Do You Belong to the Curious or the Conquered?

Do You Belong to the Curious or the Conquered?

If we are to believe history, your map should have empty areas, or you are in trouble.

European world map from 1459. Note that North and South America was not discovered and therefore not on the map.

European world map from 1459. Note that North and South America was not discovered and therefore not on the map.

In a European world map from 1459 the whole world is drawn with great detail, even areas that were completely unknown to the Europeans, such as southern Africa. In 1525 however, the Salviati world map is mostly empty. What happened during those 66 years? Did Europeans forget what they knew about the world or did they realise how little they actually knew?

European world map 66 years later, in 1525

European world map 66 years later, in 1525

In his fascinating book, Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind, the author and historian Yoval Noah Harari points out that the European conquest of the world is illustrated with the development of maps. He notes that maps had been drawn by many cultures, long before they knew about distant lands. ”But unfamiliar areas were simply left out, or filled with imaginary monsters and wonders. These maps had no empty spaces.”

Chinas great explorer Zeng He’s ship vs Columbus (Columbus' is the small one)

Chinas great explorer Zeng He’s ship vs Columbus (Columbus' is the small one)

Europeans ruled the world for many centuries and the west still dominates the world today, be it with less conviction. Some of the reasons he mentions for this remarkable change in power is a culture of ”explore and conquer” and a scientific mindset. He points out that in the fifteenth century, European nations did not have a technological or military advantage to empires like China and India. It was rather the opposite. 

Harari tells a story of how the spanish colonialist Cortés conquered the great Aztec empire with only 550 men. For the Aztec emperor Cortés and his fowl smelling men could just as well have been aliens when they landed on the beach in Mexico in 1519. The Aztecs were completely unprepared.

The Aztecs had no interest in the world outside their empire and knew little of the atrocities committed by the spaniards towards their northern neighbour in the West indies and North America. Had they known, they would not have believed Cortés claims to be a peaceful emissionary sent by the Spanish king. 

Cortés and his men however, even if they knew nothing about the Aztecs, knew the world was full of undiscovered cultures and had good practice in dealing with them. Through list, deceit and some divide-and-conquer Cortés and his men managed to take control of the entire empire and several millon people. 

Ten years later, another spanish colonialist, Pizarro, copied Cortes and conquered the rich Inca empire. This time with only 168 men. Again, the Incas had no prior knowledge of what had happen further north. They where unprepared and an easy target for the well prepared and greedy adventurers. 

Europeans thirst for gold and knowledge (mostly gold) payed of well, for them. They got both richer and developed their military capabilities. Within a few hundred years the British could easily take over India and force China to accept their opium export. 

The great empires of Asia heard about the adventures of the Europeans early on, yet they displayed very little interest in these discoveries.

They continued to believe that the world revolved around Asia, and made no attempt to compete with the Europeans for controlling of Americas…
— Yoval Noah Harari, Sapiens

There is a few takeaways from this episode in history:

  • Prepared beats unprepared
  • Know what the competition is doing
  • Know your blind spots (both personally and for your company) and draw them out

Prepared beats unprepared

Looking at the corporate world, there are numerous examples of big companies who focus on their own success and current earnings and can't be bothered to care about small startups. The problem is that small can grow. All of a sudden your are the Nokia or Blackberry that failed to realize the clear and present danger when Apple and Samsung landed on your beaches. When they did understand the seriousness of the threat, it was to late.

Know your competition

Today a lot of us are focusing on what happens in Silicon Valley. What west coast startups will be the next unicorn, the next Google, Facebook or AirBnB? But maybe we should also be looking at what happens in China. The cultural divide is larger but there are numerous interesting startups that are emerging under the radar for most of us Europeans. 

Maybe it is time for us to realize that the world does not revolve around the western world any more. 

What does your company map look like

Knowing your companies strength and weaknesses is something that is taught in most business schools and there are numerous tools to do so, SWOT analysis being one. 

If you are in a competitive business you have to know your strengths and weaknesses or you will be out of business. However, in businesses where the barriers for new competition are high, be it through regulation, investment or other, companies do not feel the urge to care that much about the customer. Their focus is on the shareholders instead. The banks and most international logistics companies are good example of this.

There is a simple test to know if your are in that group - ask yourself: does your clients really love doing business with you or is it lack of alternatives that makes them stay? (Or even better, ask your clients.) 

Is it really that simple? No, but it is a good start.

Your personal map

What does your personal map look like? The world move much faster now. Changes that took a few hundred years in Cortés and Pizarros time now only take a decade or two, or even less. Remember that it was only about five years ago that Facebook went public and only 20 years ago that Google was founded. 

More and more people question the current notion that you get an education and then work in that field for the rest of your life. For you to thrive in this fast-paced world, it does not matter what personality type you are, they are all needed, or if you have a degree from a prestiges University. What does matter is how well you know your self. How well you have located the white areas on your map. 

By painting your own competents, desire and goal maps your will most likely awaken your curiosity, once you honestly identify what you do not know. A thirst to find out what your life will become once you travel to the white areas on your map. 

Anyone looking a the map and possessing even a minimal curiosity is tempted to ask, ’What’s beyond this point’ The map give no answers. It invites the observer to set sail and find out
— Yoval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Hopefully you will use your curiosity in a way that benefits more than yourself. The spanish adventurers Cortés and Pizarro cared nothing about the people they robbed, used, and killed, as long as they themselves became rich and famous. Let´s use history to learn from, not to repeat mistakes.

There is probably purpose and meaning in our journey,
but it is the pathway there, which is worth our while.
— From the poem In motion by Karin Boye




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