Following Breadcrumbs: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do.
Choosing a path
Six years ago, I was feeling very stuck. I was working as the manager of a chocolate store, having graduated from university with a degree in theater two years before. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I did know that I didn’t want to work in a chocolate store — or in retail, period — for the rest of my life.
I decided to give myself a year to figure it out. I promised myself that I would hand in my notice on a certain day the following year, and in the meantime I would choose the path that I wanted my life to follow. Months went by, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. My quitting date was in April, and in December I started to panic.
I had only four months left to not only find a new job, but to decide on a career, on a life path. I was completely overwhelmed. One night, I was having dinner with my roommate and we were talking about our plans, or lack thereof. I blurted out that I couldn’t think of a single job that I wanted to do and wished I could spend a year traveling instead.
The moment I said it, I realized that that was what I would do. It wasn’t something I had thought about doing before, but it resonated so strongly with me that I immediately started making plans. I had recently started weaving, and was enamored with different weaving styles around the world. I decided that I would go to South America for a year to learn traditional weaving techniques.
I started researching and learning Spanish.
This was the beginning of a journey, not only to another continent, but also toward a new way of making plans and deciding the path my life would take. I call it following breadcrumbs. Like Hansel and Gretel in the woods trying to find their way home, I learned that I don’t need to see my whole path laid out before me. I just need to see where the next breadcrumb is. And then the next, and then the next.
I learned that each small decision we make is part of our story, our adventure, and the collection of experiences that we call a life.
Joseph Campbell said, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.” Over the next year, I allowed myself to discover my own path tiny piece by tiny piece, breadcrumb by breadcrumb.
Finding my way
I knew that I wanted to learn to weave, but my research beforehand hadn’t turned up any tangible leads on exactly where I should go or whom I should talk to. I knew that the types of weaving I wanted to do were centered around the Andes in Peru and Bolivia. And I had a friend in Peru, someone who had stayed at my house in Edmonton the year before. So I went there.
I spent some time with my friend in the jungles where she studies monkeys, then I went to a Yoga retreat near the coast to get over my culture shock and clear my head before setting off on my own. There I met a woman who knew a woman who worked for a non-profit that helped indigenous women sell their weaving. I had my first crumb.
I contacted this woman, and through her, was able to book a one-week homestay with a family in a tiny town called Patacancha, high in the Andes. A few weeks — and many adventures — later I arrived in the village, excited and terrified to begin my quest.
I ended up staying for two weeks, and in that time I learned how to herd sheep, make potato soup, say a few words in Quechua, the local language, and how to weave a strip of fabric, using materials that I could find around my house or at the hardware store. I could have gone home happy at that point, but my flight back to Canada wasn’t for another six months, so I pressed on.
I was trying to decide where to go next when I got a message from someone I had met at the Yoga retreat in Peru. She was in Buenos Aires, and she wanted me to join her. My birthday was coming up soon, and I had friends and other connections in Argentina. It sounded like the perfect way to celebrate, so I hopped on a bus and spent three days traveling from Cusco to Buenos Aires, with more adventures along the way.
I celebrated an amazing birthday, spent a few more weeks enjoying the city, then got back on the trail, looking for more crumbs.
In Buenos Aires, I had met a fiber artist who told me that she had learned her techniques in Northern Argentina, so I got on another bus and eventually landed in the home of a man who owned a weaving shop, and whose wife was willing to teach me her secrets.
I stayed there for almost two months, working in a restaurant, teaching English, helping in the shop, and learning to make enormous textiles like rugs and ponchos. It was amazing, but I kept having dreams that I had gone home without ever seeing Bolivia. When I lost my restaurant job and my English students stopped coming, I knew it was time to seek out another crumb, this time in Bolivia.
I tried one city without any luck before I finally landed in Sucre, which turned out to be the center of weaving in Bolivia.
I was exploring the city shortly after my arrival when I saw a store selling fair-trade local woven goods. I walked in and asked the German behind the counter if he knew where I could go to learn some weaving. He looked over at a woman wearing a traditional outfit and said, “She can probably teach you.”
I spent one of the most rewarding months of my trip sitting on the floor of the shop for hours each day, learning incredibly intricate weavings, while Quechua-speaking women, who had come to sell their work, gathered behind me and giggled.
In the afternoons, I volunteered with an organization that helped street children earn an income, and through that met someone who knew someone who lived out in the country and was also willing to teach me. And that was how I found my fourth and final teacher, one of the most talented weavers in Bolivia, who taught me the most beautiful work yet.
I returned home after 10 months with a backpack full of weaving, a mind full of knowledge, and a heart full of new friends and experiences. And the best part was, I had an idea about what I wanted to do next: I was going to start working on my lifelong dream of being an artist. All because I took a chance and followed a trail of breadcrumbs.
So if you’re faced with a big decision and you don’t know what direction to go, don’t worry, you don’t need to have it all figured out right now. Just look around. What breadcrumbs do you see? Start picking them up, piece by piece by piece. You never know where they might lead.
Stephanie Medford is an artist, writer, and traveler, and her mission is to help people who have lost touch with their creativity find their way back to their creative selves. When she’s not creating papier–mâché sculptures of human organs, she blogs about creativity and her own creative adventures at Everyday Artistry, and she teaches workshops in printmaking, mindfulness and mixed media.