breaking trail

Words and photos by Karly Siroky, Columnist
(1,050 words)

I taped it to my MacBook. Over the past year, only two mantras have claimed this choice piece of real estate: Defeat resistance, and now, Break trail.

Every day when I get to the office, I see these words.

Breaking trail is an inextricable component of creative work. There is nothing more motivating than a group of people who depend on you—clients, contractors, customers. For some of you, perhaps that group is your family. Perhaps it is your community. Whoever it may be, they look to you to be their leader. They look to you to be their guide.

Right now, I am breaking trail for Karma.

As a business owner, I carry numerous responsibilities: I assume the risk, I assume liability, and I handle the tough conversations with our clients. I am also grateful to be tasked with many rewarding challenges: building a vibrant company culture, cultivating a supportive and nurturing work environment, captaining our vision and mission and providing meaningful work.

Most of all, I am tasked with creating a sense of belonging—a place where each person feels that her voice is heard and valued. A place where we all feel that we are part of something bigger.

After returning from ten weeks abroad, I was relieved to find that our studio had not crashed and burned in my absence. Thanks to our dedicated and attentive team, our clients were happy, our projects completed on schedule, our bills paid on time. However, there was one task which I had foolishly overlooked, and therefore neglected to assign: maintaining our pipeline.

We needed to secure new projects, and we needed them yesterday.

I began to panic.

Fear, shame, paralysis—symptoms any freelancer or entrepreneur knows all too well. Our mind races to worst-case scenarios. We kick ourselves for being careless. We worship the dark arts of self-deprecation and self-loathing. Worst of all, we assume that we are alone in this struggle.

Truth is, we’ve all been there, and will be there again. No matter how perfect our systems, we will never be fully immune.

Creative work is ebb and flow, feast or famine—always has been, always will be.

That is why we must remain vigilant and proactive. That is also why we must be patient, graceful and forgiving—with ourselves and with others.

In this moment, however, I felt far from grace. I needed a rally cry, a mantra I could repeat to myself over and over, as many times as necessary till I found shelter for myself and my team.

I needed to break trail.

It is always more difficult to create something where there is nothing. To carve your way through unmarked and uncharted wilderness takes momentum and inertia.

In my opinion, there is no discernible difference between changing habits and moving mountains. Whether persuading investors to dig into their pockets, creating demand for a product people don’t know they need, or launching a business, changing patterns can take as long to unravel as it did to weave them.

I have witnessed this truism time and again with our clients: the ones who are most successful are the ones who put forth the most effort. It’s that simple—sweat equity. Hard work is underrated, and unless you get lucky, success is in direct proportion to effort. The more you put into something, the more you get out of it.

That being said, there are always exceptions to the rule. Perhaps you put everything you had into something, and it still didn’t work—the market was oversaturated, someone else scooped your idea, or a rogue asteroid demolished your factory. Whatever the reason, it just wasn’t your time.

A storm came in, and you lost the trail.

Even if all of our systems are functioning flawlessly—human resources, cashflow, distribution—it can still fail. And that’s okay. It’s not your fault. No matter how brilliant the marketing campaign, sometimes it just wasn’t meant to be. Yet, till that day comes, we must press on. We must continue to fight for what we believe to be true and right.

Often a solitary endeavor, breaking trail is much, much more powerful when you break trail with, and for, others. I have a team now, you see. A group of women who follow in my bootpack. We are a peloton—taking turns at the front, rotating in to conserve the energy of the whole. Each person’s role is as important as the others: managing projects, writing estimates, and maintaining client relationships.

I realize now that if the sky were to fall, I would not fall with it. I would be caught by the net that we have woven. I would find the trail that we have plowed. I am no longer an icebreaker in a sea of white. I am buoyed by the women who came before me, and who will come afterward.

When I need a mental picture of breaking trail, I conjure this memory.

I can see it like it was yesterday.

The snowfall was increasing. We’d been hiking for hours, making our way toward the promise of shelter on a hut-to-hut trail system. We’d been hit by a veritable blizzard, and there was no denying it—the sky was getting darker by the minute.

We reached a ridgeline, frigid sheets of spindrift slapping our faces. It felt as though a concrete block were strapped to each foot, our snowshoes scooping pounds of powder with each step. The snow was waist-deep in places, visibility reduced to less than a hundred feet.

She broke trail with a baby strapped to her chest. We’d pedaled our way across the Pacific Northwest together. I had followed, and would follow her, just about anywhere.

Matching her footsteps, I lowered my head against the gale. Looking up, I realized she was gone. The adrenaline had kicked in, she’d left me in the dust to seek shelter for her baby.

Never underestimate a mother’s strength.

I pressed on, following the trail she’d blazed through the endless white. Finally, dark shapes emerged, a roofline contrasted against the snow. I burst through the door, and the yellow warmth of the cabin encircled me. I found her there, kneeling by the woodstove, smiling and laughing, skin-to-skin with her child.

She’d led the way for all of us.

Karly Siroky is the founder of Karma, a brand strategy and visual design studio that helps nonprofits, small businesses and altruistic organizations place people and planet over profit. She and her team believe that good goes around. In 2013, Karly traded her corporate cubicle for the open road and remote wilderness. Her column offers a heartfelt look into life as a digital nomad, entrepreneur and servant leader of a creative team. Karly also serves as Lucia's design advisor, helping craft, guide and nurture our visual identity.