When things get tough, how do you keep on keeping on? Part of the answer lies in telling yourself stories about yourself. Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee talked about "the Principle of Antagonism" in his book Story: "A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them." Odysseus' greatness rose to the level of the challenges he faced. Frodo was made great by the depth of Sauron's evil. See yourself as a hero in a story and every obstacle, rather than bringing you down, can draw out greater qualities of your character. Such mythologizing gives the heroic quality that British art historian Kenneth Clark wrote about in his book Civilisation:
"I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not part of most people's idea of civilisation. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life. It is the enemy of happiness. And yet we recognise that to despise material obstacles, and even to defy the blind forces of fate, is man's supreme achievement; . . . in the end, civilisation depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. . . ."
In their book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote about the importance of having a BiHAG, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. A BiHAG gives you the moxie, the chutzpah, the pluck you need to get a difficult job done. It shifts your focus from playing not to lose to playing to win, and from only conserving resources to maximizing the quality of the contribution you can make. This shift is important but subtle, so I'll try to outline it with four examples:
1. The best defense is a strong offense.
2. Think in terms of cultivating your perception. You are more likely to see an opportunity if you are looking for one.
3. I'd rather chase a muse than be chased by a fury.
4. When you are on the attack (seeking to win), a failure is nothing but one less victory, but when you are playing defense, a failure is defeat.
Another advantage of mythologizing your actions and of giving them a heroic quality can be seen in the work of the religion scholar Mircea Eliade. He observed that for people to have meaningful lives they must put their lives into a narrative, a story, a myth. For example, because I love my family, I want to make sure they have enough food to eat and a place to live, so I, alas, must work for a living, which means that I have to drive to work. This means that I have to keep my car maintained, which means that I have to call to make an appointment with the service department. The receptionist puts me on hold and I am stuck listening to music that is dull enough to lull a young otter to sleep. Even though attending to the insipid music is a fifth-order derivative from my prime motivation of taking care of my family, my putting up with it is motivated by my deepest values. Knowing this makes tolerating it, well, tolerable. Mythologizing your actions helps to sensitize you to what poet May Sarton has called "the sacramentalization of the ordinary."
Clark, K. 1970. Civilisation: A Personal View. New York: Harper and Row.
Collins, J. and J. Porras. 1994. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. New York: Harper Business.
Eliade, M. 1968. Myth and Reality. Translated by W. Trask. New York: Harper & Row.
Gadamer, H. 2004. Truth and Method. Translation revised by J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall. New York: Continuum.
McKee, R. 1997. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: Harper Collins.
Sarton, May. 1993. Among the Usual Days. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.