Your career is your hero’s journey: 7 lessons from life

Does life sometimes feel random? You are sitting in your office and remember like it was yesterday playing with your friend in the schoolyard. While you may have children now, you remember being their age and going on your first date. You are at the seeming pinnacle of your career and in a year or two, you’ll retire. “What’s it all for?” you may ask.

I have asked myself this question – ‘why I am here?’ – countless times. And the answer I keep coming back to is very simple. It is to grow. To grow in my consciousness, which to me means, to grow in my capacity for love. Now, this may sound impractical and somewhat removed from day-to-day work life. As we’ll explore here, it doesn’t have to be. Work can be seen as one of the most important places to develop ourselves. We spend the majority of our waking lives there. So it is probably a good idea to use our time at work consciously. Otherwise, at the end of our career, it indeed may feel like a bunch of random events that we moved through simply because we didn’t know better.

There is a different way. We can approach our career as a journey of growth, of continuing maturation toward wholeness, of developing our capacity for love – to realize more and more of our true selves and to contribute more and more from that authentic place. This is not a new idea. For example, Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, introduced us to the frame of seeing life as a Hero’s Journey, one in which we continuously learn new lessons that help us grow.

What are these lessons that we get to learn in our work lives? I have studied my own life and that of thousands of other executives worldwide and I have noticed a few distinct categories of learning, that we go through and may revisit multiple times during our careers. I think of them as lessons we get to learn over and over again to refine our capacity for love in these areas. Each of the lessons originates from a basic need. We learn through how we respond to and grow through our basic needs. I have sketched out a summary below.

The hero’s journey at work: 7 lessons from life

Need 7 Lessons from Life
1. Safety 1. Samurai. Developing the warriorlike courage and fortitude to take care of my basic needs, and face my challenges resourcefully without being overwhelmed by them
2. Relationship 2. Uniting. Creating authentic, empathetic relationships that welcome everyone and go beyond tribal us-vs.-them dynamics; setting healthy boundaries; learning to let go
3. Self-esteem 3. Centered in purpose. Learning to connect with my inner compass, learning to pursue my goals wholeheartedly and with focus, and seeing every failure’ as part of moving forward
4. Discovery 4. Curious. Opening my heart to life’s teachings – the whispers – no matter what, and seeing every moment as an opportunity for discovery, bigger vision and being innovative; learning to love myself and others
5. Contribution 5. Extending Contribution. Expressing my gift to others unapologetically and caringly
6. Cohesion 6. Sensing. Using intuition, looking for the connection between everything and everyone, integrating the seeing polarities in life, creating cohesion
7. Wisdom & Compassion 7. Simple. Seeing what is needed and doing it, letting go of all ego personas, simply being and contributing who I am.

Source: built on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Richard Barrett’s Seven Levels of Consciousness.

I’ve organized the lessons with the acronym SUCCESS: Samurai, Uniting, Centered, Curious, Extending, Sensing and Simple, to make them easier to bring to mind. In our hero’s journey, we prioritize inner success over outer success. We keep coming back to the discovery of our true selves and sharing that with others, rather than attaching ourselves to and getting identified with external accomplishments, which are always fleeting.

How are the lessons of the Hero practical for you today? Consider what’s going on at work right now. Which of these seven lessons are you currently learning? And which ones are trying to get your attention that you may be avoiding? And, how can you see your current challenges from a larger perspective, when you consider what this challenge may be trying to teach you? In Mandarin, the word ‘crisis’ is translated into two words, ‘wei’ and ‘chi,’ which mean ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’ How is your current challenge, your current upset, a setup for you to learn more about life’s 7 lessons?

Maybe you are feeling overwhelmed at work, stressed out and thinking you have too much to do. How can this be a setup for your growth? Consider Lessons #1 (Samurai) and #3 (Centered). How much energy do you spend on worry? What would happen if you were able to let go of some of your worries? Then how much energy would you free up to focus on what you need to do? And what is your true purpose at work? What activities can you purposefully prioritize, and which ones are off-purpose and do you need to let go of?

Or it could be that you are feeling restless. Maybe it’s time to ask yourself some Lesson #3 (Centered in Purpose) and #5 (Extending Contribution) questions. What do you really enjoy doing? How can you bring more of what you love to your work life? And what is your gift that your community cannot afford to lose? What is the impact you wish to make in the world?

Possibly you are managing a team and you are noticing some areas of tension in the group. What would happen if you put some focused attention on Lessons #2 (Uniting) and #6 (Sensing) and explore how you can have an honest and respectful conversation with your teammates about the dynamics of the group? How can you create a space where real disagreement can be held with non-judgmental acceptance and fascination?

Maybe you feel your organization is stagnating, not renewing itself quickly enough. It may be time to consider Lessons #4 (Curious) and #7 (Simple). What weaker or stronger signals in the market have you been ignoring? What ego-preservation strategies have gotten in the way of your organization adapting itself? How do you need to selectively let go of the past to make space for a new future?

Our career provides us opportunities for inner maturation every day. What helps us progress on our Hero’s Journey is our conscious decision to approach every moment as an opportunity for self-discovery, rather than ignoring what life is trying to teach us, ‘missing class’ so to speak.

See what happens when you approach this moment with a Hero’s Journey perspective, asking, which lessons might I and my organization be called to learn now? Notice your energy as you spend some time with this question, which is simply put: how am I growing?

With this question may come some resistance and, also possibly, some inspiration and openness. Like the rest of nature, we are innately wired to both survive and evolve. Our need for survival may have us resist learning today. It may not feel safe yet to try something new. However, when we consciously put our attention on self-discovery, we may become aware of a silent flow of energy in ourselves, that nudges us to keep learning no matter what, like the sun nudges the flower to open. This energy of growth can feel like love itself – energizing, nourishing, expanding, enlightening. As we grow, we may experience this energy of love, of life, that nudges us to open and grow, like a lovingly patient and sometimes lovingly fierce parent. And as we learn, we learn more and more to become one with life’s energy, the energy of love, lovingly learning to take care of the needs we are presented with.

What if our life’s journey is all about love, to learn to love ourselves, others and every other thing we come in contact with, unconditionally? Take a moment to look and appreciate how far you’ve come in your Hero’s Journey. It’s the one movie in which you are always the main character. What will you learn in the next scene of your life?

“Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach the goal, but to enjoy its beauty and wisdom, life ceases to be a task and become natural and simple in itself an ecstasy.” – Nisargadatta Maharaj

Hylke Faber serves as a leadership coach and facilitator and leads the coaching organizations, Constancee and the Growth Leaders Network. His first book, Taming Your Crocodiles: Unlearn Fear& Become a True Leader, was released in May 2018 and was soon selected as one of Bloomberg’s 10 Best Books on Leadership in 2018. Through his ongoing collaboration between Constancee and Columbia Business School Executive Education, Taming Your Crocodiles has become the curriculum cornerstone for Hylke’s sought-after online learning series, Leader as Coach.