The Map

21 January 2011. Filed under category Nomad.
'Uproot' by Jonathan Taube

'Uproot' by Jonathan Taube

How do you uproot a tree? You do it one root at a time. You must be able to see the roots, so you may need to do some digging to bring them to light. Uprooting lives is done in a similar way.

Today, I did a bit of digging to reveal what roots are holding me down in London. I sat down at a table with a stack of blank A4 sheets of paper and my favourite pen. I drew a symbol of my fixture to London (a ball and chain) on the left-hand side of a paper and on the opposite side I drew a symbol of me leaving London (an airplane lifting towards the sky, presumably with me inside it).

In between these before and after images, I drew symbols of my London-bound roots. The three main things were my job, my flat and my stuff. Imagining myself being free of those three, I still could not picture myself heading to the airport. I simply would not be ready. Where would I go? I still had more research and thinking to do, so I wrote down ‘direction’ as goal to accomplish before I can leave. I now couldn’t think of anything more that would hold me back. That surprised me. Was that it? Unsure, I wrote down ‘loose ends’ as a catch-all for anything else I might think of later.

I had now defined what I needed to do to leave London, but nothing of how I was going to accomplish each goal. I took a sheet of paper for each of the roots identified and drew a map of all actions needed to sever it. I drew lines between tasks to highlight dependencies between tasks. As I worked, I could not believe how easy it all seemed.

I gathered up my drawings and put them up on my bedroom door. I stepped back and contemplated my escape route out of London.

Why did I bother doing all of this?

It’s been twenty days since I first thought of this new nomadic life. I have done a lot of thinking since then, but I found it hard to do anything concrete that would take me there. I didn’t know where to start, so I kept putting it off. Not only was I not making any progress, but I was also starting to lose morale. The whole thing just seemed so difficult to grasp.

Creating the map made me feel in control. Visualising my tasks made them concrete, manageable and less frightening. I feel confident with the high-level planning, which in turn frees me to focus completely on what I should do next. I can quickly see which tasks are next in line, pick one and just do it.

An important concept in my line of work (agile software engineering) is information radiators. It is a form of visual management where you display important information on the walls where those who care about the information see it. It might sound twee, but it works. It works best if the visual information is engaging and easy to read. That is why I took the time to draw pictures of my tasks and goals as opposed to just writing them down. The more this map catches my eye, the more I will use it.

The quickest way for me to despair over a large project is not to track my progress. It follows a now well-trodden path. I work really hard in the beginning of the project, then at some point I see how far I’ve still go to go and the futility of it all comes crashing down on me. If instead I track my progress, then I have something positive to focus on. I can celebrate my small victories along the way which makes the whole journey feel exciting and lighter. That is another reason I made this map of mine. After I complete each task I will mark it off, and step by step I can see how I am progressing.

Wrap up

OK, I admit. All of this might sound like overkill. I’m not uprooting the world tree, Yggdrasil. I’m merely moving my branch to a sunnier spot. Nevertheless, this is a big change for me and I find that drawing a map of what I need to do helps me stay in control of the process and feel secure. I’ve used similar methods in the past when I need to get a grip on something daunting. It works for me, and perhaps it will work for you.

Finally, I must apologise for the terrible quality of my crude drawings. I am not much of an artist. For example, the symbol for my leaving London in a plane looks more like I’m leaving the planet in a space rocket. Trust me; my goals are not quite that insane. Not yet.

Jonathan Taube

The metaphore of becoming a nomad being like uprooting a tree came to me while writing this post. It is not a perfect metaphore because we instinctively feel that trees are good things and we do not want them to be uprooted and die.

An artist who know, from personal experience, the pain of being uprooted against one’s will is Jonathan Taube. After Hurricane Katrina, he expressed this pain in an art project by literally uprooted a cedar tree. (The feature image of this post is from that installation.) This piece of art both resonates and contrasts what I am doing. You can read more about Mr Taube and his work by following this link.


I tried, but I couldn’t have a tree-themed post without mentioning Yggdrasil, the world tree from Norse mythology. Sorry to disappoint the English, but Yggdrasil is not an oak tree. It is an ash, which you can read more about here.


What do you think of this map idea?

Skip to bottom
  1. Imogen says:

    What an inspiring post. I remember doing something similar years and years ago when I was so daunted by the prospect of my A-Level exams that I thought I’d never make it to university. A quick drawing later, and I soon realised it was a series of smaller steps that would take me to my goal. The reassurance I gained from noting the distance I had already moved towards my goal was invaluable, and the identification of required tasks provided clarity and focus that had previously been elusive. May I recommend the ‘mind mapping’ technique, as first described by Tony Buzan, which is particularly useful for exam revision, creative brainstorming and planning.

    1. Gustav (The Modern Nomad) says:

      Mind mapping is great, once I threw out all of my high-tech gadget solutions and went back to paper and pen. I really do think that for this initial creative impulse kind of work, such as brainstorming and mind mapping, nothing beats pen and paper.

      1. Jeremy says:

        I like your style! I do feel inclined to point out that your map has an extra continent between Africa and South America (On the “Decide Where”) … that or Antarctica decided to take a vacation to a warmer climate haha! This is kinda the stage I’m at, except no maps yet, and mine probably will need to include the generation of buffer capital – or get my blog/creativity going lickety-split 🙂

  2. Brother Henke says:

    last evening i satt down wundering if i could do the same upproot an i realised that the main thing that holding me here beside that i am born and uppgrown here is definitely Denise (my daughter), but also my family some of my friends and my jobb that i like i have been there for more than 20 yers.
    If i dident hades Denise and my jobb maby i could think of doing the same.

  3. Craig Brown says:

    Wow, now I’m freakin freaked out by the uncanny serendipity of reconnecting with you at this time. First, vagabonding and mindfulness. Then I was going to describe my technique for brainstorming (Ask a simple question at the top of the page. Number 1-100. Starting writing answers. Most are nonsense. Number 37….THAT’S IT!). Then the memory thing. I just read an excellent book called “Moonwalking with Einsten” about memorizing things (basic idea: our hunter/gatherer minds were not made for modern life. Like remember names. I mean, how many people in your tribe do you have to remember their name? But where the blueberry bush is. That’s important!!! So we have excellent, almost savant like visual memories…though we don’t pay attention because most people have this. So memorize a list by connecting it with, say, the first house you grew up in, take a tour of the house and place outrageous images there connected with your list!). The author also discusses Tony Buzan mentioned by Imogen above. This is one reason why your map idea is sooo excellent. We are made to think like that. Solutions seem so much more present. Your pictures are exuberant. Also check out Although it’s tailored for business, it has some cool ideas. I’ve been personally on a journey to make my mind work more efficiently. Life circumstances. I’ll tell more in a personal communication. I should draw a picture of it! Cheers.

    1. Gustav (The Modern Nomad) says:

      I don’t believe in serendipity; I believe in breaking into your bedroom at night and siphoning off all your great ideas using my brainwave extractor so that I may use them on the blog.

      I’ll check out Mind Tools. Still, there is something quite primitive and free with simply a pen and paper.

  4. Doug Burns says:

    At some point in my life I spent a little time visiting a counsellor. I’m not sure I really needed to, but I learnt lots of useful and interesting stuff about the counselling process and have several friends who went on to become counsellors and I’ve read dozens of related books.

    One of the most useful exercises was to draw pictures of life events. I am an absolute useless drawer but this woman told me not to worry, just draw the pictures anyway. So I drew horrible pictures (yours look much better) and then we looked at them and discussed what they showed. It was all a little dull to be honest.

    “Don’t worry”, she said, ‘just take them home and put them up on a wall somewhere where you’ll see them.”

    So I did and nothing much happened for days and weeks and then one day I realised. Oh, god, that picture doesn’t really illustrate y, but is clearly an illustration of x.

    Bear in mind that it was me who had drawn the pictures and yet it was only by looking at them occasionally over time that I suddenly saw something completely different in them and understood something that had happened to me in a completely different light.

    Pictures are great, but that doesn’t mean I think workers should be forced to slavishly produce them to satisfy the needs of a software development cult. Sorry, I felt I should get back to my usual self before this got out of hand 😉

  5. Maida says:

    Don’t get creeped out (something a creeper would probably say), but this is my second comment on your blog in a day. What you are doing is freaken awesome! You make it seem practicle and so I just had to leave you a comment because I am off to do my little drawing right now 😉

  6. Caroline says:

    I read this post over a year ago when I decided to take the plunge and make a drastic life change. I used this method and it helped me so much to organize my thoughts and make it happen! Thanks! :p

What do you think of this map idea?

Click to see allowed HTML.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> <ol> <ul> <li>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.