You don’t get to be the phoenix rising without the burn. It just doesn’t work that way. For every successful business owner, entrepreneur, or founder, there’s a story of walking through the fire. Transformation, both personal and professional, comes at a cost. The price you pay is presence and perseverance on the journey.
Joseph Campbell was an author and scholar renowned for his work in comparative mythology. He identified universal patterns that emerge in our collective stories, across time, culture, and religion. While his writings were not focused on starting a business or building a brand, they have influenced some of the world’s most revered storytellers. George Lucas is a huge Campbell fan, as is Christopher Vogler, whose book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is considered the definitive screenwriting bible.
Many of our favorite books and movies follow the structure outlined by Campbell:
The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.
— The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)
If you’re not familiar with Campbell, how about Black Panther? Hamlet? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Same structure, same trajectory for the protagonist. And you, my friend, are the protagonist in your story.
Entrepreneurship is a journey, and you are the hero of your business. You bring solutions. You add value to your customers. You provide the life-giving elixir for the clients who need your products and services.
If you want the hero’s triumphant return, answer these questions:
Am I committed to this hero’s journey? Why?
What is required for me to emerge from the flames?
Who are my guides along the way?
Perhaps you’re familiar with Vogler’s The Hero’s Inner Journey. Take a look at the image and identify where you are in the story of your business:
Phases 1 to 4 are often referred to as the Call to Action. You’re energized to embrace your vision, start a business, or scale your success. Five through 7 deepen your commitment to change and help you experiment with new conditions. This is the period known as the Initiation. The rites of passage that feel like life and death are found in phases 8 to 10. This is your Transformation, and it demands courage and tenacity. Humility helps. The Hero’s Return is captured in phases 10 to 12. Recognition, admiration, and celebration – riding high on the shoulders of your supporters – is the promise, though in my own life, this pales in comparison to the internal confidence and pride of the proverbial phoenix rising.
You can be a nine-to-fiver and avoid an inner journey, clocking in and clocking out. Crappy managers, good-enoughers, and haters don’t make it past their own fear.
You, however, are a leader. You have a higher standard. Leaders naturally, instinctively, follow a call to action. Isn’t committing to change and taking risks part of the package? I’d argue that leaders, by definition, are women and men who step into the abyss and emerge transformed by the process. Heroes and leaders accept consequences. They take on new challenges and continually ward off danger. Mastery is their reward. Curious and courageous, propelled by determination and ambition, leaders ask:
What questions am I seeking answers for?
What stands between my company and its success?
What am I chasing and how will it feel – in my bones – to hold it in my hand?
These questions are not an existential exercise. The answers guide you to that destination in your mind’s eye. Your responses are what keep you going when you’re exhausted by the rejection and self-doubt. They are the reasons you pull yourself up and find your focus. Your replies bring you clarity and purpose. You can’t buy that on Amazon. There’s no free shipping.
My inner hero’s journey began seven years ago when I left a hospice career that had been my calling for more than a decade. A micromanaging, controlling boss dubbed Nurse Ratched was the villain in that story, but that suffering drew me down a path into executive coaching and organizational development. It was a strange trajectory, filled with gremlins and ghosts. Like a sword, pounded into form, the growth and character forged in that fire brought an inner strength I had not known. Call it grit or resilience or whatever’s trending; it changes you.
I freelanced for a few years and in 2014, hung my own shingle. I surrounded myself with mentors and teachers. I took risks, doubling down on myself. I slayed a narcissistic dragon who sought to defeat me and raged war with the two-headed beast named Perfectionism & Self-Doubt. (If you want to tame your demons, you have to name them first.) Self-awareness is critical, for the path to success is riddled with hazards and unexpected detours. Hold the answers to those six questions in your pocket; they are your compass when you need a bearing.
Regardless, you will lose your way. Sorry, that’s the reality. Epic journeys are adventures. You didn’t sign up for a guided f*cking tour, did you? How will you find the amazing café where the locals hang out if you’re not willing to go off trail every now and then? There’s not a Lonely Planet book for the trip you’re on. Rate your own hotels. Find your own five star excursions. The clarity and purpose that guide you are the thread you hold to stay the course:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.
William Stafford, The Way It Is
Lori Eberly is an executive coach, founder of Radius ECD, and author of Fuckery.