Careers are seldom linear things. People move between companies, in and out of self-employment, and even between industries. As we try to make sense of our lives, we can easily get discouraged by set-backs. But what if you take a different approach?
In their new book What Motivates Me: Put Your Passions To Work, authors Adrian Gostick and and Chester Elton recommend thinking of your career in terms of the hero’s journey. This archetypal narrative–think Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen–has been used by storytellers through history. “Every protagonist has to face it,” says Gostick. There will be dark moments, but “at the end there will be a better outcome.” Here are the steps.
In heroic tales, someone shows up on the hero’s doorstep. The hero is asked to come fight evil forces, but in most tales, our hero resists. Likewise, many of us know something is amiss in our careers, but we try to ignore it.
We’ve put a decade into an organization, and leaving seems complicated. We keep hoping a bad managerial situation will change. “We love our companies, but companies can’t love you back. It’s the people around you who make work meaningful and purposeful,” says Gostick. Acknowledging a broken situation is tough. In fiction, and in life, however, eventually the call becomes stronger.
At some point you have to make the decision: Do you stay or do you go? But keep in mind that “go” doesn’t always mean out the door. Sometimes the leap involves changing positions within an organization, or even figuring out a big enough change to your job description that it doesn’t seem like the same job. Either way, you decide to embrace the unknown.
We often forget this step, or wish it didn’t exist, but without it, there’s no plot. No protagonist cruises to victory. You won’t either. Your won’t be instantly brilliant in your new role. You may encounter someone who wants to see you fail. Worse, the people you care about may not have your back.
Gostick and Elton describe conversations with new entrepreneurs whose closest friends and colleagues have told them they won’t succeed. Everyone has his or her own fears, and sometimes people will take these out on you. Persevere anyway. A good hero does.
From Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, no hero defeats evil on his own. He brings together new allies and finds an Obi-Wan Kenobi or Albus Dumbledore to advise him. “The most engaged people we’ve interviewed really do have mentors,” Gostick says, “and they use these people.”
They will let you have it straight, but also truly have your back. With your mentor’s guidance, you figure out what you need to know.
Ok, so there won’t be lightsabers involved (probably). But in the context of a career, victory comes when you look around and realize that “you’re doing what you’re passionate about and you’re doing it well,” says Elton. Plus, “in the hero’s journey, your motivations change.”
Once, you were just trying to claw out from a bad boss. But after trials and dark nights of the soul, you see that you’re also trying to make a difference in your company or your world. As careers go, that’s pretty heroic–even if you haven’t vanquished Darth Vader in the process.