In his book Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell talks about the three life paths that we can take: the village, the wasteland and the journey. The village represents the life that has been mapped out for us by our society and culture: We are born, go to school, graduate, get a job, get married, have children, work until we retire, get a gold watch and finally we die. This path has a lot of security and safety, and doesn’t disrupt the norm or “rock the boat” very much. We do as we are expected. It is essentially the path of the ego. For many people, this is a satisfactory way to live their lives.
For others it is not so simple. For some reason, either they do not fit in (because they are the wrong color, gender, shape, sexual preference, etc.) or they feel called to something more. The village to them is, in Thoreau’s words, “a life of quiet desperation.” Rather than thrive in the village, they feel caged, suffocated or repressed. For these people, according to Campbell, there are two other possible paths.
The wasteland represents the path of the rebel, outlaw or outcast. It is a life on the fringe of society, one’s family, one’s career, etc.; beyond the edge of what is considered appropriate and normal. It is an attempt to flourish by rejecting and escaping the village (into sex, drugs, rock n’roll, etc.). While it is an attempt to find a context in which to thrive, it usually produces the opposite. It may ultimately end in something like addiction to alcohol or drugs, perhaps some kind of “criminal” activity, or maybe just a type of life of isolation or dereliction.
The other path is that of the journey. On the journey, we follow our hearts, vision and calling to find our own way and discover something new. This is the path of all great leaders, entrepreneurs and pioneers. Through the challenges and discoveries along the path we acquire courage, insight, wisdom, resiliency and greater awareness of ourselves and the world. When we return to the village we are able to make our own unique contribution to others and become recognized and acknowledged for who we really are. The journey is not always an external one. Sometimes we travel internally even as we stay within the physical context of the village. As a result of our growth, we bring new ideas and new life to the village, making it possible for more to thrive there. We may even find it possible to bring healing and transformation to the wasteland.
In the words of Apple Inc. founder and CEO Steve Jobs:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. . .
You’ve got to find what you love…The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it.
The Hero’s Journey is about taking this third path; the journey to find how to thrive by developing the skills to discover and travel your own path and live your own life as the best version of yourself.
The Phases of the Hero’s Journey
Managing the process of personal growth and meaningful life change can be likened to what Joseph Campbell called the “Hero’s Journey” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, 1949). Campbell searched for the connections in the myths and stories of change that go across cultural boundaries. He examined stories of heroes, historical and mythical, spanning all ages, cultures, religions and genders.
Campbell discovered that certain themes are repeated in many cultures and appear to be deeper threads connecting all of humanity, reflecting the overall path that we take from birth to death regardless of our individual circumstances. Just as we are born the same and die the same, there are other deep patterns held in the collective memory of our species.
Campbell described the commonalities of our overall life paths in terms of the steps of the “Hero’s Journey”—the sequence of events that seem to be shared in the epic myths and stories of every culture. Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey provides a powerful road map for dealing with the challenges of change, especially change at the identity level.
According to Campbell, the fundamental steps of the hero’s journey include:
1. Hearing a calling (a “call to action” or “call to adventure”) that relates to our identity, life purpose or mission. These callings can come in many forms and frequently represent transition points in our lives. Becoming a parent, changing jobs, recovering from a serious illness, producing a creative work, entering a new stage of life, etc., all represent different types of callings. Such callings generally arise as a result of life’s changing circumstances and are typically quite challenging (otherwise it would not need to be a “hero’s” journey). They typically involve an expansion or evolution of our identities.
It is evident that callings come from the various fields surrounding us and they frequently have a deep archetypal character. Developing the skills of field awareness and opening to the Generative Field is key in being able to clearly receive and be guided by one’s calling.
2. Committing to the calling leads us to confront a boundary or threshold in our existing abilities or map of the world. We can choose to either accept or try to ignore the calling. Attempting to refuse or disregard the calling, however, frequently leads to the formation or intensification of problems or symptoms in our lives, precipitating crises that we cannot ignore.
Committing to a calling involves being able to receive it into your center and maintain a felt sense of connection to both yourself and the larger field around you.
3. Crossing the threshold propels us into some new heretofore unknown life “territory” outside of our current comfort zone; a territory that forces us to grow and evolve, and requires us to find support and guidance. According to Campbell, this threshold is generally a “point of no return,” meaning that, once we are across it, we cannot go back to the way things used to be. We must move forward into the unknown.
In addition to centering and opening to the field, crossing the threshold requires sponsorship; both of our potential to be heroes and of the fears and hesitancies that arise as we face the threshold.
4. Finding guardians, mentors or sponsors is something that often comes naturally from having the courage to cross a threshold. (As it has been said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”) “Guardians” are the key relationships we develop that support us to build skills, believe in ourselves and stay focused on our objectives. Although a hero’s journey is a very personal journey, it is not something that we can do alone. We need to be open and willing to receive support.
Finding guardians also requires that we stay centered and remain open to the field. Because the territory beyond the threshold is new for us, we cannot necessarily know what type of guardianship we will need ahead of time or who those guardians will be. Sometimes guardians will come from surprising places. Thus, we must stay open and available to receiving guidance and support at every step on our journey.
5. Facing a challenge (or “demon”) is also a natural result of crossing a threshold. A demon is generally something that appears to oppose, tempt or negate us as heroes. “Demons,” however, are not necessarily evil or bad; they are simply a type of “energy” that we need to learn to contend with, accept and redirect. Often, demons are simply a reflection of one of our own inner fears and shadows (parts of ourselves that we are disconnected from and try to suppress, avoid or deny). It is here that we confront “negative sponsorship”—messages, coming from either inside of us or from significant others, that imply, “You should not be here,” “You do not deserve to exist,” “You are incapable,” “You will never be good enough,” “You are unwelcome,” etc.
Clearly, facing demons and shadows requires the resources of centering, sponsorship and connection to the larger Field.
6. Developing new resources is necessary in order to deal with uncertainty and transform the “demon.” A hero’s journey is ultimately a path of learning and self-evolution. The resources that help us to cross the threshold into new territory and transform the demon are the beliefs, capabilities, behavioral skills and tools we are able to put into action in order to deal with complexity, uncertainty and resistance. This is the area where we ourselves must grow in order to develop the flexibility and increased competence necessary to successfully navigate new territory (internal and external) and overcome the obstacles that arise along the way.
The resources necessary to successfully complete a hero’s journey include increased self-awareness, the ability to access, integrate and balance key “archetypal energies”—such as strength, softness and playfulness— and ultimately lead to an evolution of our consciousness. This evolution involves an expansion of ourselves in a way that includes yet transcends all of the previous dimensions of our being.
7. Completing the task for which we have been called, and finding the way to fulfill the calling is ultimately achieved by creating a new map of the world that incorporates the growth and discoveries brought about by the journey.
8. Returning home as a transformed person, and sharing with others the knowledge and experience gained as a result of the journey. It is also important that you be seen and acknowledged as your new identity. This is necessary in order to complete the cycle of personal transformation.
Sometimes the return home is also a very challenging part of the journey. In fact, according to Campbell there are frequently obstacles and sometimes a refusal to the return as well; which often involves crossing another type of threshold. The remarkable journey and transformation that has occurred can make it difficult to reintegrate with life and key relationships as they used to be. There can be a fear on our own part of getting stuck in our own previous “mundane” existence. And there can be desire on the part of significant others for us to stay as we were before so that they don’t have to change in response to our movement and growth. Our return can disrupt the status quo.
There is also a natural vulnerability that accompanies transitions of any type that can bring up difficult feelings and shadows. Remaining connected with our guardians and staying rooted in the new resources that we have gained on our journey are key to the success of the return home.
While the hero’s journey is clearly a metaphor, it captures a good deal of the reality facing people as they seek to build a path to a successful future and contend with the uncertainties of change. The notion of a “calling,” for instance, clearly symbolizes the vision and mission that the client, team or organization is pursuing.
The “threshold” represents the new territory, and unknown and uncertain elements that a person must confront in order to put the vision and mission into action. To achieve transformation and awakening, our mental maps of who we are and what is possible in the world must become broader, and we must perceive old limitations in a completely new way. This requires that we break through our old mindset and “get outside of the box,” learning at the level of what anthropologist Gregory Bateson called Learning IV—the creation of something “completely new.” When this happens, there is a breakdown of current structure that is in place and has become overly rigid. This breakdown or breakthrough occurs when we cross the threshold. It frequently causes a regression to a more primitive and unstructured state which brings us into more direct contact with both our shadows and also and our “superposition” (the full range of potential that we have as an individual). Our superposition will contain resources that have not previously been recognized or utilized. If we are able to stay centered in ourselves and connected to a larger field of awareness that holds all of these expressions, we can achieve a generative state of expansion and reorganization. Such a generative state both “transcends and includes” our previous knowledge and awareness, and is a key part of the Hero’s Journey.
The symbol of the “demon” reflects the challenges of upheaval, competition, internal politics and other obstacles and crises that emerge from circumstances beyond our control. As pointed our earlier, what makes these external circumstances and challenges become “demons” is that they catalyze our own inner fears and shadows; the difficult feelings and parts of ourselves that we do not know how to welcome, hole and integrate. It is here that we confront “negative sponsorship”—messages, coming from either inside of us or from significant others, that imply, “You should not be here,” “You do not deserve to exist,” “You are incapable,” “You will never be good enough,” “You are unwelcome,” etc. The demon is transformed by facing and coming to terms with our own inner shadows.
The resources that help us to cross the threshold into new territory and transform our demons and shadows are the values, behavioral skills and business practices we are able to put into action in order to deal with complexity, uncertainty and resistance. This is the area where we ourselves must grow in order to develop the flexibility and increased requisite variety necessary to successfully navigate the new territory and overcome the obstacles that arise along the way.
“Guardians” are the sponsors and relationships we develop that support us to build skills, believe in ourselves and stay focused on our objectives.
It is sometimes tempting for coaches to think that the client is the victim and the coach is the “hero” who will slay the client’s demon with his or her wonderful coaching techniques. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the client is the hero and the coach is the guardian. Our job as coaches and sponsors is to help the client recognize his or her own hero’s journey and support him or her on that journey.