By Sandy Burgham
Nearly all of the individuals that I coach are senior executives in their mid-life, and seeking help in exploring leadership issues and opportunities. By pulling back and observing their work experiences in the greater context of their life, breakthroughs in leadership thinking and being can occur. We all overuse a particular word, and mine is “journey”. I am aware that some write this off as new-age rhetoric. But it is such a critical word to help reframe the experience one is having, and allow the person to observe things with new perspective.
Increasingly I am fascinated by the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and where his legacy intersects with Carl Jung and his theory on archetypes, and the journey to individuation. Campbell’s life work was studying mythical narratives across all cultures. Why did it fascinate him so much? Because simply put, myths are a metaphor for the human experience reflecting the journeys we all take, or strive to take, throughout our lives.
“The journey” is a relatable experience to all functioning humans, all cultures have a strong connection to their own myths. Looking to one’s own experience of life as a mythical journey or story is a way of gaining perspective. When fully participating in life there are three basic stages to what Campbell dubbed “The Hero’s Journey” – the Separation, the Initiation and the Return. By going on the journey, the person experiences life, tests their limits, excels in their expectations of their ability, learns from failure and so forth — and lives to tell the tale.
You may recognise yourself in one of these stages. The Separation, or the “call for adventure” is often refused at first. But the universe seems to persist until the individual feels compelled to follow their instincts or obey some inner calling. For the stubborn and the most afraid, or if this inner calling is buried under layers of habit, there may be the big Wake Up Call – the redundancy, the shock divorce, the illness. With the Wake Up Call there’s no choir of angels announcing it’s “time” —whether you like it or not, it’s time to leave one stage in life and move toward the next. The Initiation is when limits are tested; you meet a variety of people (archetypes) and collect both skills and character-building experiences along the way. The Return is the final stage, when the hero of the piece (you) comes back to the “ordinary world” to share the power and knowledge, which in turn will empower and inspire others.
This is a pretty simplistic version of Campbell’s wonderful work but the overriding message here is recognise that whether you like it or not, it is all about a journey …. so step aboard! Campbell was committed to the idea of people finding “their bliss”, the answer to the question “What am I here to do?” One thing is for sure, the answer will not come by sitting around thinking about
- You must go exploring, looking for it and fully experience it.
Think about your own life story. Are you refusing the initial call to adventure? If so, practice making your courage greater than your fear. Encountering roadblocks and people who stop you from achieving your goal? Great! It’s a good sign you are on your journey. Mid-life is a great time to ask the question: “Am I actually being the person I dreamt I’d be?” The answer can be surprising when people realise how safe they have played it. I’ll leave you with my favourite Campbell quote to think on. “You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.”
— Sandy Burgham
This post first appeared in The Hobson April, 2014