Whenever I go hiking with my parents on Black Cap Mountain in New Hampshire, they point out the colored blazes on the trail, which remind us where we are and whether we are on the right path. I recently learned that the literal term “trail blazing” refers to the process of marking a path with blazes to create a clear path for the next person. The metaphorical term “trail blazing,” which refers to a person or organization forging ahead before others, is what we hear more often. I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for what it’s like to try to forge a new path for yourself. First you’re lost in the woods, then you finally find a path, then you mark it with blazes for others so that their path is easier. The early abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement a hundred years later, and the early feminists marked a path so that women could be taken seriously in their careers a generation later.
We have this idea, however, that trail blazers know the trail ahead of time, even though they are, in essence, forging ahead through a thick forest with no path that they can see. They just have to keep walking forward, and sometimes backwards and sometimes perhaps in circles to find their way to the other side. The trail blazers who came before us didn’t have brightly colored blazes to follow, and yet today when we’re trying to create our own path, we think we have to have it figured out before we start. If we don’t have a clear map or trail, why bother? The reality is that nothing great is accomplished without a series of failures, attempts at a trail that end up nowhere. The difference between someone who succeeds and someone who doesn’t is often the ability to persist no matter what.
Whenever my kids have a setback, I tell them about all the failures and setbacks that Abraham Lincoln experienced in his lifetime. In 1832, at age 23, he lost a job. The following year he failed at his business. Two years later his fiancee died. A year later he had a nervous breakdown. It wasn’t for ten more years that he was elected to Congress, only to lose the nomination two years later, and be defeated for the Senate six years later. He was then defeated for the Vice Presidential nomination two years later, then defeated for Senate two years later in 1958, when he was almost 50. Then he became President two years later, a product of part-luck and part-timing. I believe that it was only when he was forced to contend with the Civil War, that the country was able to see his true greatness.
I’ve heard often the phrase, “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” but I think it’s unrealistic and harmful to let people think that the perfect path is an easy path clear with blazes. I prefer asking, “What is the thing that you must do before you die no matter what?” That’s the thing you need to do, even if you’re lost in the woods with no sign of a path, even if you look silly, even if your friends think you’ve lost your head. That’s what you need to do.
Remember as you forge a trail, there is no clear path to start, just woods at first. But if you keep walking forward, eventually a path will appear by your movements and by your forward motion. You will get clues along the way as to whether you’re on the right path, but there won’t be blazes set for you until you have found the way. The blazes are to show that you were there and to light a path for the next person. This week look for clues as to what moves you, makes you happy, and what fills you with excitement and joy. Those clues will help you know where to step next.