The following is an excerpt from my new book Heroes, Villains, and Drunk Old Men: A Love Story for Real Life, available in paperback and e-book from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
I just devoted an entire section to the process by which heroes are made on the job. That’s a hefty chunk of this book because of the hefty chunks of our lives are dedicated to the pursuit of our paychecks, which support that pesky food/clothing/shelter habit we and our loved ones picked up.
Since we will spend more time at work and around fellow paycheck-chasers than with our family and friends, it’s reasonable to consider ways to bring your best self to work and see your time on the clock as an extension of, and not an interruption in, your Hero’s Journey.
It’s important, though, to keep work in perspective.
Corporations will be slow to develop the heroism in you, and can only do so much to help you find your chosen path in life, because that’s not why they exist. They exist to maximize profits and shareholder value while benefitting, to the extent they’re able, the communities they serve.
They can’t give you your individual purpose.
You must take responsibility for your own journey and realize the fulfillment of your gifts and talents can’t fully happen on the clock.
Your employer can give you money, and your job can be the way in which you live out your purpose, but neither work nor money can give you purpose or identity. You have to discover them on your own terms—but not on your own. You have to look hard at your own journey, and recruit excellent mentors and partners who can help you pursue the right finish line for you.
You have to ask yourself, “What problems do I want to solve as I grow up?” instead of “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Living out your purpose is a life-long process, not a one-off meeting with a guidance counselor or an impulsive decision made by the glow of a late-night infomercial.
Your personal Hero’s Journey will reveal different skills and priorities at every step. You’ll encounter different highlights and bloopers, each of which will tell you what’s important to you now and what you’re on the cusp of doing well later. Since your job is neither your purpose nor your identity, you have the freedom to examine both at any time.
Don’t put this process off. Don’t wait for your employer, or a sense of desperation, or boredom to do the work for you. Use the 8 Questions for Every Hero right now to write a better story about your life. Give yourself two years at any job, then force yourself to look for a new one, even if you don’t need it. Update your resumé. Make connections. Ask what problems you want to solve. Don’t fill your head with trivial knowledge or distract yourself with lifeless diversions, but strive for lasting impact.
I wish I could end this intermission here, on this high note, and move on. I wish I could tell you, despite the difficulty and risks, your journey will work out just fine. I wish you would believe that wholeheartedly.
You can’t, though. Not yet, at least, because you have plenty of evidence to the contrary.
For every rags-to-riches success story trending to the top of our news feed and making us feel good for a moment, there are countless other quiet and desperate souls who have been hit so hard and so often that success is either a fairy tale to mock or an ideal to reject.
You know what failure looks like. You drive by its going-out-of-business signs on the way to your job, get yet another text from the loved one who needs just a few more dollars to help them get back on their feet, hear friends complain about the promotion they want but will never get, and watch people sink into gray silence when their teachers or bosses or spouses predict a life of utter mediocrity.
Perhaps failure has claimed someone close to you. She used to have dreams of changing her world. She stood on the shore and gazed out across the water, dreaming of setting out upon it to find places she could go and a life she could live, but an ill-timed “yes” or “no” kept her frozen in place, chilling hope into fear and shrinking from the rise and fall essential to any new endeavor.
So she settled.
She muzzled the still, small voice calling her to step out onto the water, walk upon it in faith, and pursue the life her unique gifts were created for in the first place.
The shore was all she deserved, she said. The water wasn’t for her, she said. The water was for others who were smarter and stronger and bolder and wiser and more talented, she said—even though the water was the only place where she felt whole and healthy and happy. The shore is easy and the water is hard and you should stay where you’re safe, she said.
The people who called themselves friends, high up on dry land, agreed. They gave up on the water long ago. It’s madness to find hope there, much less try to walk upon it, they jeered. They reminded her of all the times she stumbled and fell and failed on the safety of dry land. How, then, can she possibly avoid these fates amidst the water’s unforgiving churn?
She walked away from the water, but can never forget the horizon, over which the life she was meant for remains unfulfilled. The boat she should’ve boarded still floats there, but it’s untethered and drifting into the distance, ripple by ripple, wave by wave. She knows it waits, but for only so long, and as she wades ankle deep, her tears find a home in the water that she never will.
Maybe this is the story of someone close to you.
But maybe, it’s really your story.
You’ve pushed so hard against the doubt and fear, struggled to breathe life into something unique and precious and unquestionably yours. You’ve yearned to hear some word of encouragement affirming your uniqueness and worth. It need only be a whisper in the cacophonous world in which we live to give you hope, but maybe that whisper never came in a way you recognized, valued, or trusted.
You’re one decision away from giving up. Maybe you already have. You didn’t think it was going to be this hard to live this life and don’t know how to keep going. You don’t think the 8 Questions for Every Hero will lead you out of a world of dark gray sameness and irrelevance that doesn’t need you and filled with people who don’t care to know you. Your fire has gone out and you don’t know how to bring it back.
We can, though. Together. Right now. We’ll need to go through some tough stuff first, but the destination will be worth the bumps in the road.
We’ll start at the dentist’s office.