Little Steps in the Hero’s Journey

August 3, 2007

I’m a difficult coaching client. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m a pain in the butt. Fortunately for the coaches, right now I rotate every couple of weeks as we do coaching exercises in my class through MentorCoach.

I don’t get stuck on the “how to” part. I can help anyone breakdown a goal into small steps that are easy to accomplish—one of the reasons I really enjoying coaching others. For myself, I get stuck on the “what to,” which usually boils down to “why to.” Or more fluidly: “To what end?”

It’s the underlying philosophy, the ideology, that I keep returning to with these questions. I think about starting a free-subscription newsletter with articles on personal growth and goal achievement. I know “how to.” But I stop and think, “Why would I start that now? What will it accomplish? How does it serve my ultimate mission and purpose? To what end?”

Thank goodness I’m making progress in building a philosophical foundation. And thank goodness I started reading Deep Change by Robert E. Quinn.

The book is about coaching leaders on the idea that greatly transforming the business or organization requires personal transformation of the leaders. Quinn brings in Joseph Campbell’s writings on the Hero’s journey, which flow in part from Carl Jung’s study of the archetypes of mythology, one of my favorite “mind candies.”

Quinn uses the Hero’s journey as a template for personal growth, not just radical transformation through developmental stages. In his model, whenever a person has to test his or her abilities and tackle new challenges, some self-discovery occurs and understanding of the self changes with increased abilities.

Previously I had used the Hero’s journey as a myth for great change—including leaving the familiar world for the unfamiliar, the idea of the new land as undiscovered parts of the self and the collective unconscious (I’m a bit of a psychology nerd so that’s delightful to me), and the idea of the cave or lair of the “enemy” as a place of shadow where one learns one’s power and abilities and gains new understanding that frees and empowers.

I just hadn’t scaled the Hero’s journey down to a point where it is a mythological template for the kind of incremental personal growth people experience more often than once or twice in a lifetime.

This idea bridges a gap for me. Before I would struggle with ideas like, If a coaching client needs help organizing a goal into steps and overcoming some fear or worry in order to take action, how does that relate to deeper personal growth? Deeper personal growth is a more important mission to me than accomplishing tasks.

Quinn’s model shows me how. Learning skills of goal-setting and time management ARE quest objects for some people. Facing a fear or worry, like the fear of failure or of success or worrying that focusing on one goal will be consuming and mean the loss of other goals, has elements of a heroic quest. Taking steps towards goals that seem a little out of reach extend a person’s understanding of the self. Accomplishing things that always seemed difficult before, and learning the way to do that with future goals, is transformative, although in a smaller way.

I understand now that being coached through one goal or series of actions may not be as big as a villain-vanquishing journey to the underworld with a “dark night of the soul” and complete transformation in understanding of the self, but it’s easily an important task along the way.

My work with coaching clients will usually be helping with a smaller quest that prepares for a Great Quest down the road. Some of the quests will be straightforward and simple at the time, but will help a client learn something that may be applied to a future quest in a hugely transformative way. It may even be one of the pieces of information that help the client be successful with the Great Quest.

In great tales of the Hero’s journey, the Hero (male or female) gathers helpers for portions of the journey and learns skills, adds understanding, picks up useful tools or weapons (connecting with the collective unconscious), and grows the self until the idea of facing the Villain has changed from outrageous and impossible to necessary but overwhelming. The Hero has grown to the point of being prepared for the Showdown of the Great Quest, but the Showdown itself is the ultimate transformation, requiring the Hero to use all of his or her skills, learning, and wisdom (secret learning, special weapons, and ancient lore) to come up with a way to victory.

Often the way to victory requires that the Hero combine all the prior accomplishments and discoveries in one great moment of realization of humility and submission. The Hero understands that transcendant needs matter more than personal goals and is willing to give up the personal for the communal, the temporal for the eternal. In so choosing the Hero discovers the weakness of the Villain, who is the embodiment of elevating personal goals and wants at the expense of the needs of others.

If I help my client gather one piece of “ancient lore” that helps make sense of challenges, one bit of understanding that leads to the discovery of a “magical weapon” the client carries with the blessing of a community, or one set of skills that make the Great Quest seem just a little less impossible, my work will tie in with my mission:

To be a catalyst for personal growth and development through genuine relationships in welcoming and supportive communites

May You Know the Joys of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey


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