The Timeless Hero’s Journey Can Inspire the Next Generation
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
Layers of early personality
The layers that make up our individual personalities develop early in life.
Personality researcher Dan McAdams of at Northwestern University describes three parts that make up the crux of who we become.
Temperament is a main dimension of personality because of the important role it plays in how we get along in life and get along with others. Biologically-based, temperament describes personality differences in emotionality, energy and our basic relationship with new situations or change.
It’s our basic wiring. It speaks to our general disposition and includes things like extroversion, distractibility, adaptability, sensitivity and conscientiousness.
In elementary school, the second layer of personality kicks in. Little goals and little plans through school or other activities helps develop what McAdams calls the motivated agent.
This growing agency is what will power long-term goal achievement and principals and strategies required for the journey ahead.
As this is happening, children aged 5 and 6 are busy, busy forming stories of events in their young lives so far.
Called narrative identity, what begins with early conversations between young children and their parents, blossoms into sophisticated personal stories during teenage years and beyond.
Children can tell stories, but it’s not until adolescence that they begin to create bigger life narratives - stringing experiences together into a life story. McAdams says that’s where the third layer of personality, the autobiographical author, kicks in.
Here we find cause and effect chains, broad themes beyond individual events and a new role as both narrator and protagonist of their own life.
Altogether, stories in adolescence give a sense of identity and of a possible future ahead. Young adults analyze personal experiences for meaning – of themselves, of others and the world in which they live.
“You’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.” – Margaret Atwood
Storytelling practice refines who we are
Our interpersonal relationships offer the ability to hone our stories and refine our storytelling skills – both of which in turn, continue to shape our identity.
According to McLean et al. (2007), teens and young adults construct their narrative identity through a continuous cycle of telling their stories and editing based on social feedback.
This back and forth over time – in tellings, editing and retellings – builds a cohesive, understandable story of our life. Studies shows these narrative themes develop early and have been found to remain relatively stable over a lifespan.
The Hero’s Journey
Our autobiographical stories draw heavily from society around us – including themes in literature, movies and popular culture.
From the earliest ages, common story lines and character types repeat, over and over, in legends and fairy tales of all kinds – offering up a menu of options from which to help author our own life stories.
Renowned researcher and author, Joseph Campbell uncovered a universal story structure appearing in stories and hero myths worldwide. Over thousands of years and despite variations, this monomyth referred to as the Hero’s Journey describes a timeless tale that in which a main character (the hero) ventures out, faces challenges, and in the end, ultimately emerges victorious.
At the root of the hero’s journey, is a quest to find meaning through life transitions, repeated cycles of change, and a process of self-discovery.
For a narrative identity under development, this story template could provide a map of a big life adventure, one in which young storytellers are themselves cast as role of hero. The journey begins with the uncomfortable, yet necessary, Call to Adventure.
“Story is a yearning meeting an obstacle.”– Robert Olen Butler
Call to Adventure
Some discovery, some circumstance, some threat is what heralds the first stage of the journey: the call to adventure.
The call seems all but guaranteed as we grow into young adulthood. New things abound. This is what triggers in the hero-to-be: scary, unfamiliar situations with uncertain outcomes. It's the only way to practice courage.
Here the hero must make a choice: accept the quest, or reject it.
Many heroes initially resist the call or refuse the quest in face of the unfamiliar. It can help young people to know that fear and doubt in face of the unknown is normal.
All heroes feel the fear. The real question is: what do they do next?
Entering the scary unknown
If there’s one thing about the hero’s journey: it’s not for the faint of heart.
Accepting the call comes with fear and a sense of losing control and feelings of turmoil. Much of the hero’s resistance comes from the inside. Change is accompanied by doubts and feeling unprepared for what comes next. Obstacles can seem overwhelming.
The path is new, with circumstances and individuals along the way designed to challenge. The helps to know that comfort isn’t growth.
To learn to be courageous and unafraid, the hero must practice stepping through fear, on the outside of the comfort zone.
“We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up ... discovering we have the strength to stare it down.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
The value of tests and trials
Failures and stumbles and times of confusion somehow build better people. It’s a rule or something. Success is great, but it never built a true hero. We’ve all seen the movie, it takes tests and trials to do that.
The hero’s journey offers that difficulties can be external: people or circumstances, or they can be internal: with the hero’s own doubts and fears cast as villain.
Few heroes rush eagerly, headlong into challenges. Instead, they go fighting and resisting and resenting experiences they did not choose and do not want.
We can learn the hard way that this can unwittingly, make trials worse.
The hero tackles their greatest fears and moves through a series of obstacles, enduring difficulty, all of it designed to build muscles of perseverance, resourcefulness, endurance, restraint - you name it. The list of eventual upsides from adversity and personal challenges is a long one.
Waiting on the other side is the understanding that we can do new scary things and come out the other side stronger and more resilient.
“One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear.” – Joseph Campbell
Mentors, help along the journey
All heroes require assistance along the journey.
For young people, parents, teachers, coaches, grandparents and other mentors provide invaluable guidance and support the protagonist needs to overcome adversity along the journey.
These allies and helpers pass along wisdom, and help us feel heard, seen and valuable as we courageously tackle the unknown.
“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” – Louisa May Alcott
Mastery of outside world
At journey’s end comes the well-earned reward, before the return home.
The principal treasure is a newly discovered personal power in which the hero finds power in her ability to master the outside world, by mastering the one within.
The battle is with ourselves.
Learning to trust our own intuition, quiet the inner critic and ignore external opinions and judgments, are among the gifts at the end of the arduous adventure.
The hero tries on new ways of coping and new perspectives, challenges old ideas and in the process, learns lessons and gains confidence and wisdom.
All of it has led to an expanded vision of oneself and of life. What once appeared only as obstacles shift and reveal themselves instead as options, as opportunities.
Believing ourselves capable and understanding the inherent power in our ability to direct our own thoughts and behavior - those magic elixirs of self-efficacy and self-control - have been proven to supercharge a young life.
If only every kid, had a hero in their head.