Read time: 25 minutes
In 334 BC, Alexander the Great set out to complete his father’s Pan-Hellenic campaign, to lead the Greeks in the conquest of Persia. But unlike his father, his true desire was to seek out the Ends of the World and peer down the Great Outer Sea. The ancient Greeks believed in a Flat Earth surrounded by a mystic ocean. One of these ends was believed to be in, (surprise surprise!) India, the land of 69 snakes. This was largely the reason for Alexander’s invasion of India in 326 BC, very much against his troop’s wishes.
He never quite got to peer down the Outer Sea though, mainly because his troops rebelled and demanded they go back home. After many failed attempts at persuasion and morale building, he finally ceded and headed back with his army to reach Babylon. Not even a year went by, living in the royal palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, and Alexander fell seriously ill. In 323 BC, Alexander the Great, having led one of the most eventful of human lives, heaved his last breath at a vernal age of 32, carrying many a dream unfulfilled in his heart.
But even if his troops had not rebelled and even if he wouldn’t have fallen ill, and even if a million other things would’ve happened just right, he would’ve never reached the end of the world, ironically he would’ve come back to the exact place where he started, as if this entire prodigious effort was all for naught. Because much like many of us, he was seeking something that did not exist.
Doesn’t sound like the best story, when told that way, does it? The reason it doesn’t sound great is because it starts off as an epic, building up our expectations for a truly worthy conclusion, but then falls flat on its face with, (to put it mildly) the worst ending ever.
It doesn’t follow the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell, in which he posits that all of our epic narratives, from that of Arjun to Buddha to Jesus to Harry Potter are canonicals of a Monomyth, a template story, made up of 12 key events. Most of the stories we love in books, movies and TV shows (except Game of Thrones, savage!) follow this 12 step formula very closely.
What makes a hero? - Matthew Winkler (Transcript)
What do Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and Frodo, all have in common with the heroes of ancient myths? What if I told you they're all variants of the same hero. Do You believe that? Joseph Campbell did! He studied myths from all over the world and published a book called "The Hero With a Thousands Faces", retelling dozens of stories and explaining how each represents the monomyth or Hero's Journey. So what is the Hero's Journey? Think of it as a cycle. The journey begins and ends in the hero's ordinary world. But the quest passes through an unfamiliar special world. Along the way there are some key events. Think about your favorite book or movie, does it follow this pattern? Status Quo, that's where we starts. – one o'clock : Call to adventure → The hero receives a mysterious message an invitation, a challenge? – 2 o'clock: Assistance → The hero needs some help probably from someone older, wiser – 3 o'clock: Departure → The hero crosses the threshold from his normal safe home and enters the special world of adventure. We are not in Kansas anymore. – 4 o'clock: Trials → Being a hero is hard work. The hero solves a riddle, slays a monster, escapes from a trap. – 5 o'clock: Approach → It's time to face the biggest ordeal, the hero's worst fear. – 6 o'clock: Crisis → This is the hero's darkest hour. He faces death and possibly even dies, only to be reborn. – 7 o'clock: Treasure → As a result the hero claims some treasure, special recognition, power – 8'oclock: Result → This can vary between stories. Do the monsters bow down before the hero or do they chase him as he flees from this special world – 9 o'clock: Return → After all that adventure the hero returns to his ordinary world – 10 o'clock: New life → This quest has changed the hero. He has outgrown his old life. – 11 o'clock: Resolution → All the tangled plot lines get straightened out – 12 o'clock: Status Quo, but upgraded to a new level Nothing is quite the same once you're a hero! Many popular books and movies follow this ancient formula pretty closely. But lets see how well the Hunger Games fits the hero's journey template. When does Katnis Everdeen hear her call to adventure which gets the story moving? When her sister's name is called from the lottery. How about assistance? Is anybody going to help her in her adventure? Haymitch. What about departure? Does she leave her ordinary world? She gets on a train to the Capital. OK. So you get the idea! What do you have in common with Harry Potter, Katnis Everdeen and Frodo? Well, you're human just like them! The Hero's Journey myth exists in all human cultures and keeps getting updated because we humans reflect on our world through symbolic stories of our own lives. You leave your comfort zone, have an experience that transforms you and then you recover and do it again. You don't literally slay dragons or fight Voldemort but you face problems just as scary. Joseph Campbell said 'In the cave you fear to enter, lies the treasure you seek'. What is the symbolic cave you fear to enter? Audition for the school play, baseball tryouts, love? Watch for this formula in books, movies and TV shows you come across, you will certainly see it again. But also be sensitive to it in your own life; listen for your call for adventure, accept the challenge, conquer your fear and claim the treasure you seek and then do it all over again.
What most stories really don’t follow though, is the Known/Unknown bifurcation. The hero might not know the finer details of the plot, but the object is almost always crystal clear. The hero never has to question their choices, as they are always right by definition. In fact, a defined purpose, perfect execution and ultimate glory are what define a hero. S/he also knows the blast-radius of a frickin ballistic missile for luck’s sake!
The primary characteristic of the Hero’s Journey is that it is always unidimensional, the decisions almost obvious. Choice is a well crafted illusion in the Hero’s Journey. There is nothing else the hero could’ve done, than save the world. It all just makes sense. Turns out, real life is not entirely like that, but it partially is, in particular the first quarter.
Meet, Blue. Yeah, even he doesn’t know why. Talk about identity crisis! Blue grew up reading a lot of comic books, Superman was his favorite. He was fascinated by how astoundingly powerful Superman was and yet how he always chose to do the right thing, almost as if, choosing the right thing was his real super power. Blue’s grandpa was a badass fighter pilot and an enthralling storyteller. Grandpa’s dog fights was a dinner table topic that never ceased to amaze Blue. He wanted to be as awesome as his grandpa!
Evidently, there was no lack of heros in Blue’s life. For years, Blue was obsessed with airplanes, constantly reading about them, sketching fighter jets (and oh was he good at it!), it was all the rage. In High School, he watched October Sky and it was settled; Blue would become an Aerospace Engineer. He had found the key to awesomeness, his call to adventure, his passion. At university, Blue received assistance from some of the best Aerospace academics in the world. He also made some of the best friends of his life here. Friends who were excited about doing cool things and having fascinating conversations. Some friends had found their passions and some were still looking, it was the time for exploration after all! There were times when Blue also felt a bit blue and confused, but he knew in his heart that he was following his passion, he’d think of Homer Hickam from October Sky, and that’d give him the strength to power through. Graduating from university, Blue joined SpaceX, how much cooler could life get! He had departed from his familiar life, into the unknown, the real world. He was largely on his own from here on out.
It’s been over a year into the working adult life now for Blue. While the initial anxiety about the new life has significantly subsided, Blue is still far from being comfortable calling himself an adult yet. He has definitely become much better at doing adult things like juggling taxes and credit scores, but life is different now. Keeping in touch with friends feels like an activity. He has to be intentional about the tiniest of things now. In fact, he has realized that, intentionality is the bedrock of adult existence. Life doesn’t flow like an unfettered river anymore. He misses his past self, his past life sometimes.
Blue is a CAE engineer and works on fluid simulations for nozzle design. Work is hard and exhausting, but he likes his job and he respects what his company stands for.
But contrary to popular expectations, over the past year, Blue has become increasingly restless and confused in life. The fact that he can’t pin point the exact source of his restlessness and confusion has turned it into a positive feedback cycle. Blue often finds himself questioning, and I quote, “What in the living hell am I doing with my life?”.
At a local level, life is not too bad, job is good, weekends are enjoyable. But how long is this life going to go? Is he going to be an Aerospace Engineer all his life? Will he be able to create a ding in the universe? What does that even mean? What about meeting the right person to spend the rest of his life with? Will he be proudly telling his grandkids, his life story, sitting in his floating chair, a 100 year old man (thanks to CRISPR), just like his grandpa? Will the sum of his life be greater or lesser than its parts?
In the big picture, unlike the hero, he is not sure where his life is going, if at all it’s going. He is pursuing his passion, this was supposed to feel magical! But mostly life just seems mundane. Even his value at SpaceX seems excruciatingly replaceable. Work yesterday was not as exciting as the first day. In fact, it was not exciting at all, it was just okay. Was he wrong all along about his passion! Has he not found it and needs to keep looking? Does that mean he has wasted these many years following a ghost? Is it too late now? Even Homer Hickam from October Sky is not helping now. With each passing day, he feels increasingly depressed, going back home after work to his empty room filled with haunting questions. Blue is having a Quarter Life Crisis.
. . .
It is time to consult two of his best friends, Wingard and Leviosa. Blue pings Leviosa, but she doesn’t reply. Leviosa pings back after 2 days. “Sorry, I was on Emergency Duty.” says she. Leviosa is studying to become an Oncologist, currently completing her clinical training. Schedules are crazy and an uninterrupted 5 hour long sleep is a luxury. Blue pours his brains out to her as always and she patiently listens. She’s become very good at listening to and understanding peoples’ stories, much worst stories than Blue could ever imagine. She has become more empathetic in a strangely detached way. Contrary to popular belief, this one turns out to be one of the most important skills of a doctor.
As Blue tells her his predicament, he secretly wishes that she wouldn’t have a good answer, that she too must be passing through a similar crisis. Not in a schadenfreude way, but in a self-validating way. Because what Blue seeks the most, more than a solution right now, is empathy, and he gets a whole lot of it.
“I don’t get as much time as you to obsess over this, but I know exactly what you mean. I still don’t agree with your idea of a singular passion in life, but that’s beside the main point. The main point is, we have no idea where our life is headed, and holy mother of Hodor, thats scary!” Leviosa says.
“It’s at least good to know that you are doing meaningful work, right?” Blue asks sheepishly. “Yeah, but whatever we do, you, me, everyone and everything around here is going to die in the end, I can bet my life on this one. Then how does it matter? How does one reconcile their dreams and aspirations with the finality of death?” Leviosa says. Blue doesn’t have an answer, so he says “hmm :(“. Leviosa continues, “Even the self-help material doesn’t help a lot. I have noticed that, what a lot of the self-help material tries to do, is motivate you, because apparently the solution to doubt and depression, is motivation. What I really seek is clarity! But clarity is often not nice sounding, so I feel they discount it or they plain have no clarity themselves. Motivation sells easy, especially to the depressed. Sorry, didn’t mean to go on a mini-rant about self-help.” Blue agrees though, his forays into self-help-land have definitely made him feel good temporarily, but haven’t really answered questions.
“You know, this reminds me of Wingard from last month.” says Leviosa, “Did you know, he had started smoking again?” “Wtf! He never told me. I thought we had stopped him for good!” exclaims Blue. “Said he was ashamed to tell you. Work stress was his excuse. Can you believe that? Here I am trying to save the world from cancer and my own boyfriend is farming for tumors in his lungs. I had to fly to UK and give him an ultimatum to stop him.” says an exasperated Leviosa. “I am so glad he has you, he needs you really.” sighs Blue. “This time he’s stopped for good.”, assures Leviosa, but she senses Blue’s apprehension. “I’ll talk to him.” says Blue.
Wingard works at a top consulting firm with big international clients. Nearly every 6 months, he travels to a new country, staying in posh hotels, grabbing drinks with important people. “Two of his coworkers started a startup 6 months back, they asked him to join but he declined, since he didn’t like their idea and execution. He still thinks so, but they recently raised $1.7 million in funding and mister had a major FOMO meltdown. He’s now questioning all of his life decisions. To top that, unlike you and me, he also hates his job and by extension, his life.” Leviosa says. “Damn! Seriously? His Facebook profile sure doesn’t say that!” interjects Blue. He’s reminded of a quote he read somewhere, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
Blue has a long much-needed chat with Wingard thereafter and notices so many similarities in their concerns. In fact, the more people Blue talks to, the more he realizes that this quarter life crisis thing is rather an epidemic. “This needs to be solved! We need to meet.” says Wingard. And so they do, after almost 4 months, courtesy of adulthood. Their problems apart, for one, they are just glad to be sitting in a room and chatting after what feels like ages. And so they talk.
The trio agrees that they are leading objectively good lives. They are humbled by the awareness of their ridiculous fortune to have had an upbringing that affords them the luxury to ask such questions. But there is something awry in their collective perspective. They know that having high and often unrealistic expectations from themselves and the world at large, comes complementary with the millennial club membership, but this is not about expectations. It is about a misplaced worldview.
Contemplating over their questions has opened them up to some surprising and rather obvious (after the fact) insights. They realize that all of their questions basically boil down to a single overarching concern. Until recently, all of them were largely on an autopilot, growing up, learning, getting ready for their adventure in the real world. They were following the Hero’s Journey, destined for glory, all of them. But this real world doesn’t seem to have a singular arc of adventure. In fact, now they realize that it has no arcs at all! It may be argued that, theirs is the first generation with this unprecedented freedom and the ensuing responsibility to define a good life for themselves, devoid of any primer. Most of them don’t have boars to hunt or gods to please or wars to wage or motherlands to save or even jobs to secure. They (hopefully) have three quarters of their life unfurled in front of them, and they can choose to do whatever the heck they please with it. But this colossal freedom is ironically paralyzing. They feel like a destination-less ship at the deep sea.
None of them seem to know what to do with this freedom, this life. But that’s not really their problem. Their real problem is that they think there is something to know and that there are these mythical people who know or as they like to put it, have figured it out. The more they think about it logically, the more they realize that there really is no ‘it’ to be figured out.
“There is no secret ingredient!” Leviosa says, and turns to Blue with a sly smile. Blue’s afraid he knows what she’s going to say next. “You know what sounds a lot secret ingredient-y? Passion! or at least our current definition of it.” blurts Leviosa and Blue agrees with a sigh. She continues, “Don’t you think we have newly turned into a society that almost romanticizes passion? Liking or being interested in things doesn’t cut it anymore, you need to be passionate, whatever the heck that means. But for a society so obsessed with passion, our understanding of it is pathetic. In fact, we confuse passion with something completely different. Passion, as perceived now, is this hidden variable in the equation of life, that somehow has to be found and then maniacally optimized for, since that would be the only thing that would matter in life beyond this point of emancipation. This is not really the characteristic of passion. Like really not.”
Pas·sionˈpaSHən/nounPassion is an intense emotion, a compelling enthusiasm or desire for something.Funny Trivia: “Heat of the moment” redirects to Passion on Wikipedia..
Those guys at Wikipedia sure know a thing or two. What it is really a characteristic of, is purpose.
Pur·poseˈpərpəs/nounPurpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists..
Steve Jobs, the father of passion said,
“You’ve got to find what you love. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.”
That is some grade A bullshit right there. It is also a special kind of bullshit. The kind that sounds super profound and life altering to someone inexperienced, which also happens to be the demographic this quote was directed toward. If it sounds like some spicy Bollywood Magic Masala, it’s because it is. Love is not found, it is nurtured and developed over time. Unlike love though, your heart definitely knows when you find infatuation, also known as heat of the moment. And no, a great relationship doesn’t just get better and better as the years roll on. A relationship that gets better and better as the years roll on, is known as a great relationship. This is what Leviosa meant by not discounting clarity for motivation.
Turns out, Jobs himself was not a very passionate being. He was a confused whimsical teen who dropped out of college and fluttered in and out of Steve Wozniak’s vision to go on intrepid spiritual adventures for months. He only started becoming the Steve Jobs we know after Woz made the Apple I and Apple started really taking off. Jobs was a visionary leader but maybe not the best person to take advice from. This is not to say he was being deceitful in his speech, he most likely believed his advice was right. But he was evidently suffering from a classic case of the good old confirmation bias. After amassing gargantuan success, somewhere along the way he probably started believing his passion led him where he was. And since pursuing this ‘passion’ gave him this success, finding and pursuing it might just be the most important thing in the life of a successful human!
The truth Blue now understands is that Purpose has to exist at the onset, while Passion develops. And like anything that develops, passion is not ordained, unique and unchangeable. It is a consequence of our circumstances and choices. It is always a work in progress.
Blue understands that now about passion. “But there is only a bit of a problem with this purpose you talk about.” mocks Blue, “In that, there is really no purpose. Not for me, not for anyone! And I know this, I’ve known this for a while. It’s just that by repackaging it into this warm fuzzy thing called passion, I guess I was kind of fooling myself into not shouldering its full weight. The universe as we know it, is this vast sea of ever growing entropy, and existence itself an ephemeral bubble pop with no known causation and destination. Oh god, I feel like I’ve opened a Pandora’s box here. Thanks Leviosa! Way to help a friend in need, you go girl!” Leviosa giggles, she knows that Blue might need a while to assimilate this tectonic shift in his worldview, but she’s glad she got him to think. Blue stares out the window in the distance. With one problem resolved, he is now confounded with a new, possibly harder one. He now very well understands what Leviosa meant by reconciling ones dreams and aspirations with the finality of death.
Meanwhile, after a rather heated squabble with the newly enlightened Blue, Wingard realizes that he’s being an irrational tadpole right now. He’s trying to have his cake and eat it too. He’s trying to judge his past decisions based on current information and preferences. “Decisions are really not right or wrong in and by themselves, you know!” exclaims Blue, “It is the consequences of those decisions that make them right or wrong. The consequences of some decisions although not evident right away, like smoking, are rather predictable. But the consequences of most others, like not joining a startup, are not.” Wingard cringes at the mention of smoking, but agrees completely. “I understand dude, it’s just that I’ve always wanted my life to be a certain way. I am a man with a plan, you know that!” says Wingard. “Oh, too well!”, interjects Blue. Wingard continues, “But since I’ve been out of school, not all things have turned out as I wanted them to and that’s obviously expected. But more importantly, I feel like amongst the things that did turn out as expected, I don’t want most of them anymore. And that’s my major pain point. That’s probably why I keep blaming my past decisions for my today’s problems and that’s stupid I know!”
“Believe you me, we are exactly on the same page there.” assures Blue, “ But oh well, turns out life is more complicated than our story books, big whoop! I think we were trying to use two different instruments to the same effect, to force structure into our lives. For me it was passion, for you it was decisions and plans. But here’s the truth, the capital T Truth, most of our life is absurdly out of our control. I mean how can you expect to control your life when you can’t even completely control how you feel about it? You can not engineer your life, it’s so complex, you can’t even begin to dream of it!”. “Are you saying that we have no real freedom, that we are just the products of our circumstances? Like marbles bouncing off of walls?” interrupts Wingard. “Oh no! Far from it! Freedom and control are similar sounding but two very different things. I am saying that we have an absurd amount of freedom to make choices at every moment of our life. But a choice does not endow us with control over how those chosen things will evolve in time. You make a choice and then you hope. Only the choice is yours, the outcome isn’t. It’s a lot like steering a sailboat. All you can do, is twist and pull the sails, as you must. But the sails don’t take you home, the wind does, when it’s blowing and blowing in the right direction. And that’s the real rub.
But when you do decide, you must to be fair to yourself, to have the honesty to completely own that decision with all of its consequences, the good and the bad, especially the bad. And the reason to be absolutely involved in every decision you are afforded is that, one way or another, one always decides. Not deciding is also deciding. It is in the nature of time to obviate all other what ifs in lieu of a decision.” explains Blue.
“That’s a lot to take in, man.” remarks Wingard, but he agrees. It is now his turn to stare in the distance and turn his knobs. Wingard understands that living ones dream is sort of a misnomer. The fact that you are living it, implies it is not a dream. That’s precisely how dreams are defined actually. What you are most likely living (if you’re lucky), is your past self’s dream. And dreams change. And ironically, that’s the best part. But most importantly, he understands that, unlike the hero, his life doesn’t have a plot. It is emergent.
Stories are beautiful, probably amongst the most beautiful of things we create. They are also very important and potentially the prime determinant in our unprecedented success as a species. They allow us to live a thousand lifetimes in one. They are in fact so compelling, that we easily forget what they are in the first place, stories. Stories don’t exist out there in the real world, they exist up here, in our heads.
Stories are based on reality, facts, events. But those are not really the things that make them stories. What stories are really made of, are connections. Connections between events, events that are carefully handpicked out of a giant hairball of a messy medley of experiences. Stories are retrospective, our life doesn’t have a story, we create stories out of our life. “Ever since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to be an actor/astronaut/author”, says the newly successful kid on the block. Not because that’s the reality but because now s/he genuinely believes so. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”, said Steve Jobs. And he was absolutely right. But not because of some magical Alchemist who ensures the whole universe conspires to get you what you wanted, but because it is you who connects these dots.
Stories make sense, real life does not, because it’s not supposed to. Making sense was not one of its design parameters. “It’s a bit like Quantum Mechanics you see.”, says Blue “If you think your life makes sense, you are most definitely wrong, otherwise you might be on to something.”. Just like the heros of our epics, Blue, Wingard and Leviosa are figments of (my) imagination, but they are also fragments of us and our collective concerns. However, unlike the heros, they are flawed, not because they are any worse but purely because of partial information and chance. They are not destined for defeat or glory and they sure as hell don’t have a story.
“All that is great’n all. I get it, life is not a story. But then what is it?” says Leviosa, always the one to ask the important questions. “Optimization!” splurts Blue. Leviosa tilts her head confused.