Joseph Campbell’s concept of a Hero’s Journey from the book “Hero With a Thousand Faces” caught my eye. Defining a hero as “someone who found, or achieved, or did something beyond the normal range of achievement, and who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself”, he shows examples of individuals (both real and mythical) who undergo the hero’s journey. The result? A similar, repeatable pattern. Regardless of what you pursue, the Hero’s Journey appears to be a very interesting way to take a step back to see the bigger picture of what you might expect out of your journey. Personally, I’ve seen this pattern occur in cycles in different stages of my life, each with different obstacles to overcome. Now that I look at it from a higher perspective, I can see that there is in fact a pattern to it all.
Another heartening takeaway from the book is the fact that heroes didn’t begin as heroes. They became heroes from the circumstances they faced and inevitably had to overcome. Don’t think you’re capable of achieving great things? That’s fine- you’ll get there. Just take the first step.
With that in mind, let’s break down the Hero’s Journey based on Ray Dalio’s interpretation of the Hero’s Journey in his book, “Principles“.
Call to Adventure
The Hero’s Journey begins in the ordinary world we all live in. At some point, the hero is drawn to a “call to adventure”, or a calling of some sort. Sometimes, this call to adventure starts as a gentle pull or a minor attraction of sorts. At first, I certainly wasn’t in love with wrestling. Various factors drew me in, but that’s a story for another time. Eventually, I caught the wrestling bug and got addicted. I couldn’t watch or learn enough wrestling at any given time (to be fair, I still have this tendency and have to suppress it in order to get productive with other endeavors. It’s torture, man).
To others, the call to adventure is like love at first sight. Ioannis “Hermes” Melissanidis supposedly saw gymnastics for the first time on TV, and immediately knew that this was what he wanted to do. He had found his call to adventure. Initially, coming from a family that consisted mostly of doctors, his family wanted nothing to do with it, and refused his request to arrange a trainer to study gymnastics and compete for Greece on the Olympic team. “Absolutely not!” they said. So, what happened next?
Crossing the Threshold and The Road of Trials
At this point, life ceases to be ordinary. You embark on your Hero’s Journey. Along the way, you fight your battles, resist temptations, experience success, and overcome failure. On this journey, you’ll mostly likely receive help from other, more experienced people in the form of advice or mentorship. You gain allies and enemies along the way. Most importantly, you learn how to fight, often against conventional opinions or “wisdom”. You overcome your fear of fighting because of the sheer, incredible determination to achieve what you want, and gain skills from your battles or tests along with gifts (in the form of advice or anything else) from others.
With determination that is unusual of most children (and certainly adults), eight-year-old Hermes went on a hunger strike for several days (if you’d like to read this brief story, search for the heading “The Daimon in Action”). He refused to eat until his parents agreed to discuss the issue, and they eventually came to a compromise. Hermes finally got what he wanted- permission to study gymnastics full time. His parents would support it logistically and financially (after all, they were doctors and doctors can afford this sort of thing). In return, Hermes promised that he would also become a doctor, and so continued his Hero’s Journey.
In case you were curious as to how that particular journey ended, Hermes graduated from medical school and won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
At some point, as the hero, you experience at least one massive big failure that tests whether you have the resilience to rise again with more wisdom and determination. If you do, and I’d be lying to you if this were easy, you’ll undergo a significant change (Joseph Campbell refers to this as a “metamorphosis”) where you experience the same fear, but propel yourself through that fear with enough determination to stay on the path and keep moving forward.
In my particular case with my high school wrestling career, this abyss was my first ever summer training with the Thai national team, where I got my ass kicked for the most part. To make matters worse, I sprained my ankle on the second day of camp, which was the first time I ever missed wrestling training due to an injury. My ankle continued to heal for two weeks, but I could no longer stand the idea of missing practice so I returned to training somewhat prematurely (for what it’s worth, I knew that I’d have a full month to rest between training camp and school, so I decided to make the most of my training). As for the metamorphosis, I returned to school completely changed in mind, body, and spirit (according to a few friends and mentors). Training camp had truly changed my life, and I would never be the same person after that.
The Ultimate Boon, Crossing Back Into Ordinary Life, and Returning the Boon
Joseph Campbell calls the hero’s biggest reward “the boon”, which is the special knowledge about how to succeed that the hero has earned through his journey. Eventually winning more battles and acquiring more rewards becomes less exciting to heroes than passing along that knowledge to others, or “returning the boon”. Once the boon is returned, the cycle continues and you move into the next phase of your life.
You’ll see this extremely often in combat sports. Marcelo Garcia, one of the greatest of all time in Jiu-Jitsu, runs a gym in New York City to pass on his knowledge. After Dan Gable‘s historic run to Freestyle Wrestling gold in the 1972 Olympics where he didn’t give up a single point (with a torn ligament in his knee), he went on to coach at the University of Iowa, which became one of the most successful and dominant wrestling programs in the United States. American Judo legend Jimmy Pedro became one of the most sought-after judo instructors in the United States, coaching some of the best judokas in American history, including multiple-time Olympian and medalist Travis Stevens along with two-time Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison.
At this point, the cycle of the journey repeats. Maybe you undergo the Hero’s Journey as a coach, or your call to adventure pulls you in another direction entirely like business or acting. Regardless of the next steps, here are some key takeaways from the Hero’s Journey.
First, the Hero’s Journey seems to manifest itself in different ways. The beauty of this idea is that it can take the form of small projects or massive undertakings. Regardless of similarity in structure, each journey is ultimately unique and truly your own.
Second, achieving the extraordinary is not a linear process. You will experience lows along with the highs. You’ll end up with enemies along with friends. More importantly, you’ll experience some of the most profound changes in your life, and perhaps the most rewarding. You’ll experience the paradox of seemingly discovering yourself while reinventing yourself at the same time.
Finally, if you’re currently going through the Hero’s Journey, you may feel lonely at times. Maybe you feel as if nobody understands you. If this is the case, remind yourself that you are not alone. Throughout history, people have felt the same thing that you feel right now and have overcome it on the way to achieving incredible goals. Now that you no longer live in the ordinary world, you will feel isolated at times, and that’s okay. You have the choice of turning back, but something tells me that you won’t. That something is the compelling inner voice that you are finally listening to, and it reminds you of three truths:
- On the other side of that dark tunnel is light, and there you will find what you are looking for.
- Throughout the journey, you become increasingly capable of reaching the light at the end of that dark tunnel.
- The ultimate boon waiting for you at the end of the tunnel is worth cherishing and more importantly, worth sharing.
To achieve extraordinary goals, you must surpass extraordinary obstacles.
How far are you along your own hero’s journey?