I don’t consider myself a particularly courageous person; in fact, I am timid about many things that involve personal risk or represent the unknown to me. On the other hand, I have made some pretty bold career moves in my life where bravery was easily accessed for some higher purpose. In the long run, that’s what has made my career truly rewarding.
There’s a concept called The Hero’s Journey that identifies 12 steps that form a pattern you’ll easily recognize from folklore, children’s books and movies as the adventure of a great hero. Studied in depth by scholar and author Joseph Campbell, here are the steps, simplified:
- The baseline, ordinary world
- The call to adventure
- Refusal of the call (fear)
- Meeting a mentor (counsel)
- Taking the first step
- Being tested
- Changing approach
- Surviving an ordeal
- Earning the reward
- The road back to ordinary
- A final test, using what was learned
- Sharing the answers with others
When I look back, there are two types of scenarios or “calls to adventure” that have made me step up to courageous periods in my life. The first is when posed with a threat to myself or loved ones. Facing an economic crisis in my early 30s, I did everything it took to protect my family. Another time, I left a company because the leaders were corrupt. While both were growth experiences, they were very black- and-white choices for me — I had to react.
The even more powerful experiences occur when we move proactively and consciously to behave with courage for something we believe in or stand for, when it’s not so clearly mandated. You may have resisted the call, even been counseled against it, but you move forward anyway. By looking back on your life to trace these experiences and figure out if there are common threads, you will better understand your life’s purpose — that which inspires you to be a hero.
I began this exploration to make sure I had a north star to guide the latter stage of my career, where I have more choice about what I do for a living. I also wanted to frame my comments and perspective better in business meetings or other conversations about strategy, product development etc., to articulate the “why” for my opinions.
As a first step, I wrote a very cryptic life story of the times I felt I had acted bravely. I noticed many tales of survival, but a few very important cycles when I stood for something that really mattered to me — the customer. For me, caring about clients and wanting to make our industry better for them has been a repeated career theme. In several situations, I fought to put the customer ahead of short-term shareholder interests, just believing it was the right thing to do. In each example, I was able to trace all 12 steps of The Hero’s Journey as outlined by Campbell, from the moment I felt called to the tests along the way. The reward for the work was often internal — just knowing I had made a difference — but these were also leadership stories that shaped my personal brand.
Knowing what I’m willing to be a hero for (the customer) has helped me pick where to focus my efforts and makes my contributions authentic. For you, the reward may be in developing people or inventing products. You’ll find examples from both your work and your personal life to help you hone in on what makes you tick. Try writing your story; see what themes emerge and think about how you can apply that knowledge to infuse your career, and your life, with even greater purpose.
Gail Graham is Chief Marketing Officer at United Capital, an innovative and fast-growing national wealth counseling firm with a unique approach to the market. Having earned awards in retail investor and advisor marketing, Gail is driving United Capital’s brand development, marketing and lead generation across all channels. Follow her on Twitter: @GailGrahamUC.
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