I've been known to geek out on some pretty odd topics. And sociology is one of my geekiest. It was my major in college. The subject resonated deeply for me, pinging my unexplainable need to understand culture and its impact in both small and large ways. Despite my love for the subject, I did not become a professional sociologist. However, it did add a whole lot of color to my career. Sociology is the thread binding together all the twists and turns of my nearly 30 years of professional life.
One of my sociology heroes is Joseph Campbell. Mythology is his gig, and he's best known for his treatise on the "Hero's Journey" as told in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I had tucked his concepts away in the recesses of my mind's archaic filing system until I read Brené Brown's Daring Greatly and Rising Strong in 2015. Brené brought it all back for me with her visceral description of the wholehearted hero preparing to enter the arena's door, a battle ready to ensue.
The funny thing is that we all know the Hero's Journey. It's everywhere in great storytelling. You can't watch a Disney movie without the hero's journey at its core. It's the classic storyline.
Campbell breaks the Hero’s Journey down into three acts.Here's my take on his concept:
Act 1: Departure
Our Hero is living a normal, ordinary life with no desire for adventure. But then something to overcome is presented to her. But she's afraid and says "no" to the call to adventure. Then a Mentor appears offering advice and guidance that prepares our Hero for the journey. Finally, she accepts the call and embarks on the journey, leaving her ordinary world behind.
Act 2: Initiation
Our Hero must first learn the rules of her adventure and endures test after test of her strength. She meets both foes and friends along the way as she experiences inevitable setbacks that dash her hopes. But rather than accepting defeat, she tries a new approach. Then a major life or death crisis threatens to crush her providing the final major hurdle for our Hero to overcome. She is rewarded for accomplishing her goal and surviving in the arena.
Act 3: Return
Our hero, now having won the big battle, begins the journey back to her ordinary life. But, just when she thinks all is smooth sailing, she must face one final test where she must use everything she learned in the journey. Finally, our Hero brings knowledge (a.k.a. the elixir) back to the ordinary world, where she applies it to help all who remain there.
And she lives happily ever after!
That story sounds familiar doesn’t it? I have a hunch you can come up with one or two movies or books that follow this plot line. If you can't, please rent Disney's animated feature Hercules. It follows this plot line pretty closely.
We never get tired of this story. Why?
Because this is our life.
It's not just in the movies or storybooks.
Going Through Change
As I have learned from my teacher, Martha Beck, the Hero's Journey is a key part of the Change Cycle—a four-part cyclical course driving the transformations in our lives. The Hero's Journey (aka Square Three) is part of her cycle where we move our dreams and schemes into action with much difficulty. She notes in her book, Finding Your Own North Star,
“There are a trillion and one ways for things to go awry as you make your way through your own heroic saga, and you’ll feel as though you’re experiencing all of them. This doesn’t mean that your dreams are misguided, or that they won’t come true. It just means you’ll have to modify the scheme you created in Square Two [Dreaming and Scheming]—possibly several times. That’s the nature of the hero’s saga, and knowing what to expect makes it slightly more bearable.”
I find myself in the later half of Square Three these days. And through this process, I’ve had more than my fair share of face down moments as I put my dreams and schemes to work—you know the kind that taste of dirt and blood and leave you soaked to the bone in sweat.
In these moments, I’m thankful for Brené’s reminders that it's the showing up that matters. What counts is my willingness to get in the arena and stand before all my perceived critics without backing down. It’s my ability to forge ahead knowing that I’m on the right path, even when things feel uncertain. And yes, there will be monsters from the deep lagoon, sirens luring me off the path, and three-headed dogs drooling down my back. It will feel like there are more moments of defeat than victory until finally all that’s left is to step into my “Promised Land.” I will have proven myself as the worthy warrior who has learned a great lesson and is ready to bring it back for all to share.
Thoughts to Noodle On and Share
What Act of The Hero’s Journey most describes your current season of life?
Can you see stages of The Hero’s Journey in your past? How does reframing challenging trials from your past as necessary parts in the journey help you?
What stories or movies resonate with you? How do you see them in a new light in the context of The Hero’s Journey?