By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 30, 2012
With apologies to readers who are getting tired of these “hero’s journey” posts (this is the fourth in as many weeks), I can say only, “Hang in there, baby!” The last one is coming next week. Today’s is about using the hero’s journey intentionally, as a way to achieve a species of self-transformation.
Navy SEAL training is a hero’s journey. So is Marine Corps boot camp or spring football camp at ‘Bama or a season dancing with the Joffrey Ballet. A Jenny Craig diet is a hero’s journey. For that matter, so is being a contestant on Dancing With The Stars.
Did you just take a job as a photographer’s assistant? You’re on the hero’s journey. Are you an intern for a law firm, a P.A. on a movie set? You’re on the path too.
Recall the broad strokes of the hero’s passage:
He begins unconscious and “stuck.” He experiences a “call.” He is cast out of the world he knows. He enters upon an ordeal; he becomes lost. He pursues an objective (sometimes simply his own survival) in the face of monumental resistance. He experiences adventures, encounters outlandish characters, receives aid from unexpected sources. At the climax of his passage, the hero hits bottom. Then: a breakthrough! The hero overcomes! He completes his dark passage and returns home, a different person than when he set forth.
This mythic journey is exactly what you and I experience in real life in Army Ranger training, in the mail room at William Morris, or doing research for Alan Dershowitz. The difference between the hero’s journey as undergone spontaneously in real life and the hero’s journey experienced in boot camp or athletic/artistic/commercial training is that the latter has been deliberately designed to produce a specific transformation in the individual undergoing the passage.
Military training is designed to produce soldiers. Taking class with the Joffrey is meant to produce dancers. Either way, the transformation sticks. Why? Because it follows beat-by-beat the software (the hero’s journey) that already exists in our hearts.
Like the hero’s journey in myth, training tests us. It pushes us beyond our limits (or what we believe are our limits.) Such passages provide mentors. They supply role models. They reward specified success and they punish specified failure.
Training courses are dramas. They start slowly. They adhere to a theme. And they build to a climax (Hell Week, the Final Four, the Boston Marathon) within which we hit the wall and yet somehow survive. And these programs provide a built-in “return home”—commencement, Bonus Day, the finish line.
If you and I aim to transform ourselves, we can employ the hero’s journey artificially. We can create our own ordeal. Or we can sign up for one that already exists. Commit to the Iditarod, apply to Cordon Bleu, enlist in the Foreign Legion. The hero’s journey will be imposed upon us from outside. Our only decision will come up front: what do we want to learn, whom do we wish to become?
This is the hero’s journey, packaged and domesticated. It’s still real. It still works. We still experience all the passage’s beats, and in a measure (not too much, not too little) that has been proved to work without overloading and possibly destroying us. We will be pushed beyond our limits, rewarded and punished, and finally, with luck, we’ll emerge as different people. And to some extent we’ll retain control. We will at least have embarked upon the passage by choice.
Then there’s the real hero’s journey.
The authentic hero’s journey.
This passage occurs spontaneously. We don’t choose it; it chooses us. We can’t control it. We don’t know where it will take us. And we have no idea how it will end.
The real hero’s journey arises from the unconscious imperative of our own hearts, which is by definition unknown to us.
For the artist, this passage is critical because it sets her on the path to authenticity—to becoming who she really is, and to speaking, for the first time, in her own voice.
Further thoughts next week.