By Brett Coffman
When Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 from Spain seeking a new route to East Asia, he believed in the old “complete maps.” Columbus and most of those of his generation died believing that he had reached an island off the East Asian coast. The idea that he had reached an entirely different continent, unknown to Europeans, was inconceivable. After all, for thousands of years the greatest thinkers and scholars, as well as infallible scriptures, had only acknowledged Europe, Africa, and Asia. Columbus was still a Medieval man, convinced that he knew the whole world, and even a great discovery failed to convince him otherwise.
Italian sailor Amerigo Vespucci took part in expeditions from 1499-1504. Texts describing his expedition were published throughout Europe and he made the argument that the East Asian islands Columbus referred to were in fact part of an entirely new continent, unknown to Europeans. A respected European map maker, Martin Waldseemuller became convinced of these arguments and in 1507 published an updated world map. It was the first to show the place where westward fleets had landed as a separate continent. Having mistakenly believed that Vespucci had discovered this continent on his map, he named the new continent in his honor – America. This map became widely copied and built on by other cartographers.
Inspired by Waldseemuller, it was not until the 16th century that maps started to be drawn with empty spaces to acknowledge that they did not know what the world looked like. These maps indicated an early scientific mindset and began the age of European imperialism. These maps, which simply acknowledged that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world, were a psychological and ideological breakthrough.
Example of Blank Maps Inspired by Waldseemuller - The Salviati World Map of 1525
The implications became clear. While the 1459 map is full of continents, islands, and explanations, the Salviati map is mostly empty. The eyes wander south along the American coastline. People looking at the map are led to ask, “What’s beyond this point?” and the observer is invited to set sail and find out.
What may not be as clear, is this kind of thinking fueled the scientific revolution. Lessons coming out of this had far reaching impact beyond maps. Values such as favoring present observations over past traditions, searching for new knowledge, and gathering data started to take hold. Scholars in other fields started to draw maps with blanks and question marks. They began to see flaws in their theories. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans were drawn to the blank spots on their maps and started to fill them in, resulting in huge leaps of exploration and new knowledge. For the first time, humanity was transformed from being a history of isolated people to being a shared humanity knitted together as a global trade network. It is ironic that a quarter of the world and 2 of the 7 continents are named after an Italian man who simply had the courage to say, “We don’t know.”
With the wide-ranging implications of this history, I have been thinking about how it applies to helping clients in their quest to have resilience in their financial plans, investment plans, family communication plans, and business transition plans. When you believe you have a complete map ― around how the accumulated money from your life’s work should be invested, how your estate should be administered and protected, your business transition needs, how your family communicates, and your retirement and tax needs ― it keeps you from exploring unknown terrain. When your map feels complete, you can stop and acknowledge the gaps. We know that a good plan does not keep the world, and what we know about it, from changing around us. There will always be unforeseen issues and challenges. However, when you are willing to look at your map, acknowledge that there are uncharted areas and question marks that need to be explored, you become empowered to make leaps of progress in planning, in business, and in life. You are practicing resilience. Show the less than filled in map. Show the question marks. Acknowledge that planning is a living breathing ongoing process that requires questioning assumptions and making changes.