You don’t have to be a storyteller to know the Hero’s Journey. Even if you’ve never heard the term, you’ll recognize the concept. Think about any superhero story, epic fantasy adventure, or anything with an underdog hero rising up against all odds. Most popularly attributed to Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey is a story structure that many books, television shows, plays, and movies follow. If you break down the major actions of the story, they often use specific plot points to drive the momentum of the story forward.
Okay, that’s interesting, but what does that have to do with brain training? And more specifically, with motivation?
Two things. The first is that you’re the hero of your own story. And often as the hero, you face struggles that feel insurmountable. Maybe you’ve come up against an obstacle that you aren’t sure how to overcome. Or you’re feeling burnt out, stressed, overwhelmed, and are struggling to make it through your day to day. Even Frodo felt this way during his quest to rid Middle Earth of the Ring. But he made it, and so can you.
Second, motivation is often a thing that feels vague. And when something feels vague, it can feel out of reach. Our goal at Kwik Brain is to always break concepts down into bite-sized chunks that make them easily digestible. And perhaps looking at motivation through a slightly different but highly recognizable lens will help you discover your next breakthrough.
The Ordinary World
No matter where you are in your life or goals, every starting point is considered the ordinary world. It’s important to note what that ordinary world is for you because when things get tough, this is where you’ll want to go back to. And it’s hard to not see the appeal of returning. The ordinary world isn’t a bad place, it’s just not where you grow and achieve more.
In terms of motivation, your ordinary world is where your internal beliefs, mindset, behaviors, and habits currently exist. This is your comfort zone, and while it’s a nice place to visit, nothing grows there. In fact, it’s probably holding you back. You want to acknowledge your ordinary world for what it is, both the good and the bad, so that you can remember why you embarked on your journey in the first place.
Call to Adventure
In the movies, this is where our hero finds out that they’re the chosen one. They discover new abilities, sometimes learning that there’s a whole different world out there. But they also get some bad news. They have to use these newfound abilities to save the world.
Your call to adventure is whenever you decide you need change or want to pursue a goal. Maybe you decide to get a high performance rating at work so you can get a raise. Or maybe you’ve been fighting with your spouse and realize that starting counseling might avoid divorce. Adventure isn’t always fun. Sometimes there is a lot of danger and risk involved. But before you can go anywhere, you have to take the first step.
Refusal of the Call
It’s natural to face the crossroads of a major decision and decide not to do it. Luke Skywalker was called to action—twice. And refused—twice. First when R2-D2 showed him the message from Princess Leia. He only went to Ben Kanobi because R2-D2 ran away and he wanted to avoid conflict with his uncle. Then, when Obi-Wan asks him to join the rebellion, again he said no.
There are a lot of reasons to face an opportunity and turn it down. Maybe you’re afraid of what counseling with your spouse will bring up. Or that even if you do all the extra work, you still might not get the promotion. You might not want to put in the extra time at the gym, or give up your favorite foods to diet. If you find yourself hesitant to take the next step, remember this is normal. Self-doubt and fear of failure are powerful. The important part is to recognize these feelings and push past them. Remind yourself that this is a journey, failure is part of that journey, but so is success.
Meeting the Mentor
Sometimes the mentor is the one who raises the call to adventure. Other times, part of accepting the call is to find the mentor. Morpheus sought Neo out believing he was the chosen one, where Daniel LaRusso went looking for a teacher and found Mr. Miagi. And sometimes a mentor is assigned to you, as happened with Katniss Everdeen and Haymitch Abernathy. No matter how the mentor comes into the picture, it’s early in the quest. It doesn’t do the hero much good if the mentor happens along at the end.
The same is true in your life. Whether you seek them out, they are already in your life, or they’re assigned to you, finding your mentor early on is important when facing new challenges. They don’t have to be an expert in whatever you’re facing, they just have to be supportive and reliable. A good mentor will help raise your confidence, provide valuable insight, and offer guidance at pivotal moments. Finding the right mentor can be the difference between success and failure, so choose wisely. Even if you don’t seek them out, accepting their help is also a choice.
Crossing the Threshold
No matter why or how adamantly the hero refuses to embark on the journey initially, they do eventually choose to go. Sometimes this choice is forced by fate. Luke joined the rebellion because his aunt and uncle were killed. Dorothy was swept away to Oz by a tornado and has to travel to the Emerald City in order to go home. Other times, the hero makes the choice before tragedy strikes. Frodo chose to join the Fellowship and destroy the One Ring before anything happened to the Shire.
In a similar vein, you might choose to go after your goal willingly. Or, there might be an external force pushing you forward. It doesn’t matter why you decide to take the first step towards your goal. The second you make that move, you cross the threshold and leave your comfort zone. Remember, the comfort zone is a nice place, but not a lot grows there. In order to learn and grow, you have to embrace the unknown and trust that you will figure things out as you go.
Tests, Allies, & Enemies
The journey towards growth is hard. And along the way, the hero faces a number of tests. Of course, they aren’t alone, but for every ally they find, there’s also an enemy to face. Katniss formed alliances with other tributes but so did her enemies. Luke met Han, Chewie, and Princess Leia, but had to fight Stormtroopers and Darth Vader. Even Odysseus, who had help from the gods still had to overcome numerous setbacks, challenges, and monsters.
In real life, these tests will be things like setbacks, obstacles, and unexpected roadblocks. You’re going to have to face some emotional challenges in counseling, which might cause more fighting with your spouse. Or it might bring up aspects of your past that are difficult to face. You might get sick and miss a deadline at work, or find out that a coworker is going for the same promotion you are and has made more progress. No matter how difficult things get, remember that the obstacle is the way. Use your friends, mentors, and family to help give you the strength you need during those challenging time. The enemy of great is good, which means rather than facing an actual opponent, you may have to face your fears, your bad habits, and your own limiting beliefs so you can learn and grow.
Approach the Innermost Cave
Though the name can be a little misleading, the innermost cave refers to the heart of the journey. This is the most challenging part, in many ways, because it’s preparing for the make or break moment of the entire journey. For Luke, it’s the moment after they make it all the way to Alderaan only to watch the planet get destroyed. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they’re then caught in the Death Star tractor beam where they’re dragged into the literal belly of the beast—the Empire.
It’s unlikely you’ll witness exploding planets or tractor beams, but this might show up in the hours before a deadline or having to face some of your inner demons in therapy. It might be doing the hard work and learning that your coworker did it better. This is hard because it isn’t the actual challenge but all the tense moments leading up to it. It’s when you have to look at your goal, look at the biggest obstacle, and realize that this is the moment you’ve been working towards. It’s daunting, but if you stay focused on your goal and trust in your abilities, you will find the courage to overcome any obstacle put in your path.
Nothing in life ever goes as planned, especially when you’re almost at your goal. The hardest part of any journey is reaching the final summit and there’s always something standing in your way. For Katniess Everdeen, it’s the moment when she and Peeta are the last two tributes and the Capital changes the rules once again. For Frodo, it’s facing the temptation to keep the One Ring when he’s literally standing above the fires of Mordor.
No matter what your goal is, pushing through to the end is always going to be difficult. Think of it like running a race, or climbing Mount Everest. You’re tired. You’ve been exerting yourself and pushing yourself forward for miles. Your muscles ache, your energy is gone. You might be one paycheck away from getting out of debt when an unexpected expense hits. Or your company changes the guidelines for that promotion you’ve been working towards. But this is what your journey has prepared you for. Remember to take a moment to regroup, find all the reasons you want to reach your goal, and find a way to forge ahead.
Victory & Reward
Once you overcome The Ordeal, you’ve achieved your goal. Sometimes this happens right away, and other times it’s a gradual accomplishment. And sometimes, it’s the start of a new journey. In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner finds out that he was chosen for the coveted full-time position at the brokerage firm. The victory and reward was getting the job, but that was only the start of many obstacles and goals in Gardner’s path.
Whatever your victory and reward looks like, be sure to acknowledge and celebrate your success. Because this might be a new skill, or another first step, it can be easy to dismiss or overlook your accomplishment. Not everyone can save Middle Earth or destroy the Death Star. Sometimes, victory and reward means solidifying a new habit, or completing one project so you can start another one that’s more challenging. Olympic champions have myriad victories and rewards as they train for the medal itself. And they’d never reach one without every success along the way. So be sure to take the time to recognize your achievement and reflect on what you’ve learned.
The Road Back
Accomplishing your goal is only one part of success. The second part is returning home to share your newfound wisdom. And sometimes that comes with its own struggles. Take Simba, for example. He learns what it takes to be King, but in order to truly apply his success, he has to return to the Pride Lands and overthrow Scar to reclaim his rightful throne. Even Odysseus has to confront the suitors in his palace, and Luke, Leia, and Han have to take the stolen Death Star plans back to the Rebellion to prepare for one final attack.
The road back in your life can be as varied as these fictional examples. Just because you succeed in getting a promotion, doesn’t mean you don’t have to prove yourself still. You have to gain the trust of your new team, and show your superiors that you deserve the position. If you win a marathon, you still have to train, and perhaps show your community how you appreciated their support by giving back. You might have to face your old habits, make amends for past behavior, or prove your skills are replicable and not a one-time success.
Once you complete the road back, whatever you were preparing to face happens in the resurrection. This is your final challenge. It tests the lessons you learned, both on the journey and in your victory. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo realizes that he can no longer be part of the Fellowship and must travel to Mordor alone. Maximus has to fight the Emperor in the Colosseum to avenge his family.
This might be your first performance review after your promotion, or your first big fight with your spouse after a big breakthrough. It might be facing a relapse. Or it could simply be having to face the urge to return to the bad habits and behaviors that were holding you back before. Use what you’ve learned, rely on your roadmap to success, talk to your mentors, and you’ll succeed in this challenge the same you did all the others. You’ll know this is the final challenge, indicating how far you’ve grown, because while it will be difficult, you will succeed. And if you don’t, perhaps reevaluate where you are in your journey, and you’ll find the next steps to take to reach your goals.
Return with the Elixir
You can look at the elixir as true knowledge. This is when you’ve not only succeeded in your goals, but become a master at what you were learning. Daniel Russo realizes that winning the tournament is about more than the trophy. He had to overcome the mental and emotional obstacles that his opponent could not. Luke restored (temporary) peace to the galaxy, but learned to become one with the Force.
At this point in your journey, you’re performing well at your new job, you and your spouse are not only communicating clearly and effectively with each other, but you’re finding joy in your partnership in new and unexpected ways. This is going beyond victory, beyond success, and into finding your true purpose. You have inner strength and knowledge that allows you to see the world differently. But even more important, you embrace your purpose and use it to embark on a new journey.
The Hero’s Journey is a common narrative structure in fiction. But it can be a guide for achieving your goals and overcoming obstacles as you work towards those goals. There will always be setbacks, unexpected problems, and even points of failure whenever you pursue goals that will elevate your mindset and your life. But when you answer the call to adventure, seek guidance and support, embrace the unknown, and face all challenges head-on, you can learn the skills you need to emerge victorious in anything you set your mind on. Become the hero of your own journey and unlock your limitless potential.