Learn how to live the hero’s journey
I can’t help but view my life as a kind of story. Maybe it’s just because I watched a lot of movies growing up, but I find myself thinking in terms of narrative.
I have a beginning, my childhood. My character and personality were formed. I have a middle, and that’s where I like to consider myself now — I finished college, I’m in the midst of my career… and there are things I still want to achieve in the future.
The funny thing is, I don’t know exactly how the “third act” of my story will go. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The greatest literary works take you on a journey, and the final moments affect your perspective and interpretation of the preceding parts of the story.
I view my financial journey this way too. I was clueless and unaware, then I started to learn, and now it’s time to apply what I know and see what my wife and I are able to do and achieve. Our lives aren’t all about money, but, all of the things we want to do with our time are certainly related to money in some way.
The hero’s journey
One classic literary archetype is “the hero’s journey”, credited to Joseph Campbell. It’s actually sometimes called the “monomyth” because it’s viewed as a universal story structure. From The Odyssey to Star Wars, the hero’s journey pattern can be seen throughout art history.
We all want to be the hero in our financial and life stories, right? So let’s consider this our template for our own journeys as well. As you read through, you may be able to see the general form of the hero’s journey in progress in many areas of your life — in your relationships, education, career, or faith.
The Semi-Retire Plan I outline on this site follows a similar three-stage progression.
Financially, when you dig into the hero’s journey, each step does align with how your life can change as you have a growing degree of financial independence. Your relationships with money, work, people, and the world evolve.
There are 3 main stages in the hero’s journey archetype, and many sub-stages. Not every story, including your own, will go through every sub-stage.
Stage 1 — Departure
The journey starts with routine, familiar life. Financially, this is the period when you were uneducated or living unintentionally.
For me, growing up, I was aware that my parents were making financial decisions, but I didn’t understand them. As far as I knew, my dad went to work every day, and everything was taken care of. Things seemed to be okay automatically. Of course, reality was more complicated. Financial independence, especially, certainly does not “just happen.”
For others, this part of the journey may include adult life with growing consumer debt. There may have been a period when avoiding debt or investing proactively didn’t seem important or valuable.
The call to adventure
At some point you, the hero, are first called to your adventure. This may be a parent or mentor who challenges you to plan for your career or your retirement. Or perhaps you “called” yourself when you found yourself in financial crisis.
Refusal of the call
For many literary heroes, the initial response is refusing to go on the journey. It seems too hard or it just doesn’t seem right.
Did you have a moment like that in your own life? It can be easy to choose to procrastinate instead of taking action. Maybe there was a period when you had the information to start taking action, but you continued to live your routine life.
Are you in this step right now, refusing to change your lifestyle to start on the path toward your goals?
In art, something supernatural tends to come next. This can be a vision, person, or magical item that helps the hero on the journey. It can be a tool of some kind, or it can simply be wisdom.
Was there a time where a mentor, a book, a podcast, or a low moment changed your perspective and the course of your life?
If you feel like you’re in the refusal of the call stage, this post can be your “supernatural aid” if it needs to be — get going! Start taking steps towards your dreams for your future.
Crossing the threshold
Finally you, the hero, are ready to “cross the threshold” into the new, unfamilar territory. Leave the routine. Leave home. The choice metaphor of C.S. Lewis might be enter the wardrobe to Narnia.
Financial change requires life change. Maybe you have to choose new friends, a new job, a new place to live, or a new career. Cross the threshold into the new world.
Belly of the whale
After crossing the threshold, you enter the danger zone. Stuff gets real, and you might not be prepared because this is all new.
The phrasing “belly of the whale” is a reference to the story of Jonah in the Bible. Personally, I am a Christian, so I do not mean to imply here that Jonah’s story is written insincerely or intentionally following a template. But I do think it’s interesting to see the same story structure occur organically through different parts of history.
In Jonah’s story, God calls Jonah to go to the city of Ninevah (call to adventure). Jonah does not want to go, so he flees and boards a boat to go to a different city (refusal of the call). A storm causes the sailers to throw cargo overboard, and eventually Jonah too, to lighten the ship and appease who they perceived to be an angry God. A large fish (or whale) then swallowed Jonah (belly of the whale). Here, Jonah prays to God, changes his mind, and agrees to go to Ninevah. God causes the fish to vomit Jonah up (supernatural aid), and Jonah proceeds to go to Ninevah (crossing the threshold).
Expect to face challenges when you do start your journey.
Stage 2 — Initiation
The next stage is when the adventure begins, and the hero begins on a road of trials, as Campbell called it.
Here are the different steps within the initiation stage, in Campbell’s analysis (you can read a description of each here):
- The road of trials
- The meeting with the goddess
- Woman as temptress
- Atonement with the father
- The ultimate boon
On your road, you will carry burdens and face challenges. That’s what makes life difficult, especially the slow grind to achieve flexibility and freedom.
During your journey, you may lose your mentor, find a new love, be tempted, and confront the ultimate power in your life, like Campbell says. Certainly, at least a few of these will apply to your financial and life paths. Temptations are constant. Questioning your career and your priorities is hard to avoid, and can even be helpful.
Finally, you may achieve what you set out to do.
I know that I am still here, in Stage 2.
Your third act
Now we have arrived at the unknowns in my own life. I have not yet progressed past this point. But here’s the beauty of it all — you get to write your own third act. You can determine the end of your story.
I see the hero’s journey reflected not just in art, but in life. So I’m using Stage 3 as the blueprint for my own third act.
Stage 3 — Return
A frequent topic in the early retirement community is unhappy people who do not having a plan after reaching financial independence. If you are not intentional, you can complete your great achievement only to find that you are still lost.
The hero’s journey doesn’t answer all of our questions about our future, but it does give us a preview and some hints.
The final stage of the hero’s journey is the return to the ordinary world.
As a child, money was not important to me. I cared about time with my friends and family, and doing things I enjoyed. In “Stage 3”, money will be a smaller part of my thoughts once again — not because it doesn’t matter, but because it will no longer be a question or a struggle.
Refusal of the return
The hero might not want to return.
Most Americans spend four or five decades working full-time towards retirement. When it’s finally time to retire (early, or in the traditional sense), it can be tempting to procrastinate pulling the trigger. Working can feel comfortable and normal. If you don’t have ideas for how you want to spend your time in retirement, you may be tempted to “refuse the return” to the non-corporate world.
The magic flight
The hero may have to escape the unfamiliar world with an artifact.
The transition may be turbulent! Remember that it took years to get your career on track and to become an adult. It may take years and many adjustments to fine-tune your new life.
Rescue from without
The hero may need guides and helpers. They may even be the ones to bring him back to the ordinary world.
In our own lives, we need to be humble enough to seek new friendships and to ask for help. You may grow apart from Stage 2 friends or make new friends. Plus, you will certainly be spending your time differently — you will work on new projects and learn new skills.
The crossing of the return threshold
The hero integrates his knowledge and experiences into his new life and shares it with the world.
You are a different person than you were in Stages 1 and 2. Appreciate how you have grown. How has your perspective changed? What can you do to help others and to live an improved life?
Master of two worlds
The hero achieves mastery or balance between the two worlds, or between the material and spiritual realms.
How can you live a more balanced or healthy life than before? How can you be the master of your own life in a way you weren’t equipped to when you started your journey?
Freedom to live
The hero no longer has to anticipate the future or regret the past.
This is the essence of Stage 3. Once you reach financial independence, the 24 hours in your day are a blank page for you to fill.
This final step does not give us much structure. So, the hero’s journey archetype falls short of giving us a full manual for our retirement. But it teaches us to appreciate how we’ve grown and changed.
Along the path, you will overcome challenges, learn from wise mentors, receive help, and make new friends. In Stage 3, you have the opportunity to now give help to others, spend more time with the people in your life, and use your talents for the benefit of those around you. You also have time to recover and to be at peace.
You can share what you’ve learned with the world. You can live a better life. You can become a mentor for a new, future hero’s journey.