Apotheosis episode 43: Many roads to Santiago. Hand-drawn illustration of a pilgrim silhouette hiking up a hill overlaid with a scallop shell, with other pilgrims in silhouette further along.

Episode 43: Many roads to Santiago

Ryan D Thompson Decision-making, Skills

Key ideas

Even if the destination is clear, there are many roads to get there. Nobody knows the “perfect” path. We must decide the route based on our unique conditions and companions on the journey.

  • Every year, thousands of people from around the world travel to Spain to take the Camino de Santiago — the Way of St. James. While the destination is the same, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, there are countless routes to get there.
  • Even with a map, nobody knows the “best” way to get to Santiago. Based on the hundreds of little decisions they make each day, everyone will have a vastly different Camino. 
  • Many pilgrims on the Camino describe the experience as a metaphor for life. You never know who you’re going to meet, what setbacks you will experience, and what lessons you might learn along the way. 
  • Some of the many insights we might gain from the Camino include walking with humility, being adaptable, and being willing to take a leap of faith. But you’ll never know what your experience will be until you set out on the journey.


For over 1,000 years, pilgrims have traveled the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. The Way of St. James, as it’s called in English, is not an easy undertaking. It’s filled with pain, suffering, fear, setbacks, excruciating blisters, and smelly travelers. But the journey is also a source of joy, laughter, camaraderie, and profound personal growth. The trail includes an impressive range of landscapes, from gorgeous natural vistas in mountain ranges and vineyards to stifling industrial corridors along busy roads and construction. The entirety of that experience, both the good and bad, attracts thousands of people from around the world to embark on the Camino every year.

People take the Camino for various reasons. Some go for their religious beliefs, which, of course, was the traditional purpose of the pilgrimage. Many pilgrims are dealing with trauma, like losing a loved one or going through a divorce. Or they might be going through some other life transition, like changing careers or moving to a new city. Some need to escape it all to get their head straight. And yet others simply want some adventure. 

One thing that’s the same is the destination. 

There’s a saying among pilgrims that all roads lead to Santiago – an idea embodied in the symbol of the Camino, the scallop shell. Historically, there have been dozens of routes across Europe, some widely traveled today and others more obscure. While all these routes share the same destination, the path to get there – and the experience pilgrims will have – will be wildly different.

This episode kicks off a series on decision-making. Many pilgrims describe the Camino de Santiago as a metaphor for their own lives – and how their choices impact the quality of their path in life. Decisions one makes at each point on the road will shape the possibilities further down the line. For this and many other reasons, the Camino provides some powerful lessons for life and leadership.

One of the first decisions a pilgrim must make is where to begin the journey. For many, the starting point is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees mountains, just across the border with Spain. There begins the Camino Francés, or the French Way, roughly 500 miles from Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwest Spain. But there are also many other routes and starting points at various distances and directions from Santiago.

Pilgrims must also choose to take the Camino on foot, horseback, or bike. Many carry guidebooks, some hire guides, and others go where the wind takes them. Most will stay in albergues, simple pilgrim hostels found in nearly every village, town, and city along the way. Some opt for the comfort of private hotels. A smaller segment might sleep on the hard ground under the stars.

Once on the Camino, a pilgrim’s day is filled with countless decision points, both major and minor. 

After a long day’s walk, do you stay in this village or join a crew of pilgrims to carry on to the next one? If you carry on, you might cover more ground and bond with some new people… but there might not be beds in the next village. Then you’re either sleeping in a field or forced to carry on for another few hours, walking into the night.

Even if you take the French Way, the most well-traveled and reasonably predictable route, you will reach many forks in the road – both literal and figurative. Which direction will you take? 

Each of these decisions ultimately changes your path — and your experience of the journey. Some decisions will lead you to greater comfort or enjoyment, while others might lead you toward pain and setback. Sometimes, you might find that pain and difficulty are precisely what you need. Growth is likely impossible without discomfort.

Pilgrimage is both a physical and a symbolic journey. Setting out to walk hundreds of miles for days, weeks, or even months requires a dramatic shift in mindset: a willingness to endure hardship, an openness to uncertainty, and a willingness to adapt to constantly shifting conditions. In the process, pilgrims often gain deep insight into how to live better. 

One key difference is that the Camino has a map. There is a straight line, so to speak, from your starting point to the final destination.

Whereas in life and work, and especially in the kinds of complex challenges we may face as leaders, there is rarely a well-marked path. Your desired destination or vision might be reasonably well-defined. You might want to reduce poverty in your country or community. Or work to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. Your mission might be racial justice, gender equality, or economic empowerment. However successful any program or approach has been in the past for any of these areas, the future is never clear. Nobody can ever say for sure which route will be the best.

In life and leadership, we often face complex problems that don’t have a map or pre-charted path. We will face storms and setbacks, forks in the road, and sometimes difficult companions.

Like the Camino, our decisions at each step will inform the quality of our experience and the likelihood of reaching our destinations. Of the many lessons for leadership the Camino offers, here are three that stand out for me.

First, we must walk with humility. No one knows the perfect way forward. Nobody. Many roads lead to Santiago; likewise, there will always be many ways to achieve our goals. Some might be faster than others – like taking a bike or a horse instead of walking – but faster isn’t always better. You might miss many valuable things along the way. And every situation is unique. While a program worked in one region, it doesn’t mean the exact program can be replicated elsewhere. We always need to approach our path with an open mind. We should spend time understanding the landscape in front of us rather than merely looking down at a map.

Second, we must be adaptable. Life on the best days is uncertain. The complexity of the modern world is bewildering in its unpredictability. We never know what is around the next bend in the road. We never know what storms might arise to derail our progress. Circumstances are constantly changing. As they say in the military, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” We must be prepared to adapt our approaches.

Finally, related to humility and adaptability, we must know when to take a leap of faith. It’s important to gather information and make robust strategies. But sometimes, we have imperfect information. We have to go with the best available knowledge and just go for it. Set off on your journey. Trust in your training and skills. Take the leap and learn as you go. 

Alright, that’s all for this episode. I hope these lessons from the Camino de Santiago help you on your own journey as you navigate the many twists and turns in front of you. The rest of this series will explore various perspectives from ancient wisdom and modern knowledge that can inform how we approach decision-making. 

Join me again next time for some insights from evolutionary psychology on some of the tools we have evolved to guide our decisions. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License