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Goal Setting as the Hero's Journey

Determination is forged in the depths of being tested.

When many people set a goal, they encounter an obstacle and begin to doubt that they can really achieve that goal. What if you thought about goal setting as, by definition, an ordeal?

An ordeal that has a well-worn path with predictable steps that unfold in order. Understanding the sequence and purpose of the ordeal as a path of personal transformation will likely increase motivation and self-confidence as you head out from goal setting to goal getting.

The hero’s journey is a template for most myths and stories (Vogler, 2007). Star Wars and the Matrix are two movies that closely follow the stages of the hero’s journey. When you set a goal, you are setting out on a hero’s journey. It means you depart your ordinary world, confront crises, overcome ordeals and then return to your starting place transformed and having some sort of “elixir” to bring back. The 12 stages of the hero’s journey include:

1. Ordinary World
This is your day to day life before you set a goal. It may be that you are happy at work but wish you had more friends to do fun activities with and felt comfortable asking people to go out with you. It may be that you have lots of friends but you want to move to a new role in your company that is more aligned with your talents.

2. Call To Adventure
The goal you set will be the call to adventure. By definition, the goal is something beyond your ordinary world and will therefore take you into the unknown. It could be as simple as limiting smartphone use, which is “beyond your ordinary world” in the sense that it changes a daily habit that is not working.

3. Refusal of The Call
Notice that the Refusal of the Call is a part of the hero’s journey. When you hear yourself saying “this is impossible” — that’s not an obstacle to goal getting — that is predictable, every hero wants to turn their back at some time. Whether it’s choosing healthy food when you start to crave junk food or saying no to happy hour with your friends so you can be well-rested for work the next day, in those moments it is tempting to throw in your hat and do the easy thing.

Positive Self Talk: Tell yourself “Wanting to forget about the goal is part of the hero’s journey. Press on!”

4. Meeting The Mentor
You can think of a book as a mentor if you are trying to solve a specific problem. It would be even better to find a mentor in the real world. As an example, if you can find someone who is a neat freak — a friend or relative — if your goal is to get organized, you will have a better shot at success.

5. Crossing The Threshold
Crossing the threshold means now you are really going for it. You are in the unknown. This may mean you take that accounting class at the local college to increase your personal finance skills even though it’s a stretch for you. This stage of goal setting represents the point at which you’re taking action.

6.Tests, Allies, Enemies
The allies may be a tutor, the teacher, or study buddy in the accounting class, and the worst enemy may be your self-doubt. This stage represents the obstacles in your way.

7. Approach To The Inmost Cave
The approach to the inmost cave may be a desk to clear off so you can study. The desk can also become a minefield of distractions, your phone, a tablet or any other digital devices. You can think of how to make this inmost cave a productive, supportive environment to help you reach your goals.

8. Ordeal
The ordeal in this example would be the final exam in the accounting class. The ordeal is also the moment where the outcome is uncertain, but you do it anyway.

9. Reward
Having completed the accounting final exam, you receive the reward. In this case, if you stretched yourself and took a class that would test your limits, you win for building your courage and being willing to do hard things. The reward can be refusing to quit, and choosing to evolve, grow and try your best in the face the ordeal. Even if you don’t get a passing grade, you have built your skills and ability to step out of your comfort zone. You earn the title of hero just by surviving the ordeal — just by setting the goal, working toward it, and completing the task. The ultimate reward would be getting a passing grade, of course, but don’t forget that working toward your goal and not quitting is rewarding in itself. Remember that there are various measures of success and reward on this journey.

10. The Road Back
The Road Back will mean having the satisfaction in your day to day world that you are stronger in managing your own finances and that you are better prepared for other challenges. As you return back to your day to day life after completing your goal, you realize that there are still challenges to be faced, but you are now more prepared for them.

11. Resurrection
The Resurrection may be changing your core beliefs about what others think you are capable of and even upgrading your own self-concept. It may mean bringing back success or the message that trying and failing is better than never trying.

Another element of the Resurrection is that you will be a new person. Goals represent ambition and effort. Even if you were not to pass the accounting final exam, you now are a more ambitious person who has worked hard and can work harder another day.

An example of how we ourselves are transformed by goals to “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” is JFK’s speech launching the United States into the space race:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

This goal is a great example of something that seemed almost impossible at the time he said it. That goal has led to a long history of space travel, and many private space industry companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin that are taking us into a future that is starting to look a lot of science fiction.

12. Return with the Elixir
The elixir you return with will be the growth mindset. You will learn that the harder you try the smarter you are. This is in contrast to the fixed mindset which is the belief that some people are smart and others are not as smart. The growth mindset will transform your fear of failure into a commitment to work harder and challenge yourself.

The hero’s journey reminds us that wanting to turn back and feeling like getting your goal is turning into an ordeal are all predictable parts of the process. You don’t have to wonder if other people have it easier by remembering that determination is forged in the depths of being tested.

Free Video on Six Super Skills to go from Goal Setting to Goal Getting


Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. CA: Wiese Productions.

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