How to Use the Hero’s Journey for Personal Development

by Scott Jeffrey

Treasure, love, reward, approval, honor, status, freedom, survival … these are some of the many things we associate with the hero’s journey.

We don’t find the meaning of the hero’s journey in slaying the dragon or saving the princess—these are colorful metaphors and symbols for a more significant purpose.

Battling inner and outer demons, confronting bullies, and courting your ultimate mate symbolize a passage through the often-treacherous tunnel of self-discovery and individuation to mature adulthood.

At the end of each journey (if there is such an end), you’re different—sometimes visually, but always internally.

Today, let’s explore the meaning of the hero’s journey and see how it applies to psychological development and our ability to actualize more of our potential.

What is the Hero’s Journey?

Joseph Campbell was a curious mythologist. In the field of comparative mythology, most scholars invested their time exploring how one culture’s myths are different than another.

Instead of focusing on the many differences between cultural myths and religious stories, however, Campbell looked for the similarities. And his studies resulted in what’s called the monomyth.

The monomyth is a universal story structure. It’s a kind of story template that takes a character through a sequence of stages.

The main character in the monomyth is the hero. The hero isn’t a person, but an archetype—a set of universal images combined with specific patterns of behavior. Think of a protagonist from your favorite film. He or she represents the hero. The storyline of the film enacted the hero’s journey. The Hero archetype resides in the psyche of every individual, which is one of the primary reasons we love hearing and watching stories.

Campbell began identifying the patterns of this monomyth. Over and over again, he was amazed to find this structure in the cultures he studied. He saw the same sequence in many religions including the stories of Gautama Buddha, Moses, and Jesus Christ.

Campbell outlined the stages of the monomyth in his classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (audiobook).

Why is the Hero’s Journey Relevant to Us?

We might ask, why explore the Hero’s Journey? Sure, Hollywood uses it as their dominant story structure for its films (more on that later), but what relevance does it have for us as individuals?

Today, when we speak of “myth,” we refer to something that’s commonly believed, but untrue. Myth, for people like Campbell and Jung however, had a much deeper meaning.

Myths, for them, represent dreams of the collective psyche. That is, in understanding the symbolic meaning of a myth, you come to know the psychological undercurrent—including hidden motivations, tensions, and desires—of the people.

And because the hero’s journey represents a monomyth that we can observe in most, if not all, cultures, it represents a process that is relevant to the entire human family.

What is this process? It’s the process of personal transformation from an innocent child into a mature adult. The child is born into a set of rules and beliefs of a group of people, and through the child’s heroic efforts he must break free from these conventions (transcend them) to discover him or herself. And in the process, the individual returns to his or her soul.

If we think of the hero’s journey as a roadmap for self-development, it can hold a lot of value for us.

heros journey steps

The 3 Main Stages of the Hero’s Journey

So now let’s begin to break down the structure and sequence of the hero’s journey.

Stage 1: Departure

Campbell called the initial stage departure or the call to adventure. The hero departs from the world he knows. Luke Skywalker leaves his home planet to join Obi-Wan to save the princess. Neo gets unplugged from The Matrix with the help of Morpheus and his crew. In the Departure stage, you leave the safety of the world you know and enter the unknown.

Campbell writes of this stage in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

This first step of the mythological journey—which we have designated the “call to adventure”—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.

Stage 2: Initiation

Now the hero must face a series of trials and tribulations. The hero’s journey isn’t safe. The hero is tested in battle, skill, and conflict. The hero may not succeed in each action but must press on. The hero will meet allies, enemies, and mentors with supernatural aid throughout the initiation stage.

Stage 3: Return

Having endured the trials and hardships of the adventure, the hero returns home. But the hero is no longer the same. An internal transformation has taken place through the maturation process of the experience. Luke is now a Jedi and has come to peace with his past. Neo embraces his destiny and liberates himself from the conventions of The Matrix.

The Hero’s Journey in Drama

In Three Uses of a Knife, famed playwright David Mamet suggests a similar three-act structure for plays and dramas:

Act 1: Thesis. The drama presents life as it is for the protagonist. The ordinary world.

Act 2: Antithesis. The protagonist faces opposing forces that send him into an upheaval (disharmony).

Act 3: Synthesis. The protagonist attempts to integrate the old life with the new one.

Pause: Accessing Your Place in the Hero’s Journey

Before we explore the stages of the monomyth more closer, let’s look at what these three phases reveal about our self-development and the individuation process.

Stage 1 represents our comfort zone. We feel safe here because it is known to us.

Stage 2 and 3, however, represent the unknown. Embracing the unknown means letting go of safety.

Abraham Maslow points out that we are confronted with an ongoing series of choices throughout life between safety and growth, dependence and independence, regression and progression, immaturity and maturity.

Maslow writes in Toward a Psychology of Being:

We grow forward when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety.

It becomes clear here why so many of us refuse the call to adventure. We cling to the safety of the known instead of embracing the “delight of growth” that only comes from the unknown.

heros journey steps

10 Hero’s Journey Steps

Campbell didn’t just outline three stages of the monomyth. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he deconstructs every step along the journey.

I’m going to outline these steps below using a slightly simplified version from another excellent book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

As you scan these hero’s journey steps, see if you can determine how they apply to your development.

Step 1: The Ordinary World

Before a would-be hero can enter the special world, he must first live in the ordinary world. The ordinary world is different for each of us—it represents our norms, customs, conditioned beliefs, and behaviors. In The Hobbit, the ordinary world is the Shire where Bilbo Baggins lives with all the other Hobbits—gardening, eating and celebrating—living a simple life. Novelist J.R.R. Tolkien contrasts this life in the Shire with the special world of wizards, warriors, men, elves, dwarfs, and evil forces on the brink of world war.

Step 2: The Call to Adventure

The Call to Adventure marks a transition from the ordinary world to the special world. The hero is introduced to his quest of great consequence. Fear of change as well as death, however, often lead the hero to refuse the call to adventure. The ordinary world represents our comfort zone; the special world signifies the unknown. The hero resists change initially but is ultimately forced to make a critical decision: embark on the adventure or forever remain in the ordinary world with its illusion of security. This defining moment helps the hero to…

Step 3: Cross the First Threshold

In one sense, this is the point of no return. Once the hero shoots across the unstable suspension bridge, it bursts into flames. There’s no turning back, at least, not the way in which he came. The first threshold marks a major decision: “I’m going to travel around the globe.” “I’m going to transform my physical health.” “I am going to write a book.” “I’m going to master the flute.” “I’m going to realize my true nature.” This first breakthrough is a feat within itself; however, it is but the first of many turning points.

Step 4: Trials, Friends, and Foes

Along the hero’s journey, the main character encounters many obstacles. Some people may try to stop you along your quest—possibly saying you’re unreasonable or unrealistic. These dream-stoppers are often cleverly masked as friends and family who appear to have positive intentions but hinder your development nonetheless. Your ability to identify obstructions on your path and align with supporters along your adventure is critical to your mission’s success. Because few people complete their hero’s journey to mature adulthood, most people will unconsciously attempt to sabotage yours.

Step 5: Magical Mentor (or the Mentor with Supernatural Aid)

Generally, at an early stage of the adventure, the hero is graced by the presence of a wise sage. Personified in stories as a magical counselor, a reclusive hermit, or a wise leader, the mentor’s role is to help guide you. Think Obi-Wan, Yoda, Gandalf, Morpheus, or Dumbledore. Sometimes cloaked in mystery and secret language, a mentor manifests when the hero is ready. But our modern world is depleted of wise elders or shamans who can effectively bless the younger generation. (See King Warrior Magician Lover for a full treatment on this important topic.) For most of us, it is best to seek wise counsel from your inner guide, the Higher Self within.

wise old man individuation process

Step 6: Dragon’s Lair

The next significant threshold is often more treacherous than the first. Entering the villain’s castle or the evil billionaire’s mansion, this second major decision usually puts the hero at significant physical and psychological risks. Within the walls of the innermost cave lies the cornerstone of the special world where the hero closes in on his objective. For a man, the innermost cave represents the Mother Complex, a regressive part of him that seeks to return to the safety of the mother. When a man seeks safety and comfort—when he demands pampering—it means he’s engulfed within the innermost cave.

Step 7: Moment of Despair

No worthwhile adventure is easy. There are many perils on the path to growth, discovery, and self-realization. A major obstacle confronts the hero, and the future begins to look dim: a trap, a mental imprisonment, or imminent defeat on the battlefield. It seems like the adventure will come to a sad conclusion, as all hope appears lost. But hope remains and it is in these moments of despair when the hero must access a hidden part of himself—one more micron of energy, strength, faith, or creativity to find his way out of the belly of the beast. The hero must call on an inner power he doesn’t know he possesses.

Step 8: Ultimate Treasure

Having defeated the enemy and slain the dragon, the hero receives the prize. Pulling the metaphorical sword from the stone, the hero achieves the objective he set out to complete. Whether the reward is monetary, physical, romantic, or spiritual, the hero transforms. And often, the prize the hero initially sought becomes secondary as a result of the personal transformation he undergoes. Perhaps the original quest was financially driven, but now the hero takes greater satisfaction in serving others in need. The real change is always internal.

Step 9: Homeward Bound

Alas, the adventure isn’t over yet. Now the hero must return to the world from which he came with the sacred elixir. Challenges still lie ahead in the form of villains, roadblocks, and inner demons. The hero must deal with whatever issues were left unresolved at this stage of the journey. Taking moral inventory, examining the Shadow, and performing constant self-inquiry help the hero identify weaknesses that will later play against him.

Step 10: Rebirth & The Champion’s Return

Before returning home—before the adventure is over—there’s often one more unsuspected, unforeseen ordeal. This final threshold, which may be more difficult than the prior moment of despair, provides one last test to solidify the growth of the hero. In this final stage, the hero can become master of both worlds, with the freedom to live and grow, impacting all of humanity. Returning with the prize, the hero’s experience of reality is different. He is no longer an innocent child or adolescent seeking excitement or adventure. Comfortable in his own skin, he has evolved and is now capable of handling demands and challenges.

The Hero’s Journey in Films

Are you now aware of how these hero’s journey steps play out in the films and television series you watch?

One challenge our society faces is that many popular film franchises produce movies that never complete the hero’s journey. Many popular characters in action films like Marvel and DC Comics superheroes, James Bond, Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible), Indiana Jones, etc. never transform.

heros journey steps

 

These characters stay in the adolescent stage of development (and we celebrate that reality). They don’t evolve into the warm, vulnerable, generative adults that no longer seek adventure and excitement.

You see, the Hero archetype isn’t in alignment with mature adulthood. It’s a by-product of adolescents. The archetypes of adulthood are different, but to access them, we must complete the hero’s journey first. Perhaps we’ll cover the adult archetypes in another guide in the future. (If you want to explore them now, see Gillette and Moore’s King Warrior Magician Lover.)

Where Are You On Your Hero’s Journey?

More importantly, do you see how these steps are unfolding in your life?

Although each of our tales is unique, they do have common threads—elements of this universal structure that we all share.

And if you return from the moment of despair—from inside the dragon’s lair—without the reward (or lesson), you will undoubtedly be presented with a similar adventure repeated ad infinitum until either the lesson is learned or you give up.

In the beginning, the hero’s journey is about achievement. Whether you’re trying to build a successful business, raise a family, write a screenplay, travel to a distant land, or produce a work of art, these all represent external achievements that often launch us into our hero’s journey.

But through the course of this external quest—if we become more conscious—the journey transitions to an emphasis on internal growth that leads to transformation.

The Primary Ingredient in Every Hero’s Journey

Compelling stories (and real life) come down to one thing: problems.

The protagonist faces a problem and tries to overcome it. Problems represent the essence of drama and the key to good storytelling. Without problems—without troubles and tensions—there’s no story and nothing to engage us. The hero must face his problems, surmount his fears, resolve his tensions, or fail.

The same is true for our development: without problems and tensions, there can be no growth. Psychological development is the process of overcoming setbacks, limitations, and conditioned behavior to reach maturity.

hero's journey call to adventure

Your Call to Adventure

Few people ever fully embrace the Hero’s Journey, a psychological odyssey that leads the individual to wholeness.

Because of our fear of the unknown, many of us refuse the call to adventure. We delay our journey in many ways:

  • Put important things aside.
  • Procrastinate.
  • Distract ourselves with social media and other people’s lives.
  • Make excuses.
  • Become lazy.

But something brews inside of us. An internal tension builds. It may be small at first, but it grows stronger in the darkness. Tensions are those opposing forces at play within us. This internal conflict creates disharmony.

Humans don’t like disharmony, and so these internal tensions can catapult us out of the familiar. The feeling of discord leads to action and ultimately, some resolution.

Maybe you’re currently embracing your hero’s journey. Or perhaps you’ve been refusing the call. It matters not. What matters is what you do today—right now.

How to Embrace Your Hero’s Journey

Ultimately, no one can tell you how to embrace your hero’s journey or what it should look like for you. As the caddy Bagger Vance (magical mentor) says to Rannulph Junuh (hero) in The Legends of Bagger Vance:

“Now I can’t take you there Junuh, I just hopes I can help you find a way.”

From my perspective, this is the value of having a personal coach. An effective coach doesn’t tell you what to do; instead, a coach helps you find the answers within yourself.

I’ve put together a series of coaching sessions that include assessments, discovery processes, assignments, and guides designed to help you get clarity on your hero’s journey.

Think of it as your personalized map for embracing your adventure.

Learn more about The Ultimate Self-Coaching Course here to embark on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery, higher achievement, and personal transformation.

Book Recommendations

A Hero With a Thousand Faces (Audiobook)
by Joseph Campbell

hero's journey

The Power of Myth (Audiobook)
by Joseph Campbell

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
by Christopher Vogler

How To Be an Adult
by David Richo

Mythos Lecture Series (DVD)
by Joseph Campbell

hero's journey

Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama
by David Mamet

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Joseph Campbell on Becoming an Adult


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