Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Breadcrumb Theory

KB walks up and starts thanking me for his latest epiphany. Apparently, words we exchanged five years ago were the seed, but he didn’t “get it” until now. What were those words we exchanged five years ago?

Well, KB had recently suffered a setback and wasn’t sure how to deal with it. He felt alone in his misery and was down on himself for what had happened. Senior graduate students who hadn’t suffered such a setback were offering him advice, and it wasn’t helping. My advice was different, and it wasn’t even advice. I just told him that I had gone through exactly what he was experiencing at that moment, had been upset about it for about a week, and then got over it.

KB tells me those words helped him out because he used to think that he was the only one struggling, and the people ahead of him had never had to overcome a similar hurdle to the one he was facing then. I just smile in response because he has reminded me why I had told him what I did in the first place: a senior graduate student had done the same for me when I was in KB’s situation, and it led me to the same epiphany.

This epiphany was liberating. I no longer felt my problems were special, which made me feel less alone with them. Those around me were struggling: perhaps not all with the same problems, and some might be reluctant to admit it, but they were struggling nonetheless. This applied not only to my peers, but also to those more experienced, including faculty, to whom the myopia of my present situation had fooled me into believing had always been infallible when it came to their disciplines. Why hadn’t I seen it before?

The answer comes down to something I like to call Breadcrumb Theory because it plays off of the Hansel and Gretel story and because adding “theory” to the end of a name makes it sound more profound. The idea behind Breadcrumb Theory is that there was a time when anyone who achieved mastery over a particular concept knew nothing about it. For some, the path to mastery was short, but for others, the path was a little longer. Unfortunately, the path one takes becomes fuzzy after the breadcrumbs marking it are gone.

Even those who took a certain path may not remember it. It’s why faculty or teaching assistants can sometimes be unsure of what their students understand or how best to explain it. It’s also why some simultaneously feel compelled to cover certain points and that they are insulting their students’ intelligence by doing so: concepts they had once found difficult are now just obvious.

I continue to apply Breadcrumb Theory, both to my professional and personal interests. It’s redoubled my patience, especially when the path I am on seems to be the long one.


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