The Hero’s Journey as a Roadmap for Self-Growth

We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.  

Joseph Campbell

The first audiobook I ever got on Audible was The Power of Myth, a book based on a 1988 PBS Documentary with a collection of conversations between journalist Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell is famous for having popularized the idea of the Hero’s Journey (or the Hero’s Adventure) in his book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” The Hero’s Journey (also known as the monomyth) has become a staple in Western fiction, especially after George Lucas used it as inspiration for the original Star Wars trilogy. These days, you can find the Hero’s Journey as a central plot device for many Western major films and it has even has worked its way onto Broadway.

Joseph Campbell described what we now call The Hero’s Journey after studying the myths from around the world and being influenced by Carl Jung’s views of human archetypes. We find stories like The Hero’s Journey in so many myths around the world because they speak to something fundamental to the human experience. The Hero’s Journey describes an experience that is somehow familiar to all of us, even if we haven’t gone through it ourselves. Because of this, it is a useful roadmap for the self-growth journey. Campbell described seventeen steps in the Hero’s Journey that can be broken into three major acts: departure, initiation and return. These three major acts create a powerful map that can help us along our journey of self-development. In the movies, the steps are often linear but in life we may double back many times or go through multiple Hero’s Journeys along our way. It can be useful to have framework available to help us recognize where we are.

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The Departure – Make the Choice

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.

Morpheus, The Matrix

As I’ve been known to say, surprisingly often: “Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had to die;” a reference to the moment in Star Wars: A New Hope when Luke Skywalker must leave the comfort of his farm home and set out against the evil Empire.

In all Hero’s Journey stories, the hero must leave the comfort of her home to set out to change the world for the better. Humans are habitual creatures; something must push us out of our comfort zone and on to our journey. In self-development terms, the Departure is the moment we decide that things need to change; it’s a decision point that we must make ourselves, a choice we must make to live our lives more intentionally.

In Campbell’s terms, there must be a call to adventure and a crossing of the threshold. Something must push us out of comfort and onto the difficult task of self-growth. The truth is, you can’t make people change, they must decide for themselves that they want to change. This motivation is different for everyone. For some people, it might look like gaining every material success they thought they wanted only to find themselves still unhappy and feeling empty. For others, it might mean losing everything and realizing that they need to start over and made different choices. And for some of us – and I count myself in this group – it might be that they realize that their habitual mental patterns are not making their lives any better. Somehow, we recognize that we need to make a chance and start living life differently.

In the stories, this is the moment when the hero is given a choice: stay at home and turn a blind eye to the plight of the world or take on the call to adventure and start your journey.

If you’re reading this post, odds are you’ve heard your own call. You’ve recognized that things need to change and you’re hoping to find help on living a more intentional life, a life where you take greater agency and make real strides towards self-improvement. You must choose to take on the challenges of your journey and find your path towards a happier, more peaceful life.

The Initiation – Walk the Path

When you find your path, you must not be afraid. You need to have sufficient courage to make mistakes. Disappointment, defeat, and despair are the tools God uses to show us the way.

Paulo Coelho

The initiation is the longest and hardest part of the journey. In fiction, it is often a literal journey from one place to another: from the Shire to Mount Doom. It is the road of trials where you meet your adventure and learn to hone your skills. In self-development terms, the “initiation” is the journey of self-growth and all the trials and tribulations that go along with it. The path is not easy, you will face challenges along the way. You may find the perfect life coach or spiritual teacher or therapist to help you and yet still you must do the work yourself. You must take the lessons you learn on your self-development journey and learn them again and again.

Many people give up here. One fundamental and critical aspect of this phase is what’s known as the dark night of the soul, the descent into the underworld or simply: death.

This isn’t literal death, it’s a metaphorical death to the way things “used to be.” It’s about hitting true rock bottom and experiencing the darkness of the journey. The departure was like getting kicked out of bed: home was comfortable and easy but something pushed you to set out on your path of self-growth and development. “Death” and the Descent into the Underworld is much harder and much deeper. It’s when you finally hit such a low point that you are willing to embrace and accept that you must change in order to go on. It is the moment when the only way out is through.

In self-development, we may hit many “deathbed” moments along our way. Some may be larger than others. I hit my first rock bottom back in 2009 when I went to a martial arts conference and learned that my body fat was borderline obese. Even though I had looked at myself in the mirror and could see that I had been gaining weight, there was something about getting my body fat measurements that changed my life forever. I completely changed my diet and lost the weight but my relationship with food was changed for life. For whatever reason, that was the thing that finally kicked me into gear and the what motivated me to really change my lifestyle and eat healthier. Everyone has a different rock bottom and you can’t try to force it on someone who isn’t truly there yet.

I also happen to believe that you can’t necessarily force a “rock bottom” on yourself either. There are many ways to try these days: for example, long endurance races that will test your grit can also be powerful emotional experiences. In our tribal days as humans, our ancestors had initiation rites meant to transform a child into an adult.

Fundamentally, that is what the Initiation is about: it’s about maturing into mental, spiritual and emotional adulthood and learning to take full responsibility for your life, including the good and the bad.

The Return – Step into Your Power

“What lies behind us and what lies head of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us”

Henry David Thoreau

In fictional Hero’s Journey stories, the hero eventually must be defeated. Truly, completely defeated in order to return more powerful and capable than ever. This is Thanos and the snap, our heroes faced their greatest challenge and they lost. Symbolically, going through this defeat and loss represents the moment you recognize that you are not only your strengths but also your weaknesses and your darkness. The hero is transformed by the experience of the loss and can then return with a greater perspective, and more powerful resolve. Only by going through the darkness of the defeat may the hero come through, ready to take on the challenge ahead.

Life is not a challenge to be overcome or a game to be won or lost. There really is no “end” to self-development, it is a practice that you undertake day-to-day; it is a path of intentionally choosing to live in the present moment and find peace amid the chaos and challenges of your life.

I had a mental “rock bottom” after my mother died in January 2016. After losing my mom and my brother and wanting to give up on everything, I knew that I had to start living my life in a new and fundamentally different way. Even after a decade of meditation practice and zen studies, telling me all about the reality of impermanence in our human lives, it took those losses for me to truly see and appreciate just how fragile and ephemeral our lives really are, I could no longer accept a life where I put off my happiness for another day.

A Powerful Metaphor

As I’ve said throughout this post, our lives do not follow a linear story like you might find in the movies but the framework of the Hero’s Journey is a powerful and valuable one. It helps us realize that, while we may face trials and tribulations along the way, we can face our greatest fears and come through the other side having learned valuable lessons. The Hero’s Journey teaches us the value in accepting both our strengths and our weaknesses, it shows us that even our greatest hero’s can face defeat and rise out of it.

That is the greatest lesson of the Hero’s Journey in my mind: that even when all seems lost, even when nothing seems to be going your way, you can still move forward and get through the dark times to find the light on the other side. There is a lesson in every trial and a reward in every defeat. The path of the Hero is to face the fears and recognize that we have a choice even in the darkest moments: to give in to despair or to push against it and embrace the peace within.

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