager for the start of the journey… x marks the spot! xxx


Andrea Olson March 5, 2012 at

How wonderful to connect with you! 32 is the perfect age to embark on a map making journey … I can’t wait to find out what you are up to. :)


Kelly L. March 5, 2012 at

This is a map-making year for me, so it is inspiring to read your article and know that I am surrounded by fellow voyagers. Thank you for your insights.


Andrea Olson March 5, 2012 at

Thanks, Kelly! You’ll have to drop me a note and let me know more about your map. I love hearing about the voyages of others. So inspiring!


Shelley Glendenning March 6, 2012 at

I am enjoying the reflection your reflection is providing. At first, it reminded me of that saying that Gregory Bateson popularized, “The Map is not the Territory,” when trying to foster a deeper awareness and understanding of wholism. So, I event went online and tracked down the origin of the saying and reviewed it’s history, savoring the way it helped shape my perceptions. In fact, it underpinned my research trip to Bali in the early 90′s – so for that, I thank you and send along much appreciation.

And, if that weren’t enough, I also remembered a saying by Ursula LeGuin, the feminist science fiction writer and essayist, who lives in Portland…so, I went digging for it, too. Much appreciation for providing grist for my mill, Andrea. xo

“…when women speak truly they speak subversively–they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you–I want to hear you.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin


Andrea Olson March 6, 2012 at

Shelley – I am so happy that my reflections allowed you to revisit your own journey and I absolutely adore the Ursula LeGuin quote … honoring our truth does indeed change the map.


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