Become the Hero in You

In this series of talks and videos Jeroen explains how by changing the stories we tell ourselves, we can obtain a clear sense of direction, purpose and meaning.
How we learn to take decisions more easily and accept the consequences of these decisions.
How, instead of being victims of circumstance, we can become victors in our own life-stories and live richer, more contented lives.

I have been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. Nobody ever heard my stories though, because the only audience I had was me, and the stories I told myself were the stories of my own life. Personal storytelling was, and still is, my way of making sense of things. I always assumed this was a strange quirky thing I did but, not so long ago, I realized that we all tell ourselves and each other stories. We do this to share, explain, teach, influence, motivate and understand.

My sister, my brother and I went through a challenging childhood ending with the suicide of our mother. I will spare you the details, but the interesting thing is that we all coped in different ways. My coping mechanism as a young boy was to imagine and tell myself the story that I was being tested by some cosmic jury panel and that the goal of these tests was to prepare me for bigger things to come. In a sense,  I still do the same today when I tell myself stories about a bigger idea, a bigger purpose and a bigger picture to stay motivated and keep myself moving forward.
I approach the big issues in life by posing the question: “what do I want the honest story to be when I look back”. Before doing, or not doing something important I ask myself: “How will I look back upon my action later in life?” or “Will it turn out to be a story to be proud or ashamed of?”.
I have always kept this habit of ‘inner storytelling’ to myself. “Why share your weird inner world and run the risk to be labelled crazy?”. But not so long ago I realized that maybe there was some sense to my madness.
I created a life and a business in Russia from scratch. I survived the Russian crises of 1998, 2008 and 2014. I had run-ins with Russian mobsters, and lost ownership of my dacha (country house) outside of Moscow due to Kafkaesque bureaucratic procedures. But I am still doing more than fine, and I am still seeking challenges of different kinds. I swam the Bosporus, ran the Baikal Ice Marathon and climbed 4 of the 7 summits.
Every problem and every challenge I faced increased my positivity, motivation and strength. All this thanks to storytelling and to living my personal stories in real life.

For a video version of this article watch here.

Stories are important because they give us perspective and direction. Minds change minds. Hearts change hearts. But only lives change lives and lives are told through stories.

The stories of the lives of figures like Odysseus, Buddha, Jesus, Moses and Mohammed continue to shape the world we live in. As described in the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, it is fiction, common myths and stories that allowed Homo Sapiens to cooperate in larger communities that evolved into cities, nations and empires. Religions, justice, legal and financial systems, money and commercial brands all exist for as long as we continue to agree on the stories that we tell each other about them. When we stop believing the stories that we tell each other, our stock markets collapse, and our bubbles burst. Whether it was the dotcom bubble in the 21st century or the tulip bulb bubble in the 17th century, everything functions only for as long as we believe in the stories we are telling.

The same applies to our own lives. Life is hard but when we tell ourselves the right story about our own lives, life becomes easier. Look around you. Who are the people saying things like: “I want to make a difference”, “I want to be a role model”, “I want to be an inspiration”? They are usually successful people. Most people you and I admire have formulated their own personal success story.

I used to ask myself: “If I started creating my personal stories as a child. Why aren’t I more successful today?”. It is a valid question and the answer is simple. The stories I told myself were effective enough to overcome hardships such as the ones I faced in my youth or in my later life and work in Russia. But they weren’t effective enough to drive and motivate big personal development, growth and success. My stories weren’t convincing enough to fully believe in them. My stories were good enough to sustain and strengthen me, but they were too weak to inspire and advance me. Something was missing and it wasn’t until I read about ‘The Hero’s Journey’ that it became clear to me. What was missing in my stories was a hero.

For a video version of this article watch here.

Part I

We all have read books that opened our eyes.
Among the books that opened my eyes are Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance” and Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic”.

Seneca teaches that our world will always be changing and unpredictable and that all we need to survive and flourish in adversity is to the essentials – food, water, clothing and shelter – and to have a strong inner spirit.

Frankl’s philosophy says that man’s deepest desire is to find meaning in life, and that if he finds meaning to his life, he can survive anything.
Emerson explains the importance of self-reliance; of trusting and expressing your own original instincts and ideas.

I used to read quotes, sections and paragraphs out of these three books whenever I needed some inspiration. There is no doubt about their depth, wisdom and truth. But it wasn’t until I read about “The Hero’s Journey” that all these different writings fell into place. The Hero’s Journey is an invitation to develop the hero inside us and approach our lives as a Hero’s Journey. The hero inside us as opposed to the heroes around us whom we look up to, like in my case Seneca, Frankl and Emerson (and Sinatra of course). But my most important hero was missing. The hero bearing my name.

For a video version of this article watch here.

Part II

In 1949, Joseph Campbell wrote his book: “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. In this book Campbell explains that all important stories and myths follow a similar pattern. There are three stages to this pattern. The departure of the hero from his known world; the initiation of the hero into an unknown world and at last; the triumphant return of the hero to the known world where he initially started from. 

In the beginning, the hero lives as an ordinary person in his familiar environment. Then something happens in his environment that is a challenge or a “call to adventure”. The hero may initially resist this challenge or call to adventure or ignore it altogether. But when he decides to answer the call to adventure and face the challenge then he departs from his known world. He usually meets a mentor who provides the hero with crucial knowledge, support and abilities. After having met the mentor the hero is ready to be initiated into the unknown world. After initiation into this unknown world the hero faces many trials and tribulations. He makes allies and enemies. The hero comes closer to his goal but before he reaches it, he must go through one more life-or-death ordeal. Once the hero overcomes this ordeal, he receives a reward (‘he slays the dragon and saves the princess’) and is ready to start his return home as a changed person. Stronger and wiser he brings the rewards of his hero’s journey back to his community.

I just made a gross simplification of Campbells work and I apologize to him for it but if you just think of the stories of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Lion King, The Matrix or Finding Nemo, then you will see that they all follow the pattern of The Hero’s Journey. The departure, the initiation and the return. George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars movies, is well known for having been inspired by the Hero’s Journey of Campbell and or having structured his Star Wars sagas around The Hero’s Journey.

Now you may think: “All’s well and good but I am no Harry Potter, Neo, Nemo or Wonder-Woman. So how does this apply to me?”. A fair question, so let us have a look at what The Hero’s Journey looks like in real life.

For a video version of this article watch here

To understand that the Hero’s Journey can be applied to real life it suffices to look at the lives of Marco Polo, Nelson Mandela and Steve Jobs. You will see that they all came through a Hero’s Journey in which they departed their known worlds to be initiated into unknown worlds before returning home stronger and better and with benefit to their original communities.

Look at the lives of your grandparents who lived through war and hardship and returned as the strongest generation that we have seen in the last hundred years.

Look at your own life. You were continuously called to adventures that made you depart your known world to become initiated into unknown worlds. With the help of mentors and new abilities you were initiated into unknown environments and you repeatedly returned home as a different and better person. What is birth, life and death if not a Hero’s Journey? Whether it is kindergarten, elementary school, high school, university, your first job, your later jobs or retirement; they are all Hero’s Journeys from the known into the unknown.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight I now see several Hero’s Journeys in my own life. Living in a broken home and coming through that experience as a better and stronger person. Answering the call to adventure and moving to Russia. Russia that brought me mentors, friends and some enemies, treasure and loss, challenge and tragedy, while ultimately making me a better human being and a better professional. Answering the call of the mountains is another example of a Hero’s Journey. Leaving the daily life that you know and entering an unknown high-altitude environment while being mentored by a mountain guide perfectly fits the stages of the Hero’s Journey. You climb higher and higher from camp to camp, each time overcoming different challenges created by your health, your team, the weather, the thinning atmosphere and your own mind. You finally reach the summit, and if all goes well, you take this new experience and insight to the home where you initially started from.

So yes, The Hero’s Journey is a real thing, but how do we benefit from it? To benefit from The Hero’s Journey we must ask ourselves two questions; “What’s in it for me?” and “How do I make the hero’s journey part of my daily life?”.

For a video version of this article watch here

People who incorporate the Hero’s Journey in their daily lives obtain a clear sense of direction, purpose and meaning. They take decisions more easily and accept the consequences of these decisions. Instead of victims of circumstance, they become the victors in their own life-stories. They live richer, more contented lives.

This may sound vague and abstract, especially to those who are looking for some concrete guidance, so let me provide you with a concrete example.

One of my very dear friends was a public health professional with artistic talents and ambitions. He was struggling because he found it hard to find enough time and attention for his art while also working a full-time job and trying to advance his professional career. Many years ago, I gave him a simple piece of advice. “You now see yourself as a public health professional struggling to become an artist. Change your personal story and start seeing yourself as an artist with a job on the side to make a living.”. He followed this advice and became the hero in his own story. The hero artist with a side job, instead of the victim professional with no energy left for his art. My friend is now a successful artist with regular exhibitions. He is living his dream and fulfilling his potential. He lives a meaningful life thanks to having started his own Hero’s Journey. He answered his call to adventure, left the known for the unknown and met a mentor on the way (departure). Then he committed himself to his adventure, went through trials and tribulations and faced great challenges that lead to his rebirth as an artist (initiation). He completed his journey by returning with his art to his known world as a changed man (the return). After his Hero’s return he improved his life and the lives of those around him.

Becoming the hero in your own life story will help create more meaning in life. The father, the mother, the son, the daughter, the doctor, the teacher, the student, the waiter and the taxi driver; they all become heroes in their own life stories as soon as they start seeing themselves as such.

For a video version of this article watch here

Creating your own Hero’s Journey helps you identify the life goals that are important to you. When your goals are clear it is easier to plan your steps in the direction of achieving these goals. You will know where to direct your focus and energy. A stronger focus increases your sense of control in life and an increased sense of control reduces stress. You will always understand the reasons behind the things you do, and it will become easier to prioritize your actions. You will accept that there are successes and setbacks in your Hero’s Journey and your mind will stay focused on growth and development. Even the things that do not work out for you become a part of the story in which “everything that doesn’t kill you (The Hero) makes you stronger”.

Your Hero’s Journey also helps you to compare your actual daily life with the Hero’s Journey you created for yourself. It increases your consciousness and awareness. It also helps you to take decisions on future steps and actions. Simply asking yourself: “what would I like the story to be when looking back on my life”, helps you do the right thing. And in case you make the unavoidable mistake in living out your Hero’s Journey you can place that mistake in the right context. You will more easily accept your mistakes and their consequences. You will learn from them and move on. In the end, you will feel less fear.

For a video version of this article watch here

Two things: “Realize there is greatness in each of us!” and “Find your bigger idea!”.

“Realize there is greatness in each of us!”. “Easy to say when you are a Hollywood star or billionaire” was my usual skeptical reaction. My skepticism changed however, when in 2018, a few days after summitting Mont Blanc, my friend sent me an article titled: “Richard Branson Found Himself ‘Seconds Away From Certain Death’ on His Latest Adventure”.

The article described how Richard almost died passing through the Grand Couloir on Mont Blanc and how he and his team cried from relief after surviving their ordeal. It turned out that Richard passed through the same Grand Couloir, or ‘Gulley of Death’, as it is also called, that my team and I passed through a few days earlier. The ‘Gulley of Death” is a traverse that climbers need to cross when climbing Mont Blanc. It is a well-known accident spot because of the continuous rock fall. Some climbers compare the risky crossing to a Russian Roulette.

As instructed by our guide (or mentor from the Hero’s Journey) we waited for the rockfall to stop and made a hurried crossing of the gulley. When I asked our guide what I should do to cross the gulley safely, his dry answer was: “Don’t fall.”. As soon as we had crossed the gulley, we heard the rocks start crashing down behind our backs again. We took a rest, ate a slice of sausage and continued climbing to the summit. Richard Branson, like all climbers who want to summit Mont Blanc, had the same experience as our group. But the difference between Richard and me was that I concluded the risky crossing with a slice of sausage, whereas Richard concluded it by making a big adventure out of his experience and by doing so made headlines all over the world. What was the difference between Richard and me in this example? Richard’s crossing of the “Gulley of Death” was part of his Hero’s Journey, whereas for me it was just a one-off experience followed by a slice of sausage.

When we create a great Hero in our own story, we bring out the greatness in our Hero’s Journey.

For a video version of this article watch here

“Find your bigger idea!”. In his (1948) work “A Message to Intellectuals” Einstein says: “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”. I interpret this as: “the bigger idea at the next level being the solution to your questions and challenges at your current level.”.

Everyone can find his or her bigger idea. Thinking in terms of a bigger idea is just a matter of mindset as the parable of the Stone Cutter shows. A man passes by three stone cutters. He asks the first stone cutter what he is doing. The first stone cutter answers: “I am cutting a stone.”. Passing by the second stone cutter the man repeats his question and this second stone cutter answers: “I am cutting a square stone to the exact required dimensions.”. Passing by the third stone cutter the man once more asks his question. The third stone cutter answers: “I am building a cathedral.”. The three stone cutters were doing the same thing. The big difference is in the stories they told themselves.

The capacity to be the third stone cutter is inside all of us. Is one stone cutter better than the other? No, but when you face challenges or in times of crisis it is better to build a cathedral than simply cut a stone.

So how to find this bigger idea that becomes the ‘cathedral’ of your Hero’s Journey? In my mentoring work we usually find the bigger idea of my mentees by taking a few simple steps together.  

For a video version of this article watch here

I.  Pause! A big part of our lives passes by in ‘hamster-mode’. We voluntarily step into our hamster wheels every day and run in them as if our lives depended of it. Thus, the first thing we need to do to discover our “bigger idea” is to stop what we are doing, take a pause and look around us. Stepping out of our hamster wheel means pausing any routine activity that we are engaged in. 

II.  Become still (go into ‘super slow-motion mode’). To a large extent our daily lives are driven by apprehension, insecurities and fear. Especially when we exit the ‘hamster-mode’ the fear arises that we will miss out of whatever we were expecting because we have stopped what we were doing. Personally, I need to fight that existential fear more often than I would like to admit. To lose that fear I go into ‘super-slowmo-mode’. I focus at the here and now and I ask myself the following questions: Was there a threat? Is there a threat? Will there be an imminent threat? Usually, the answer to each of these questions is “no”. And when the answer is ‘no’, I calm down and lose my fear. In the exceptional case when the answer is yes, I am already busy dealing with the threat and then there is also no place for fear.

III.  Find what is important to you (your values). When you have made sure there is no threat, when you are calm and without fear, you can take a step back from whatever you do and feel at that moment. This allows you to ask yourself what the thing is that is most important, most valuable, to you at present. The answer may be “family”, “health”, “money”, “the ecology” or “world peace”. For many people, the answer has something to do with “making a difference”. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. The important thing is to answer it honestly.

IV.  Describe the environment that is relevant to you. Once you have identified the thing that is most important to you, you can start looking at your relevant environment. For example, when family is the most important thing to you, but you have problems inside your family, then the relevant environment for you will be within the boundaries of your family. When family is the most important thing to you and everything is great in your family, then you may look beyond the boundaries of your family and your relevant environment may be your city, society or the planet.

V.  Identify your skills and character. Questions like “what am I good at?” and “what do I have experience with?” provide answers to your skills. ‘Character’ means all the mental and moral qualities that make you distinct from other people. 

VI.  Formulate your Idea (vision or goal). When you know what is important to you, when you understand the environment that is relevant to you and when you clearly see your skills and character, then you can identify your bigger idea. Let me clarify this based on my own example. It is important to me that I make a positive difference to the people and the world around me. I also see that my environment – of Russian/Western interaction – is deteriorating. I live in Russia for most of my life, have been in Russian-Western business for 26 years and I speak Russian (skills). At heart I am a bridge-builder and problem solver (character). So, considering what is important to me, my relevant environment, and my skills and character, the idea or vision that logically follows is one where I use my skills and character to make a difference to my relevant environment. Building bridges between Russian and Western people and businesses is my bigger idea. It is what I have been doing for many years.    

VII.  Understand your motivation. Having an idea or vision is not enough. You also need to be ready to get out of bed in the morning and implement your idea and realize your vision. Nobody is obligated to be motivated to do anything, so the important thing is to understand your pure and authentic motivation. Losing track of time when you are doing something and being ready to do a paid activity for free as well are good indicators of the right type of motivation.

VIII.  Prioritize (what comes at the expense of your chosen goal?). There is always a price to pay in life. You cannot spend time twice and any moment spent one way cannot be spent another way. Once you know the price you will have to pay and are at peace with that then you are ready to do the most important thing.

You are ready to act.

For a video version of this article watch here

A Hero’s Journey is very similar to a mountain expedition. You depart from your known world into the unknown world of extremely high altitude. You get initiated when you are on the mountain. You make sure you have a good mountain guide (mentor). And if you are lucky, you return to the world you know as a changed person.

Thus, for any Hero’s Journey you are well advised to do what mountaineers do. You plan your journey and prepare for it. You find a good mentor. You surround yourself with the right allies (your team), and during the journey you maintain a positive attitude and you stay disciplined and in control.

The Hero’s Journey is not meant as advice on what to do or how to do it. We each have our individual lives to live and there is wisdom, honor and heroism in choosing, and traveling along, our own paths.

“Becoming the hero in you” is an invitation to find those sparks of brilliance inside ourselves and fan them into flames of extraordinary action. And by doing so making a difference to ourselves and to the world around us.

For now, in these uncertain, unknown and challenging times, I hope the idea of The Hero’s Journey provide you with some comfort and inspiration as it has done for me.

For a video version of this article watch here

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