The Hero's Journey: The Ordinary World

ordinary life

Author's note: This week begins a 12-part series on the Hero's Journey, or the monomyth proposed by Joseph Campbell. The first stage is the Ordinary World. Do you want to be ordinary? Or do you want to be something more than ordinary?

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with "ordinary," but regardless of the kind of life we may think we want, many of us continue to make the same choices as everybody else. And this is certain: You can't live an extraordinary life by making ordinary choices.

What if I were to ask you if you wanted to be an ordinary person, to do ordinary work, to go to ordinary places, to have ordinary relationships, and all in all, to live an ordinary life?

How would you respond to such an invitation?

Our family, our friends, and our world caution us to be safe, not sorry; implore us to choose the path of least resistance; and remind us that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

The world around us has many ways of saying the same thing: It is better to conform, to do the expected, and to otherwise live a normal, ordinary life.

In the movie "The Incredibles," the super-powered Parr family is forced to hide in plain sight as "normal" people. The family's normalcy and safety are threatened as Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) struggles to be content with his ordinary life, sneaking out to fight crime and save lives with fellow "super" Lucius Best (Frozone).

Think about what it would be like to know, not to consider, ponder, or suspect, but to know with absolute certainty that you were capable of incredible, life-changing things, only to have that potential hidden or otherwise suppressed by a lack of awareness, a lack of confidence, advice from family, expectations of friends, or social norms.

What if you were born into a world where you were not aware of your own potential?

Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there. -Morpheus (The Matrix, 1999)

Each and every one of us has a deep desire to lead a purposeful life. We want to fulfill our potential; have meaningful relationships with people; but most of all, we want to impact our organizations, our communities, and our world.

How do we allow ourselves to be satisfied with any less than the fullest potential of who we can be?

A scientist once conducted an experiment involving five gorillas in a cage.  The cage had a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling and a ladder sitting right under the bananas so the gorillas could reach them.  Simple enough, but every time one of the gorillas approached the ladder, the scientist would spray all of the gorillas with cold water.

After a while, another gorilla makes an attempt to obtain the banana.  As soon as his foot touches the ladder, all of the gorillas are sprayed with cold water. It's not long before all of the other gorillas try to prevent any gorilla from climbing the ladder.

Once the gorillas had given up on the bananas, the scientist exchanged one of the “trained” gorillas with one who had never been sprayed.  Predictably, when the new gorilla approached the ladder to get the bananas he was attacked by the other four.  No water was used this time, but it didn’t take long for the newest primate to learn that approaching the ladder would result in a beating.

The scientist then replaced another “trained” gorilla with another newbie, who took a similiar pounding when he approached the ladder.  The kicker this time was this:  the first newbie happily took part in the beating of the second newbie, even though he personally had never been sprayed with water.

The scientist continued to replace “trained” gorillas with newbies until the cage contained none of the original five.  None of the current gorillas had ever been sprayed with water, and none of them ever approached the ladder for the bananas.

And none of them knew why.

We live in a "monkey see, monkey do" world, which doesn't help any of us get where we want to go. Instead, we subordinate ourselves to the expectations of others.

As often as I hear individual people or organizations say that they want to be the best they can be, I see them begin to look to the outside, to perceived "leaders", for best practices or step-by-step strategies. I wonder: Are we looking to them for the journey, or for the destination? In other words, are we looking to them for guidance on how we can discover our own passions, or are we only trying to get what somebody else has?

For example, in my experience as a director for fraternity and sorority life, the first tactic employed by struggling chapters was to emulate the successes of the highest performing chapters. However, those highest performing chapters were successful because they made their own way.

Each and every one of us has two choices before us. The first is the Red Road, which is difficult, treacherous, twisting, and filled with obstacles. The second is the Black Road, which is smooth, wide, and well-traveled. One of these roads will bring you purpose and peace, the other will bring you comfort and ease.

The choice is yours.