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What "The Hobbit" Teaches Us About Finding Our Life Quests

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey explores the first piece of J.R.R. Tolkien's enormously popular book The Hobbit. The movie is introduced on its website with a short tale, "Bilbo swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of 13 dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield. Their journey will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, deadly Wargs and Sorcerers."

We are strongly drawn to such stories because we enjoy the adventure, the introduction to strange worlds, the facing of great odds, and the sweetness of the final victory. Tales like The Hobbit, its sequel The Lord of the Rings, and other mystical epics enchant us because they are larger than life and allow us to escape from our everyday existence.

However, the great writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell correctly recognized that the plot of stories such as The Hobbit mirrored those of other stories across both the ages and cultures. In his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell described this phenomenon in what he called "the monomyth": "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Per Campbell, this storyline approach has been roughly repeated in epic after epic, tale after tale, throughout time. In book after book, movie after movie, one quest after another is fulfilled as heroes venture forth, overcome challenges, attain new powers, and return to use those powers for the greater good.

But Campbell went beyond this point to observe something even more important, namely that, if we chose, our lives can mirror this "hero's quest." In the course of our lives we too can enter new worlds, overcome obstacles, slay virtual dragons, learn and grow and then return with new powers to help others. While our modern adventures and life journeys may not appear as epic as the Hobbit's, they can be both as difficult and rewarding as well. Starting a business, overcoming funding shortfalls for nonprofits, developing a new product, teaching children or coaching adults; any of these and more can be our quest.

The question for many of us is often, "What is my quest?" I answer this question personally at two levels: 1) having a high-level "life quest" and 2) determining more specific "mini-quests" that fit under the high-level life quest. For example, I view my life quest as serving those who seek to learn more about leadership, strategy, and career growth to improve their personal and organizational results. Within that there are mini-quests, such as teaching a course on branding, writing books on strategy, or coaching individuals. Each time I fulfill these little quests I go through Campbell's cycle of adventure, surmounting challenges, learning new things and then sharing with others.

To determine your higher-level quest I'd suggest brainstorming in three areas: what you do well, what you enjoy, and what you think the world needs. At the intersection of these three circles you may find your life's quest. Executing several mini-quests then become part and parcel of fulfilling your higher quest.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey offers us a tale of the beginning of a great and noble quest. Perhaps it will make you consider your life's quest and inspire you to begin it.

—Mark McNeilly is the author of three books (including Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and an adjunct professor of marketing at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo. You can follow him at @markmcneilly or learn more at