The Hero's Journey
Consider for a moment some diverse characters - Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, Tripitaka and Galahad from the King Arthur legends.
What do these seemingly unrelated characters have in common?
They were all unlikely heroes.
The word hero is thrown around a lot! We tend to overuse the word "hero" so much lately that it seems to have lost some of its meaning. In fact, it seems that these days we can become “heroes” – simply by being in a particular job!
Celebrities, police, fire fighters, and even elite sportsmen and women are often considered to be heroes just because of their trade and with no particular regard for what they might have actually done that’s truly courageous!
I want to be very clear here – sometimes these people are of course genuine heroes. The police officer who risks his or her life to save others or the fireman who enters a burning house to rescue someone, are all genuine heroes. But not just because of the trade they chose – not just because they turn up to work.
Of course, danger and sacrifice have something to do with why we brand people heroes, but is that really all it means to be a hero? What is a hero and why do we seek to label so many people as heroes?
Likewise in business teams the term hero is used with regularity on team building days, at sales meetings and when CEO’s are credited with achieving record profits.
It seems that we have a psychological need to have heroes in our lives and more importantly a need to strive to become heroes ourselves. I am not suggesting that each of us wants to storm an enemy position, or rush into a burning building to save a life. But rather that we want to believe that there is greatness amongst the ordinary. That should we have challenges thrust upon us, that we will rise to the occasion.
Human history is filled with accounts of ordinary characters doing extraordinary things. For thousands of years, the stories of the unlikely hero have inspired us. From tales of the Knights of the Round table, to the Journey to the west undertaken by Tripitaka and Monkey and lately in the billion dollar franchises like The Hunger Games or Star Wars - the story of the unlikely hero inspires us to be the best that we can be, to play to our strengths and overcome our weaknesses.
American scholar, Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” determined that the great and unlikely heroes all undertake a common path known as “The hero’s journey”.
The hero’s journey appears in myth, religious ritual and even psychological development. It describes the typical adventure of the Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of their group, tribe, team or civilization.
In his hypothesis, the Hero with 1000 Faces speaks of the same common hero traits that inwardly drive all humans, yet are represented by 1000 different masks of geographically separate cultural myths.
According to Campbell, the hero is often an ordinary person with an ordinary life, a life that most people can identify with. Following some great call to adventure or catastrophe, the hero must face the beginnings of change. They fear the unknown and try to turn away from the challenge.
Now some of us have been there! Our ordinary life is going along nicely and then wham! It all changes in a heartbeat. We have to step up! To take on the challenge, despite our natural urge to ignore it all and keep going as we were.
Campbell goes on to explain that the hero overcomes their fear when they come across a mentor who gives them advice that will help the hero to develop their own courage and wisdom, as Obi Wan Kanobi for Luke Sykwalker.
For most of us this will be someone who we respect who helps provide us with the tools and strength to take on the challenge that has been set for us. This person often helps us to identify and leverage our natural strengths, and overcome any weaknesses.
Often in mythology and most good story telling the hero leads a team of people who have skill sets that they do not possess themselves, who overcome the task together. The Round Table Knights, Katniss and her allies, The Guardians of The Galaxy and so on.
Now equipped for the ordeal, the hero must face their greatest fear. The confrontation allows the hero to prove themselves and from that confrontation comes great reward. After a final and greater sacrifice that resolves their own fears, the hero is transformed and their tribe or society with them.
For Luke Skywalker it was not only about beating the Empire, but facing his own fears, reconnecting with his father Darth Vader, and saving both his father’s soul and their galaxy. For Sir Percival of the Arthur legends it was finding the Holy Grail, and for King Monkey of Chinese Buddhist legends, fighting demons to find enlightenment.
For us mere mortals it may be a far more ordinary challenge, but the outcomes are just as great. Sometimes the challenge is anything but ordinary.
Recently a group of 4 Australian children received a bravery award for saving their mother from her violent partner. The 15 and 17 year old boys wrestled a gun from the attacker, their 12 year old sister hid their distraught mother under the bed and the youngest, who was only 4 at the time took the baby from the house to their neighbours.
Ordinary children faced with adversity, a challenge they would never have wished for, rose to the challenge became the unlikely heroes and by any measure, true heroes. This inspires others to speak up about and stand up to domestic violence.
So is the well-paid footballer who scores against a better team a real hero? Or the celebrity overtly juggling their busy schedule and recent parenthood?
No, I don’t think so.
True heroes, are the unlikely heroes. Heroes are ordinary people who have done extraordinary things, even if they didn’t want to.
People need to credit themselves for the many acts of heroism that often lay within the way that they deal with others, or choose the hard right decisions over the easy wrong ones. Play to your strengths, manage your weaknesses and be ready to work with others to get the job done.
The hero is you.