Joseph Campbell is the author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces and the person who is largely attributed for bringing the concept of The Hero’s Journey into popular culture. He is known for shaping storytelling, and is often seen as a key influence on the great film-makers. I also believe that the idea of the Hero’s Journey is greatly misunderstood.
“Follow your bliss” is one quote for which he is well known. His work describes the path of a ‘hero’ when through circumstance they find themselves entering an unknown world after answering a call to adventure. Through the process of engaging on this journey they are tested, the result of which is a process of transformation. Through a process of rebirth largely as a result of the people encountered, the hero has an irreversible alchemic experience.
The heroic is a romantic idea. Particularly in the West, we celebrate the triumph of the lone hero receiving the accolades of many. The traditional model for leadership takes a similar view which describes the lonely journey of the leader at the top of an hierarchical totem pole.
It is as thought we are willing the hero to be the saviour of the normal world which we inhabit. If the entertainment industry was any measure, it would be fair to assume that we are waiting to be rescued by flights into fantasy. We want our lives to be changed by the hero. And I think this is a mistake in how the hero is often perceived. The Hero’s Journey is perhaps more about what happens within the hero to share them indelibly, rather than to provide an action narrative which we as observers can celebrate. It is the hero who is the malleable canvas ready to be shaped and coloured. It is a visceral experience.
We want to observe an heroic narrative which is dramatic and spectacular. But I don’t believe this is realistic, and is the reason why I believe the Hero’s Journey is misunderstood. The difficult process of transformation is mostly mundane and banal, but at the same time intensely uncomfortable. I believe this is what makes the Hero’s Journey so difficult, because the trials are easily overlooked by people other than those intimately involved in the experience. Departing our Ordinary World involves risk that few are prepared to accept. In a similar way, few people want to talk about the discipline needed to address the boring and tedious work that is essential in enabling heroic quests to be accomplished. Heartbreaking failures that take place during this journey often occur at the loneliest and most vulnerable of times.
I am not suggesting that to understand the heroic it is necessary to fall in love with the mundane and the difficult, but without this discipline we won’t encounter the heroic. The mundane does not make for a good story. There is no gripping “what happened next?” moment with the mundane. The mundane is not interesting. It is tedious and mind-numbingly unbearable.
The Hero’s Journey is fraught with danger. There is no guarantee that the journey will succeed. The hero also has no idea of where the journey will lead. It could be a hopeless and pathetic journey of waste and loss.
Danger comes in many forms and I would argue that a moral, even existential, danger that tempts a person to succumb to mediocrity because of the absence of financial and emotional resources is the most troubling. The Hero’s Journey is actually about plumbing unknown depths into a place that cannot be visited willingly. The unglamorous journey through poverty and rejection is more than likely to be that thing that creates the hero more than the physical confrontation of danger. The difficult journeys are the ones which we find during the dark night of the soul.
I met with my friend Cynthia in New York for breakfast after I completed the 10 City Bridge Run journey. It was good to see her as I have always admired her work as a designer influencing change for those most in need of help. She has always had a kind and sympathetic ear to what I have often thought was my own clumsiness in trying to make things happen. Over breakfast she listened as I told her about what I had been through. I think I was trying to make sense of my folly more than tell a story. She sat with an intense gaze, as if astonished to see something obvious that was hidden to myself. “This is the Hero’s Journey” she uttered at one stage, unprompted.
My journey on the 10 City Bridge Run was a result of the difficulties encountered. What transpired was different from the romance that I had envisaged at the beginning. Although more difficult, it was also sweeter, more satisfying in some ways, and these often came at the lowest points. I remember well the cold splash of rain in Brooklyn on that last leg running through a wet and dark night in New York and just knowing that the journey would somehow prove worthwhile.
Self-identifying the Hero’s Journey is an act of great pretentiousness. I sense that the power of the story is lost if we lay claim to ‘the hero’s journey’. It is almost as though only the audience can observe what is happening, as was the case with Cynthia.
We want to see the hero as a lone actor, that person who has what it takes to get through the storm. But the reality is that there are no lone actors in the heroic realm. No one ever acts completely alone. The subtle influences from others shape our behaviour. The lesson here is to not underestimate the impact of your actions and words on others.
The person who sits in a log cabin alone and isolated from the world only really becomes a hero because it is in relation to how this affects or is affected by other people. There is a bridge between us and others that is of critical importance to build. This bridge might come after the hero’s death. If we are lucky, we will see a reference to our actions as heroic while we are alive. This is a human bridge with far more dimensions than simply an extension of our resources to help others. The human bridge is also that essential connection to others through which our lives are given meaning.
A radical collaboration is at the heart of the Hero’s Journey. It is not the trials that we go through, but the involvement of others that gives our journey meaning. We can’t schedule in collaboration: we can make time for it, but there is a magic, an alchemy, which comes about when others shape the adventure we are experiencing.
The concept of Backswing is about this shared journey. Backswing focuses on the central actor of the batter, but actually it is grounded in collaboration. It is a natural tendency to hold ourselves back at the wind up of backswing, and to balk at attempting to hit the ball. The responsibility to hit and not to miss can result in fear. Consequently, we want to stay in the comfortable space of All Backswing. That comfortable space is the Ordinary World of the Hero’s Journey. But the reason for Backswing is to hit the ball. It takes commitment to release the bat and follow through to hit the ball, smacking it out of the park. The authentic swing described by Steven Pressfield is effortless and feels good. But are we prepared to let go of the Ordinary World in order to find that passage to our own internal transformation?
The 9 City Bridge Run was a difficult journey that at the time seemed to me to be a colossal failure. This experience was repeated during the 10 City Bridge Run. It was only that I kept forging ahead on this epic quest that I have been able to get to this point to write this book for you.
The journey continues, unfinished. It is also an invitation to you to leave the Ordinary World, if you dare…
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is well known by many people: inside this cave, people stand chained and facing a blank wall. On the wall they can see shadows projected of things, illuminated by a fire behind them. The shadows become the only things they know, and so they name these shadows as the frightening figures in their known reality. They give form to their worst fears.
Plato uses this allegory to suggest it is the philosopher who is able to walk unchained from the cave and see these things for what they are, and in doing so make sense of reality.
Perhaps Joseph Campbell was suggesting that Plato didn’t go far enough by suggesting that the true Hero must venture further in their epic quest to find the rewards of reality. Campbell suggested that people must re-enter the cave, but not that same cave they once came from, not the cave of bondage.
Here is how Campbell is quoted:
The cave we fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
So let me ask you, where are you on this line between the two caves? Chained and frightened into submission of what society would have you think, free and exploring the reality of this wonderful world around us, or perhaps avoiding your quest to enter the cave which holds the treasure you seek?
Decide to be bold today. Now is the time to take that epic journey. Don’t hesitate a moment longer.
My first visit to Papua New Guinea was life-changing. I was taken to villages on islands that were a million miles from where I existed, and found people that lived lives of contentment but without the trappings of infrastructure that we take for granted. I’m not taking a romantic view here, and appreciate that their existence is also not without problems.
Have you been there before? Not necessarily to Papua New Guinea, but somewhere where you were taken out of the Ordinary World. It changes you. That is the great thing about travel.
Being taken out of the Ordinary World happens in darker times too, when you don’t actually leave the familiar surroundings of home, but when events conspire to wreck and ruin your world. You leave and return to the Ordinary World you once knew. And again you are changed. Hopefully for the better, but not always. There can be pain and loss involved. Being changed means that things are not the same as they were before.
It is in this experience that we find the Hero’s Journey that was defined best by Joseph Campbell. You have to both leave and return to the Ordinary World to complete The Hero’s Journey. This post is about returning.
It is now more than 10 days since my last post here. A long time. Why the delay?
I’ve come to realise that I am on the return from the Hero’s Journey. The return doesn’t happen when you clear customs at the airport. It is more intrusive than that. And I think that accounts for the delay.
Partly, it was because I spent some time with my family in Melbourne. That was a very good opportunity and connect, especially in the wake of my brother’s recent death.
But I am also back from the epic quest of the 10 City Bridge Run. Ought it not to be Full Steam Ahead pushing ahead into the Design Forum to unpack this question “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?” Well, the answer to pushing ahead Full Steam Ahead is both yes, and no.
Yes, it is Full Steam Ahead, and this question about child survival is being examined with a number of teams working using the framework of the Acumen Fund/IDEO Introduction to Human Centred Design online course to start giving some definition to where we should go next.
But I found it was on a personal level time to wind myself back from being in a Full Steam Ahead mode. I needed to change gears a few times. Reflect on what happened. And then finally last night, it was clear to me that I was on my way home, returning to the Ordinary World. That is part of the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is not something that is behind me, and this is an administrative requirement to find my own way home after passing through the pageantry of the finish line.
There is nothing mechanical about The Hero’s Journey. And I think there is a need to distinguish a fine line between ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and ‘an heroic journey’. Both are intriguing, and often they overlap, but in reality our appetite for media fuels our hunger for a straight diet of heroic journeys, and we shy away from The Hero’s Journey because it forces us to confront questions about ourselves that are better left undisturbed. The Hero’s Journey is far more entertaining to enjoy from the comfort of the audience watching the latest instalment from Hollywood.
I’m a little sceptical of workshops that take you through this process, allowing the exploration of a Special World from a sanitised and fluorescent-lit room. Far from being cynical, I’m instead suggesting that if we are serious about story-telling and exploring the Special World’s that adventures calls us to explore, then we should open ourselves to that journey. Be vulnerable. Abandon the Ordinary World for a moment.
So what has helped me return? Three things.
Firstly, it was spending time with my family. That was important.
Secondly, it was taking time to review where I had been and where the rest of this year is likely to take me, and in doing so looking beyond this obsession with the Design Forum. I still have a lot of things to write about the trip away and the Design Forum to come, but one thing at a time.
And thirdly, it has been the opportunity to share part of this journey with friends. One way that is being done is through the 10 o’clock Club. You can join us there too. It is free, and happens every night at 10 pm in your time zone. Post a photograph of where you are and what you are doing onto Twitter at 10 pm using hashtag #10cbr . Share your journey with us. We might not know it at the time, but you could well be documenting part of your own experience throug your own Hero’s Journey there too!
Looking forward to seeing you at the 10 o’clock Club!
I found I was exhausted in many ways after the trip and needed some rest. ‘Rest binge’ apparently is an expression the speaker Brene Brown has used to described this sort of self-care. I didn’t send any emails. There was no writing on this site. I rested.
Ultimately, I had been successful on the journey. I achieved more than I bargained for. But things didn’t go to plan. It was messy. It was tough. It was very difficult on a personal level.
My brother’s death during the journey came at a point where I was stuck. His final words to me urged me to continue and so I did. But the difficulties on a personal level I mentioned above don’t specifically relate to the circumstances of his death.
So why was it difficult on a personal level? The answer to that question underpins my reticence to engage the media during the journey. The vulnerability I exposed myself to by undertaking this journey was intense. Mostly, I have been able to keep most of that vulnerability private. But was that the right thing to do? I think it is a Catch-22 scenario. After the event, people will applaud the courage to have been vulnerable. At the time, I feared that if I had expressed it too clearly, it would have scared too many people. Come back from the edge. Be safe. Please be normal.
In some ways, it is as though I have returned from The Hero’s Journey. You know the one, the monomyth which Joseph Campbell wrote so much about. It was heroic, but in a classic sense. There was transformation and a prize, but the rewards weren’t material. And if I am now home, then perhaps that is only to make an unmistakable Call To Adventure to you among others who might take the risk to come with us as we embark on this next journey into the unknown. It is a journey called ‘Design Forum’. And there will be challenges. Stick to your knitting, or come with us at change the world by seeing to improve child survival? Your turn to chose.
And so I am home. But first I had to complete this journey. And now I think I owe it to myself and to you to speak a little about this vulnerability. Not now. Not here in this post. Maybe a little later when I understand it better myself. Brene Brown has spoken about ‘shame’ which is perhaps the closest thing I can find to explain the flavour of this vulnerability. The video at the bottom of this post gives some insights. Listen particularly from 16:30.
She gave me some advice to persevere and not to worry, but just to begin with these words:
Starting small is the most important thing. No matter how small, it’s a start.
The Design Forum have become the second phase of an epic quest, and themselves mark the real work the comes from the effort expended in running the 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries as a stunt to open the conversation which is framed for the Design Forum. The conversation asks an important question: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?”
I was explaining to my friend the metaphorical deep breath that I am taking ahead of commencing this next phase of the journey.
Running was hard work. There were too many problems and challenges to recall without flinching. But it was worthwhile. And it was in some respects easier because it was just me running, and because of resource constraints not a team of people running. If there had been a team running, the journey would have been different. If the journey was well-funded from the start, it would have been different. Not only was it what it was, but I contend that it took on its own life in the way that Joseph Campbell describes the narrative of an epic quest being guided in his writing about the Hero’s Journey.
The Design Forum presents a different challenge, and I think harder work.
Even though the journey has began already, this new journey of the Design Forum has just begun. And the first Design Forum might be small.
I don’t know how large the first Design Forum in Osaka will be. Probably small. And I fell a little embarrassed about that. Why do I feel embarrassed, I ask myself? I think it because of the useless action of comparing our own work against the juggernaut of how big this conversation is as presented by many of the institutions are in the world. As a side note, over the last four years I did speak with plenty of these groups to somehow partner or work together in this pursuit, but mostly drew polite responses of rejection largely associated with their fundraising and messaging objectives.
The words of an old American Army Special Forces buddy are ringing in my mind when I think about the advice from my friend in Osaka. He was doing some post-graduate study in management when we met many years ago, and later taught me a memorable small saying his professor taught him: “SS – TS -DV -SF“. And so I will!
Start Small. Think Strategically. Deliver Value. Scale Fast.
There is not a moment to waste! As Campbell would no doubt say: Follow your bliss!