Go on the Hero’s Journey

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 16, Issue No. 12b
April 15, 2018

By Dan Coughlin

In 1949 at the age of 45 Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It was his magnum opus, his greatest achievement. That book, and his later book, The Power of Myth, which was published the year after he died in 1987, have influenced many story tellers and film makers including George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg and their film series, Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

He had studied and taught mythology for more than 25 years when he wrote the book. Essentially, he looked for common elements in many myths that had been told for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, and then created a monomyth of the archetypal hero that he felt encompassed all other myths. He called it “the hero’s journey”.

I recently read this book, and found the elements of the hero’s journey to be a great description of how any person can make a significant difference in the world. “The world” could be the whole world, your organization, your community, and/or your family. Here are those elements on the hero’s journey.

(Author’s note: The bolded and italicized words are from the table of contents in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)


The Call to Adventure – What are you being called to do? What purpose are you being called to fulfill? What meaningful challenge are you being called to help people overcome?

Refusal of the Call – Usually the hero refuses the call. He or she says, “Not now. Not the right time. I’m not the right person to do this right now.”

Supernatural Aid – Somebody or some event usually intervenes at this point, and gives the hero a wake-up call. The message is clear: you are the right person and now is the right time. These people serve as mentors for you, and these events serve as alarm clocks for you to get up and get going.

The Crossing of the First Threshold – Some significant obstacle has to be overcome. This could be a thought process that is getting in your way, an obstinate boss, or a tough customer. Something is standing in your way from even getting started on your journey.

The Belly of the Whale – You feel trapped. You can’t get out easily. You have to draw on all of your strengths, talents, and passions to get out of “the whale” in your life, and move forward toward what is calling you. You have to create your future. It’s not predestined that you will get there.


The Road of Trials – On your journey you are going to run into a constant stream of challenges and obstacles. This happens every time. There is no hero’s journey without these difficulties. It’s through dealing with these difficulties that you develop value within yourself that you can bring back later on your journey.

Masculine and Feminine Energy (This is reworded a bit from the book’s version) – You need to become a whole person whether you are a man or a woman. You need to accept both types of energy to do what it is you are setting out to do. You need to reach atonement with all aspects of who you are in order to be a hero. Atonement means to become “at one with” who you are as a person.

Apotheosis – This is reaching the pinnacle of your journey. You have found your Holy Grail, the thing you were called to find. This could be the fulfillment of your purpose at work or your ability to deal effectively with tough prospective customers or your skills in developing challenging employees. You have reached the mountain top.

The Ultimate Boon – This is the icing on the cake. This is where you merge all parts of yourself (physical, emotional, mental, social, etc.) into a synergistic whole. You have become internally what you set out to become.


Refusal of the Return – The time has come for you to bring back what you have learned and what you have become to help other people. However, at first you refuse to go back. You want to just simply enjoy the fruits of your labor over all these years. You don’t want to go back and share it with others. However, the hero’s journey is not complete until you return with the enhanced version of yourself.

The Magic Flight – Many times there are people who don’t want you to return. They don’t want to hear what you have to say. They make it very difficult for you to get an opportunity to make a difference. I’ve experienced this myself when I’ve found over the years it is harder for me to get an opportunity to speak pro bono to a worthy non-profit organization than it is for me to get the opportunity to charge a substantial fee to speak to a corporation.

Rescue from Without – Just as you are on the verge of giving up on your return, someone rescues you from stopping. Someone says to you, “Hey, you’ve spent your lifetime developing into the person you are today. Now you need to return those gifts you’ve developed and make a real difference in the world.”

The Crossing of the Return Threshold – Just like astronauts re-entering the earth’s atmosphere experienced intense turbulence, you will face great difficulties in trying to influence other people on your return. Perhaps you worked with a group of people ten years ago as peers, and now you are their boss. Perhaps you are now in charge of a group of people who used to be your mentors. Or you are trying to teach a message to people who used to think of you as lazy or a trouble-maker. It’s tough, but it’s a necessary step on your journey to making a difference.

Master of the Two Worlds – You now have lived in two worlds. The world before you went on your journey, and the world after your journey. You haven’t become a completely new person. There’s a lot of good you had in the person before you went on the journey. Mastering the two worlds means to stay true to yourself and stay true to the enhanced version of yourself. Think of a person who goes on a musical journey and becomes a great musician. This person can stay true to herself and simultaneously be okay with bringing the enhanced musical version of herself to audiences. The danger is when we lose our former self completely and only bring the enhanced version to a situation. That’s when we lose our identity. We lose our way.

Freedom to Live – The end of the hero’s journey is when we have the freedom to live as we are and not feel we have to be someone else. We can go on this journey over and over again during our lifetime, and continually enhance who we are and bring that “holy grail” that we’ve discovered back to our work, our communities, our homes, and our lives.

I love this idea that any person can be a hero and go on the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell outlined the steps almost 70 years ago, and they still are true in our work today.



Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at dan@thecoughlincompany.com with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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