Key Concept ~ When starting your own venture, you’re embarking upon a quest of mythical proportions. What author and mythology expert Joseph Campbell referred to as “The Hero’s Journey”. Understanding the similarities between your journey and the fabled journeys of history can help you find inspiration during the most challenging of times.
I was recently having a conversation with a colleague I’ve been mentoring, an ascending, sole entrepreneur making the transition from a long career in corporate. During our chat, I asked him what he felt was his greatest, day-to-day challenge navigating the change.
“The feeling of being alone, sometimes I feel really isolated” he replied.
As I sat and listened to his comments, I had one of those a-ha moments…not exactly what I’d call an epiphany, but an insight into a sliver of symbolism that I thought might be supportive to my friend’s journey.
“You do realize that you’ve embarked upon The Hero’s Journey?”1
He looked at me quizzically, his eyes constraining a bit as he looked into my own.
“Are you familiar with Joseph Campbell?” I asked. “He was the preeminent authority on the subject of mythology and the universal role it’s played throughout the ancient cultures of the world. You’ve embarked upon what he referred to as The Hero’s Journey…or what I like to call The Entrepreneur’s Journey. The parallels between the two are remarkably similar.”
My friend’s eyebrows slowly relaxed as he realized I might actually have a reason for my somewhat grandiose pronouncement.
He asked, “How so?”
And so began a fascinating discussion on the power of myth, not only in the ancient cultures, but the power it can hold for our contemporary society as well. I’d like to encapsulate and share the spirit of the conversation that ensued…
It is best to begin with a clarification of the term myth. To us poor moderns, a myth is perceived as a mistruth, fanciful fairy tales echoing out the dust of what we perceive to be an ignorant, pre-scientific past. Historically, myths served a vital function to both societies and the individuals living within those societies. According to Mr. Campbell, myths provided a vehicle of insight and understanding of the individual’s and society’s role and relationship with the natural world. Myths emerge at the nexus of where our inner self, what we might call our mind or our sense of consciousness and being, and the external world intersects. Myths provided a set of symbols that helped human beings navigate their particular human, spiritual, and social experiences. Myths provided a set of proverbial keys that served to help explain the great mysteries and meaning of life. To grossly oversimplify (and please forgive me Mr. Campbell), myths were a sort of psychological Google Map for the ancient world. They explained where you were and showed you where you could be going.
Myths reflect the values and moral compass of the society in which they emerge. Most critically, however, is the fact that myths must reflect the known cosmology and scientific knowledge of the society in which the mythical symbolism emerges. This points to a poignant, psychological fault line in contemporary American society. It is very difficult for a modern society to reconcile the science of today with the mythical roots of Western religions that have evolved to be interpreted literally, as historical fact. How does a contemporary Westerner rationalize the relationship between The Book Of Genesis, in which the Lord created the world in six days, with the geological record that has emerged through the Scientific Method? Eastern religions and philosophies, those of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and the like, haven’t lost the symbolic meaning of the philosophical roots of their belief systems. Consciously embracing the allegory and symbolism in their belief systems makes it much easier to reconcile the spiritual path with scientific discovery.
But on to the point of the conversation…
Today, The Entrepreneur’s Journey is the modern equivalent of the ancients’ Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell spent a career studying the ancient mythologies, those of the Near East, India, the Far East, Native American, Pre-Columbian Central and South America, and so on. Through this study he discovered a near identical thread that ran through the great, eternal mythologies (those that sought to explain the universal and Divine mystery of the human spirit, as apposed to the ethnological myths that spoke more to regional, societal or political concerns). His initial work culminated with his seminal book, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” in the late 1940s, in which he identified the universal theme that is present from culture to culture, myth to myth. That universal theme is The Hero’s Journey.
In each story, often told in the form of an epic, The Hero’s Journey is the personification of the culture’s mythology. Traditional cultures often cast their heroes as warriors, off to slay the monsters or threats of the day. For Americans, our heroes (with greatest deference to the first responders of 9/11 and our service personnel still in harms way today) have traditionally been the great pioneers; the frontiersmen and women that forged a nation, albeit at the horrific expense of the Native Americans. As we ran out of frontier, we looked to the astronauts in a similar vein. But the pulse and impulse of America has been and continues to be commerce.
It is the Horatio Alger type of stories, the rags-to-riches characters, the self-made man or woman that is often most celebrated in our materialistic culture. The closest thing we have to a classic mythology is The American Dream. There is a parallel symbolism in The Hero’s Journey that resonates today with The Entrepreneur’s Journey.
According to Campbell, the journey is essentially the same in every mythology. It is a lone journey undertaken by the hero, a vision-quest that will, through the evolution of the hero’s path, quite literally change the world. The hero is restless at the beginning of the tale, something is missing in their existence and they feel a sense of destiny. Through an emotional shock or separation from society, the hero responds to the call of adventure.
Abandoning the safety of hearth and home, the hero ventures off into the dangers of the world and the underworld (referring to the unknown, both of the inner self and outer world). In taking up the call, the hero moves across a threshold, a gateway of no return to the status quo. Through a series of tests and challenges, the hero continues to move persistently towards the goal of their quest; be it to rescue the princess, capture the Golden Fleece, or slay the dragon. The tale is a passage of initiation into a place of the heroic Pantheon. Along the way, the hero finds a mentor; an advisor that imparts wisdom to help guide the hero upon their quest. This figure often speaks in allegory, illuminating the mystical path that the hero must walk alone.
At the decisive moment, the climax of the story, the hero faces death. This is the point where the inner journey is discerned, where the hero either finds the inner courage and heightened sense of self-awareness (and perhaps self sacrifice to an eternal truth or good) to step forward; or fall from grace into the underworld of hell and darkness. The turn of the story pivots on the culminating steps of self-discovery, of maturing, of an awakening of consciousness, of slaying the dragons within, that defines the hero’s tale.
Upon sharing this, I asked my friend, “Do you see any similarities in your own journey?”
My question dropped my friend’s eyes into a thousand yard stare. Pausing, I could almost see his synapsis’ firing away. He looked down, then slowly brought his gaze back to my eyes.
“I’ve never thought of it that way. I was ‘downsized’ after twenty-three years of faithful service to the company, tossed away like yesterday’s news. But I was never really happy working there. I always felt like I could do better if it was my company, if I was calling the shots”, he replied.
“So you were restless and then given a shock, displaced and sent out to find your own way…” I added. “Remember when we spoke about your vision and intention at the outset of your strategic planning process? You’re living your vision-quest…you’re living The Hero’s Journey, and that journey is always a lone journey.”
My friend sighed deeply, sipped from his coffee and looked up at me again.
“Wow…I guess I am. At times it sure feels like I’m fighting dragons.”
“The Entrepreneur’s Journey is beset with challenges of the unknown. We don’t know what we have yet to experience. But you’ve burned your boats on the shore, there’s no going back for you, right?”
“Are you kidding me? I’m fifty-three years old…corporations look at me like I’m some sort of overpriced dinosaur. I couldn’t even get an interview before I decided to start my own business,” he resigned, shaking his head in agitation.
“You’ve past the threshold, the point of no return. And don’t forget what you told me at the outset, that your intention was to help other people in similar circumstances, to help coach them through these career transitions, right? You’re out to change the world.”
“I hope to, if I can only succeed at getting some initial traction.”
“That’s where your inner journey is the key. You’re facing a symbolic, financial death if you fail. The challenges you’re facing and meeting with authentic intention are courageous and in service to others. This is your passage of initiation, of finding a greater meaning for yourself and for the world. This is your Hero’s Journey.”
“Thanks, Terry,” he said with a smile. “I suddenly don’t feel so alone anymore. I’ve got the company of all those mythological heroes of the past walking along side me.”
“Yes, my friend, you do!”
1 The Hero’s Journey, Centennial Edition, Joseph Campbell, New World Library, Novato, CA. © 2003.
© 2011, Terry Murray.