Be the hero of your story. It’s common advice from motivational speakers and life coaches, a call to arms to take centre stage and tackle life’s challenges head-on, to emerge victorious in the face of adversity, to transform through hardship.
As humans, hardwired to view the world and share experiences through the medium of stories, myths often act as powerful motivators of change. From ancient cave paintings to the Star Wars and its Death Star to Harry Potter and his battle against evil, the hero’s journey structure is a familiar one. It’s also one you need to know if you want to know how to write a book, but I digress.
This article will outline the stages, and psychological meaning, of the 12 steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. So, are you ready to become the hero of your story? Then let the adventure begin…
Who is Joseph Campbell?
Joseph Campbell was an American professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, and an expert of mythology that once spent five years in a rented shack, buried in books for nine hours each day. His greatest contribution is the hero’s journey, outlined in his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Campbell was able to synthesise huge volumes of heroic stories, distilling a common structure amongst them.
Near the end of his life, Campbell was interviewed by Bill Moyers in a documentary series exploring his work, The Power of Myth.
Throughout their discussion, Campbell highlighted the importance of myth not just in stories, but in our lives, as symbols to inspire us to flourish and grow to our full potential.
How is the hero’s journey connected to self development?
You might be wondering what storytelling has to do with self-development. Before we dive into the hero’s journey (whether that is a male or a female hero’s journey), context will be useful. Joseph Cambell was heavily inspired by the work of Carl Jung, the groundbreaking psychologist who throughout his life worked on theories such as the shadow, collective unconscious, archetypes, and synchronicity.
Jung’s greatest insight was that the unconscious is a vast, vibrant landscape, yet out sight from the ordinary conscious experience. Jung didn’t only theorize about the unconscious; he provided a huge body of work explaining the language of the unconscious, and the way in which it communicates with the conscious mind.
The nature of the unconscious
Due to its vast nature, the unconscious doesn’t operate like the conscious mind, which is based in language, logic, and rationality. The unconscious instead operates in the imaginal realm — using symbols and meaning that take time to be deciphered and understood consciously. Such symbols surface in dreams, visualizations, daydreams, or fantasies.
For Jung, the creative process is one in which contents of the unconscious mind are brought to light. Enter storytelling and character development — a process of myth-making that somehow captures the truth of deep psychological processes.
Campbell saw the power of myth in igniting the unconscious will to grow and live a meaningful life. With that in mind, his structure offers a tool of transformation and a way to inspire the unconscious to work towards your own hero’s journey.
The 12 steps of the hero’s journey
The hero’s journey ends where it begins, back at the beginning after a quest of epic proportions. The 12 steps are separated into three acts:
- departure (1-5)
- initiation (5-10)
- return (10-1)
The hero journeys through the 12 steps in a clockwise fashion. As Campbell explains:
“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.”
Let’s take a closer look at each of the steps below. Plus, under each is a psychological symbol that describes how the hero’s journey unfolds, and how when the hero ventures forth, he undergoes an inner process of awakening and transformation.
1. The ordinary world
The calm before the storm. The hero is living a standard, mundane life, going about their business unaware of the impending call to adventure. At this point, the hero is portrayed as very, very human. There could be glimpses of their potential, but these circumstances restrict the hero from fulfilling them. Although well within the hero’s comfort zone, at this stage, it’s clear something significant is lacking from their life.
This is represented as a stage of ignorance, pre-awakening. Living life by the status quo, on other people’s terms, or simply without questioning if this is what you want. At this point life is lived, but not deeply satisfying.
2. Call to adventure
Next is a disruption, a significant event that threatens the ways things were. This is a challenge that the hero knows deep down will lead to transformation and change, and that the days of normality, “the way things are,” are numbered. The hero confronts the question of being asked to step into their deeper potential, to awaken the power within, and to enter a new, special world.
Many of us embark on inner-journeys following hardship in life — the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, physical or mental illness. This stage occurs when it becomes apparent that, to move through suffering, one has to look within, to adventure into the soul.
3. Refusal of the call
No compelling story would be complete without friction. The hero often resists this call to adventure, as fear and self-doubt surface at full force, and the purpose of this new life direction is questioned. Can the reluctant hero journey forth? Do they have the courage?
The only way to grow and live a deeply fulfilling life is to face the discomfort of suffering. Campbell himself once said: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” At this stage, fears, and anxieties about delving deep into the psyche arise. The temptation is to remain blissfully ignorant, to avoid discomfort, and to stay in your familiar world.
4. Meeting a mentor
As the hero faces a crisis of confidence, a wise mentor figure appears.
This character offers inspiration, guidance, or understanding that encourages the hero to have the self-belief to start this new adventure. In many stories, a mentor is someone else who has embarked on the hero’s journey, or someone who attempted, and failed. This person reflects the importance of this mission, reminding the hero their calling far exceeds their fear.
When the journey of exploration has to begin, people or situations enter your life at just the right time, guiding you in the right direction. This could be a close friend, a peer, a professional, such as a coach or therapist, or even a fictional character in a film or book. In most cases, these are chance encounters that contain a sense of knowing before the hero leaves on his or her adventure.
5. Crossing the threshold
This is a pivotal moment in the hero’s journey, as the initiation begins. This occurs when the hero fully commits to their quest, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. This is the point of no return, where the reluctant hero embarks on their adventure, and has accepted that the way things were must change. The hero enters a new zone, one in which the call to adventure must be accepted. The hero’s resolve is hardened, and they understand they have a responsibility to confront what is ahead of them.
Whatever your life was before the call to action, this is a crossroads which is accepted, knowing your life may never be the same. This is a point of empowerment, where you realize that journeying within will lead you to greater self-understanding, even if those insights will dramatically change your life direction.
6. Test, allies, enemies
Now the hero has ventured outside of their comfort zone, the true test begins. This is a stage of acclimatizing to unknown lands. Unknown forces work against them, as they form bonds with allies who join them along the way, or face formidable enemies or encounters that have to be conquered. Throughout this testing time, the hero will be shaped and molded through adversity, finding deeper meaning in their life and mission.
Once the journey of self-discovery is underway, the initial burst of inspiration might be tested by the difficulty of the task. You might meet people who are able to offer advice or guide you, or those who reflect areas of yourself you have to work on.
Often, these are inner experiences, in the forms of memories, emotions, or outward tests, such as difficult circumstances that challenge your resolve and commitment to your new life direction.
7. Approach to the inmost cave
Having already crossed the threshold into the unknown and the uncertain, having faced obstacles and enemies, and having begun to utilize their qualities along the way, the next stage is another threshold.
This is the beating heart of the hero’s challenge, where again self-doubt and fear can arise, as another threshold has to be crossed. This is often a period of respite, giving the hero time to pause and reflect. Will the hero make the leap?
The hero’s journey has ups and downs. There may be quick wins in the beginning — your new life direction may go well, or inner-work may lead you to a new place of calm or confidence. But then, out of nowhere, comes an even bigger challenge, surfacing as a question mark to the person you’ve become. Life often has a way of presenting the right challenges at the right time…
This is the life-or-death moment. This can be a meeting with an ultimate enemy or facing the hero’s deepest fear. There is an awareness that if the hero fails, their new world, or their life, could be destroyed.
Everything the hero has fought for up to this point, all the lessons learned along the journey, all the hidden potentials actualized, will have to be utilized to survive this supreme ordeal, for the hero to be victorious. Either way, the hero will undergo a form of death, and leave the ordeal forever changed.
There are inner challenges that have to be confronted on the journey of self-discovery. This might be in the form of trauma that has to be confronted and healed, people with whom you have to have difficult conversations, or fears you have to face, actions that in the past you never thought you’d be capable of. But, with the skills you’ve learned along the way, this time you’ll be ready. But it won’t be easy.
9. Reward (seizing the sword)
Through great adversity comes triumph. Having confronted their greatest fear, and survived annihilation, the hero learns a valuable lesson, and is now fully transformed and reborn — with a prize as a reward.
This object is often symbolized as a treasure, a token, secret knowledge, or reconciliation, such as the return of an old friend or lover. This prize can assist in the return to the ordinary world — but there are still a few steps to come.
When confronting deep inner fears or challenges, you are rewarded with deep insights or breakthroughs. That might be in the form of achieving a significant goal or inwardly having a sense of peace or reconciliation with your past, or moments that have previously felt unresolved. As a spiritual process, this may also be the realization that behind suffering and pain lies freedom or inner peace.
10. The road back
Having traveled into distant, foreign lands and slain the dragon, now it’s time for the hero to make their return journey. This stage mirrors the original call to adventure and represents another threshold.
The hero may be understanding their new responsibility and the consequences of their actions, and require a catalyst to make the journey back to the ordinary world with their prize.
The hard work has been done, the ultimate fear confronted, new knowledge found. Now, what’s the next step? For many, the initial stages of growth come with a period of renunciation or are symbolized by an outward journey away from home, or away from familiarity.
Then comes the stage of returning to familiarity, or the things left behind — be it family, friends, locations, or even behaviors that were once loved and sacrificed during the journey.
When it appears the hero is out of the woods, there comes a final confrontation — an encounter with death itself. Transformed inwardly and with a personal victory complete, the hero faces a battle that transcends their individual quest, with its consequences far-reaching, for entire communities or even humanity itself.
This purification solidifies the hero’s rebirth, as their new identity fully emerges just in time to return to the ordinary world.
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is secondary to self-transcendence. In other words, once inner battles have been faced, and the alchemy of psychological transformation is underway, the next stage is to apply the newfound insights and knowledge to a bigger cause — supporting others, or standing up a mission that will benefit the wider world.
12. Return with the elixir
Following the final battle, the hero finally returns home. By now, personal transformation is complete, they’re returning home a different person. Having faced indescribable hardship, the hero returns with added wisdom and maturity. The elixir is the treasure they’ve returned with, ready to share with the ordinary world. This could be a sense of hope, freedom, or even a new perspective to assist those originally left behind.
The hero has a new level of self-awareness, seeing the ordinary world through fresh eyes. They’ve left internal conflict behind. There’s an understanding that things will never be the same, but that the hero’s journey was part of their destiny.
Then comes the ultimate prize: a final reconciliation, acceptance from the community, celebration, redemption. Whatever the prize, there are three elements: change, success, and proof of the journey.
Following a transformative psychic process, there’s an understanding of what is within your control. The “ordinary world” may have many elements that remain the same, but this is accompanied by a realization that when you change, so does your reality. Previously modes of thinking may be replaced, as bridges are built with your past, giving opportunity for a renewed approach to life.
What can we learn from the hero’s journey?
At the time of writing this article, I’m in the UK visiting my family for the first time in 18 months. As I walked down paths I’d walked throughout my childhood, I was struck by how much I’ve changed over the years. A passage from T.S Eliot’s poem Little Gidding came to mind:
“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”
I reflected on the notion of coming full circle — to begin a journey, outwardly or inwardly, before finding yourself back at the beginning, transformed. In spiritual traditions, the circle is a powerful symbol of timelessness, death and rebirth, totality, and wholeness. Aptly, the 12 steps of the hero’s journey are depicted as a circle. It’s not a coincidence.
What can we learn from the hero’s journey? In a way, it is similar to the writer’s journey. Above all else, it’s a reminder that we each within us have a purpose, a quest and a mission in this life that can and will invoke our truest potential. The path isn’t easy — there are many, many challenges along the way. But at the right time, people and situations will come to our aid.
If you’re able to confront the mission head-on and take bold steps along the way — just like all the heroes of fiction before you, from Shakespeare’s characters to Luke Skywalker and Rey from the universe brought to us by George Lucas — then you will be transformed, and then you can return to where you started, reborn, ready to share your gifts and your lessons with the world.
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