The Hero’s Journey: A Life of Legend

Image of a man staring down a mountain on his hero's journey

A LIFE OF LEGEND: HOW THE HERO’S JOURNEY CHANGES EVERYTHING 

Written by Timothy Barber

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You know you’ve thought about it. We all have.

You imagine some ne’er-do-well purse-snatcher creeping up behind an unsuspecting woman, and sprinting away with ill-begotten goods.

What’s next? You spring into action, maybe yelling out some pithy admonition as you chase down the assailant. You revel in the applause as you detain him and return the purse.

Or maybe, you imagine yourself on your morning commute, happening to notice someone sitting listlessly on the edge of the bridge, looking out at the morning waters ripple and lap at their feet. You, without even a thought that you’re going to hold up traffic, rush to their side and talk them down from their attempt to solve temporary problems with a permanent solution. As you tearfully embrace, the bystanders in their cars look on in admiration.

If you haven’t thought about it all that personally, there’s nothing wrong with that – think about your favorite movies, your favorite books. Literature and film are littered with people cut from the heroic cloth, bettering the lives of those around them… and sometimes even saving the world.

It’s irresistible, right? The draw of the heroic call.

It would be tempting to think that this is the result of our recent glut of superhero films, or things like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, & The Lord of the Rings. It’s tempting to think that it’s just part of the 21st century culture we’ve grown up in. But is it, really?

YOUR PLACE IN MANKIND’S ONE GREAT STORY

Let’s examine our belief for a second. We won’t have to think about it much longer than that to recognize that every single human civilization in history has hewn closely to their love of heroism. Classic tales like Horatius at the Bridge & (others) have captured the imagination and the attention of historians for centuries.

One particular historian, Dr. Joseph Campbell, once published a book in 1949 called ”The Hero With a Thousand Faces”, which contained insights that he had gleaned from researching folklore, myths, and tales from every manner of world culture. His discovery is obvious, and ubiquitous – and yet we often miss our place in it.

It’s called ”The Hero’s Journey”, and it was the culmination of Dr. Campbell’s search for patterns in world cultures from Babylonian antiquity to contemporary stories.

There is a staggering amount of overlap between even the most seemingly different of cultures in the way that they share stories of virtue and valor. The Hero’s Journey is that overlap. And you’re right in the middle of it.

The same myths, told a thousand different ways. A single hero, with a thousand different faces. One of those faces is yours.

WHO, ME?

Yes. You, right there. Sitting at your computer or staring at your phone.

Has it ever really occurred to you that you’re the main character in the story that is your life?

Have you ever thought that you might be living out an underlying narrative with twists and turns? That maybe, if you were to think about it, that you’d have the tools to decide how it’s told?

The undercurrent that ties together all mythology, all legend, and modern epics is the same amongst all its variations because it is a human undercurrent.

Our love of stories is renewed and revived at a constant because we, as humans reflect on our shared experience with symbolic stories of our human lives.

We’ll get to the actual roadmap in a minute, but this is crucial to understand. You’re a human, living a challenging life in a challenging world, full of choices, and passions, and purpose. It might NOT always feel like that, over there where you are at Point A. At Level 1.

But there is a Point B. A Level 50. And I’ve got the thousands-of-years-old-map, rolled up in my hands to show you. Let’s look at the first step: 

HEROIC IMAGINATION

Children love superheroes, and know that equipping themselves with a Superman costume is perfectly OK. They feel like they might even be able to fly.

And then, some of those unfortunate souls grow up and realize that they don’t possess the power to fly, or that they don’t have Iron Man’s billions of dollars in weapons technology to attain it. We lose our relationship to heroes, we drift further away from thinking of ourselves in those terms. It gets set aside as ”kiddy stuff.”

The problem is that the world has never been without a need for heroes, people who will stand in the gap, people who are willing to rush to the aid of those in danger and live with integrity. The need grows greater for men and women of integrity and action to step into the fray and offer their impact for the course of the world.

 Dr. Philip Zimbardo (of Stanford Prison Experiment fame) recently took up the task of sorting out what helps men to move from cowardly inaction, to heroic action. We can talk more about him later, but the conclusion that he and his research partner Dr. Zeno Franco arrived at is an almost trivially obvious first step: heroic imagination, here defined:

”The capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, to struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider one’s actions and the consequences.”

In other words, it’s more a question of identity than anything. It’s seeing yourself as a hero and imagining what the ”heroic” thing is to do, before you have to do it. How do we cultivate this mindset?

I can think of one way that bolsters heroic imagination above all others. Can you guess what it is?

HERO TRAINING.

Video games. Story-driven, narrative-and-plot video games where you play as the hero.

You might be saying ”Seriously, Tim? You’re asking me to think about being a hero and then to play video games? How is that going to help?”

To which I’d mention the difference between video games and other media. Video games are the only medium that is incomplete without its audience. A book, written once, will be the same forever. A movie, played in front of a crowded theater, will be the same movie years from now on the TV late at night with nobody watching.

A game? Not only is it nothing without the player, but it becomes something different whenever anybody new plays it. And sometimes it becomes something new when one person plays a game multiple times.

It’s the only form of entertainment which changes based on the person interacting with it. In all other media, the audience is merely that – audient. In games, the audience is integral and participatory.

This links you together with the hero as you traverse through the story, in something called the Player-Protagonist connection. You identify with the characters over whom you have agency. The less they speak, the more your thoughts fill in their words; the more agency you exert over their actions in the game, the more you take ownership of them.

When I was 7, one of my favorite games was an SNES classic called Super Castlevania IV, about a burly whip-wielding warrior from a long line of vampire hunters, on a quest to subdue and thwart the infamous Dracula. But when I played that game, I was the brave warrior combating against the forces of evil to save the world. It was me relentlessly hurling my whip at zombies and rock golems. That was me who got goosebumps when I first saw the skeleton of a fallen predecessor impaled on a spike wall.

You have likely already trained to be the hero. You know what it’s like to imagine yourself in heroic situations. You have desires for the direction of your life, things you want to accomplish; the ways you want to help people. And in all likelihood, your disconnect from the idea of heroism has contributed to you feeling unable or even hopeless in your pursuit of your dreams. There is a way out, a way forward, and actions that you can take to kick yourself into gear. We’ll get to that in a minute.

But we’ve covered a lot, so first let me bring things in full circle:

1) All human societies have needed, shared, and honored heroes.

2) There is staggering overlap between even the most different of history’s hero tales.

3) The reason there is overlap is because heroism transcends culture – it’s innate to us being human.

4) YOU ARE A HUMAN. You have wanted to be heroic your entire life as part of your nature.

5) Video games, more than almost anything, nurture that desire. 

What then? What’s next?

SEEING LIFE AS A VIDEO GAME

Here’s the good stuff, ladies and gentlemen. This is why you’re here. I mean, come on, this is Yu-Kai Chou’s blog, right? Where are the breakdowns, the action steps?!

First, I’ll give you the roadmap – the route you will take to get to your Level 50, as well as some tips for how to get there efficiently.

Then, I’ll break this self-applied Hero’s Journey down via the excellent Octalysis tool – after all, it makes nothing but sense that something so innate to our humanity would affect change in a lot of Core Drives, no?

Let’s get into it.

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD

”It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – Gandalf the Grey 

Here we are, finally having arrived at the step-by-step walkthrough of The Hero’s Journey. It’s a doozy, so you’d better take a minute to get prepared. Here’s what I want you to do: Pick your favorite work of epic fiction (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Hunger Games, what have you.) and try to imagine the events that coincide with that story as we go through. Imagine the hero, the mentor, the goal, and the trials that arise as the character moves forward. Ready? Here are the steps: 

1) The Ordinary World

The Hero’s starting point – ordinary, pre-adventure life. Can be good or bad – In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s life is good. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’ life is terrible.

2) The Call To Adventure

The Hero is introduced to a larger world to be a part of – and is beckoned to it.

3a) Refusal of the Call

In a moment of fear or doubt, the Hero runs away from their calling.

3b) Meeting with the Mentor

This can be either the first time the character meets their mentor, or the moment when the Mentor encourages the Hero to take on the Quest.

4) Crossing the Threshold

The Hero takes his first steps out of the Ordinary World and into the Special World.

5) Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The Hero begins to face tests, involving allies and enemies to test their mettle and resolve – heroism is proven through difficulty.

6) Approach

Internal and external preparation – the moment at which the Hero sees their destination in sight.

7) Ordeal

The ultimate, central conflict. The big boss fight, where the stakes are highest and death lurks around every corner.

8) Reward

Having overcome the ordeal, there is either an intrinsic or extrinsic reward awaiting the hero and those who benefit from their actions. Sometimes this is concrete (like actual treasures), but often it’s more abstract and ethereal.

9a) The Road Back

The Special World, with all of the lessons and trials and investment that the Hero has endured, might be more comfortable than the Ordinary World. Sometimes the return is harder than the departure. (This doesn’t refer to a regression to where the hero was before, but often it’s a symbolic for reconciling who the Hero was, and who they now are.

9b) Epiphany

All of the growth and change the Hero has undertaken comes to a head in one glorious moment of enlightenment. This is the permanent transition into the new self, with the things of the Ordinary World now a distant memory.

10) The Return Home

The Hero returns home having changed, and uses the gifts, the strengths, the perspective they gained to better those around them. The Road Back saw the character having difficulty reconciling the Special World with the Ordinary World, and now adjusts to life as the proven Hero. 

Phew! OK, that was quite a bit to absorb. It was a near-perfect fit, wasn’t it? That story you picked? Cool, huh? Tell your friends!

But what have we learned? We’ve learned that the Hero’s Journey is a great framework for understanding stories, and that’s great – but take another look. Think of an area in your life where you feel like you NEED to change and haven’t done anything yet, and another area of your life where you’ve overcome (or are overcoming) a challenge that will lead to growth.

In the first example, what you’re managing is The Ordinary World. There’s nowhere to go but forward – what’s your ”Call” in this situation? What’s The Special World?

In the second, let’s say for argument’s sake that you are in the Tests, Allies, and Enemies phase. You began a fitness journey a year ago, and you’ve been tested through sickness and the difficulties of building the discipline to be consistent. Your wife started going with you to aid you in your quest, but you hear from all around you the taunting of people who tell you to quit – calls of ”you’re doing it wrong” or ”aren’t you satisfied yet?” or ”come hang out at the bar with us on Friday” surround and torment you as your mettle is tested.

Now what? What’s different? We’ve hopefully just learned exactly how effective a lens the Hero’s Journey can be through which to view life progress, and life effectiveness. Whatever your journey looks like, you’re somewhere on the path – and you have a roadmap now to move forward. Load up your bags, sharpen your sword, and get a good night’s rest – you have quite a journey ahead of you! 

AN 8-FACETED LOOK AT THE HERO

And here we’ve arrived at the Octalysis view of this whole process. What are the aspects of the Hero’s Journey that tap into the Core Drives and propel a person forward?

This is a bit of a different method of thinking, given that Octalysis is frequently used to analyze the engagement effectiveness of products or services, especially with respect to an external audience. We’re here using it to look at a framework that applies to one person. It’s a powerful tool, so let’s have a look.

The Hero's Journey Octalysis Analysis by Timothy Barber

What are some characteristics of this breakdown that we’re starting to notice?

There’s a strong balance between left/right, intrinsic/extrinsic motivators.

Obtaining something elusive, and building your achievements and accomplishments is inherent to the process of personal change and growth. Extrinsic motivators abound.

At the same time, the benefits of the thrill of adventure itself – the thrill of truly working toward a worthwhile change in your life – is tremendously motivating too! Coming up with creative solutions to important obstacles, while gaining mentorship and the aid of allies as you carry on the mysterious path of learning and discovery is undeniably rewarding.

Another thing – this is White Hat all the way! Accomplishment? Meaning? Empowerment? Just listen to the words we use to describe these Core Drives! They reek of heroism and nobility, and improvement. This whole process is about you, and your personal quest for change and improvement. When you succeed, it’s not just that you succeeded in building a skill. It’s that you succeeded at this, and as a result you directly benefited from your actions. And really, I’m not sure of many more successful ways to contribute to your sense of meaning.

As for the Black Hat aspects – the fear of loss can be an important facet, but it’s not designed in. There is something to be said for raising the stakes a bit. Science has born out the idea that we are more motivated to keep from losing something than we are to fight to gain something of equal value. It’s just not built into the process near to the degree that the others are. In fact, the fear of loss or avoidance is often more a demotivator than a motivator to go through this process! It’s hard! It takes effort, and lots of work! Some are content to stay in the ordinary world and never heed the call for fear that they’ll lose the life they lead, or for fear that they will fail. 

Wow. That was quite a *ahem* journey that we just went on. Thanks for sticking with me all the way to the end here!

If I could give you just two more tips, they would be these: 

START WITH WHY

Frodo could never have made the trip to Mount Doom, enduring what he did, if it weren’t for the fact that he was going to save the entire world from enslavement and misery. Meaning and Avoidance drove him in equal measure.

Luke wouldn’t have even taken his first step toward Alderaan if not for the fact that his journey would save lives.

Harry Potter wouldn’t have ever accepted the letter from Hogwarts if he had an incredible and beautiful home life to begin with – in his case he was driven away by the Avoidance and Curiosity, and by the Scarcity of the opportunity that awaited him: ”This might be my only chance to find something better!”

I’m not asking you to find a life-threatening problem and tackle it all at once. Motivation wanes and you’ll tail off if you try to go too quickly. Even the best need rest.

But you won’t be able to stick it out unless you really, TRULY care about finding success.

If you want to quit habitually drinking because you don’t like the smell of bourbon-breath or your beer belly, you won’t get very far before the Ordinary World is pretty attractive looking again.

On the other hand, if you’ve gotten a notice from your doctor about your declining liver health, you’re losing touch with your loved ones, or you don’t want to become like your father, you’ll be able to dig deep and find the motivation to carry on. Get serious with yourself about why you want to change.

A WINNING SYSTEM

This is going to come off as strange advice, but I don’t want you to focus all of your time on the goal. It won’t be near as helpful as you imagine.

Don’t get me wrong – having goals is very, VERY important. It’s crucial for determining your Point B and identifying your “why”. In fact, you need to be cognizant of the goal in order to get back on track toward it when you falter a little bit.

But this leads you into a modus operandi of thinking, without doing. Taking action is what separates a hero from a coward, remember? It’s a shame to do something wrong, but it’s also a shame to be able to do something good and do nothing.

Goal-oriented people are in a constant state of lacking, striving, and a focus on the ”someday” when their goal has been achieved.

The best way to achieve a goal is to break it down into a repeatable system and implement it with consistency to pave the road to accomplishing it.

Systems are great for the “doing” part – they are the course itself, what we follow on the journey toward reaching the goal.

Systems-oriented people are in a state of regular, motivating achievement, of daily guided successes, of blissful productivity. In the event of a setback, a mistake, or a failure, they are able to quickly identify the failing and course-correct. Build systems and hold yourself accountable to them – make it part of your to do list to follow up and implement what you know to do. 

There – now that I’ve shown you the Call to Adventure and offered a little bit of my Mentorship… are you ready to Cross the Threshold?

About the Author: Tim Barber is a game designer, gamification enthusiast and lifestyle designer, with companies like Google and YouTube in his resume. He blogs at OMDynamic, where he writes about how to live a more adventurous and heroic life using lessons, frameworks, and stories from video games.

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2 thoughts on “The Hero’s Journey: A Life of Legend”

  1. Is there any way of getting a clearer copy of the octalysis graph? I’m sure there are great insights in there, but the text is too blurry to read well.

  2. Wow, that was a blog post that needs some digestion! I definitely have to come back again on that one to grasp all the details that I didn’t get on my first read.

    Timothy your views and insights are an eye-opener. What I love about your article is, that it helps me to view my believes and experiences in a broader context. Making one step back and seeing a bit more of the big picture.

    While starting with the “why” is crucial, I’m convinced that the traditional approach of just stubbornly focusing on your goals is not the right way to achieve them. Rather it’s the process and behavior you establish and the actions you take. I thing your ideas perfectly align with the message of Reggie Rivers in his about the shortcomings of focusing on your goals (which, by the way, he does in a very entertaining way).

You must engage in the conversation!!