The hero’s journey is a tale as old as time. You can see it in just about any story we share with others, from movies (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, etc.) to television series and books.
While the details differ from story to story, the foundation is exactly the same in every single iteration:
- The protagonist (hero) comes to the realization that their life is meant for something more—either through a process of self-discovery or by being thrust into this realization by circumstances. They receive some call to action, to which they initially refuse out of fear or uncertainty.
- They meet a mentor who helps them navigate their new journey and gain new insight into their mission. This mentor dies or disappears after a short time, forcing the hero to navigate their new world on their own (through much trial and error). The hero will often meet a number of allies along the way—friends to help them in their journey. They also meet a number of enemies who ultimately try to stop them (some obvious, and some less so).
- Along the way, the hero faces many circumstances that call into question their ability to succeed. However, each near failure (usually almost resulting in death) builds the confidence of the hero.
- The hero eventually faces the main obstacle in their journey: the villain or challenge that led them on this journey in the first place. The hero is able to defeat and overcome this final obstacle.
- The hero returns home a changed person. Life is never the same again because of these new experiences and perspectives.
This is a very simplified version of the hero’s journey (which normally has twelve different parts)—you can read a more detailed version here.
We can see this model at work in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter:
- Frodo Baggins inherits Bilbo’s ring and becomes aware of its danger to his homeland. Luke Skywalker is thrust into the rebellion after his parents are murdered. Harry Potter begins receiving letters from Hogwarts and is introduced to the world of magic.
- Gandalf helps Frodo understand the importance of destroying the ring, but is eventually separated from him for the remainder of his journey. Frodo meets the rest of the fellowship and is accompanied by Sam for most of his adventure. Obi Wan Kenobi teaches Luke about the force, but soon thereafter is killed by Darth Vader. Luke is accompanied by Han Solo and gang to aid in his quest to save the galaxy. Dumbledore provides useful insight into Harry’s past, but eventually is killed—leaving Harry to figure the rest out for himself. Harry has the help of trusted friends Ron and Hermoine, along with other allies.
- Frodo’s near death experiences, being kidnapped by Orcs, and the betrayal of Gollum all help to transform him. Harry’s various trials, from the chamber of secrets to the goblet of fire, all challenge his abilities, teach him valuable lessons, and ultimately build his confidence for his final face-off against Voldemort. Luke’s initial battle with Darth Vader, from losing his hand to training with Yoda, all force him to grow into the Jedi necessary to overcome his main obstacle.
- Frodo destroys the ring. Luke defeats Vader and The Empire. Harry defeats Voldemort.
- Regular life is forever changed in these characters. The greatest example of this is in Frodo from LOTR. How is Frodo supposed to return to normal Shire life after saving the frickin’ world? He can’t, so he travels to live with the Elves. (This step becomes important later).
The Hero’s Journey Relates to Fitness
Your fitness journey unfolds in exactly the same series of events, and you are the hero of your story.
First, you have some yearning of wanting more—you are not satisfied with your life, or you are unhappy and disillusioned with your current circumstances. You have the realization that your life is meant to be more than what it is right now. Let’s call this the “yearn phase.”
There might be some initial push-back. You want something more, but don’t necessarily know what that is. This will almost certainly require you to step out of your comfort zone, and this causes some anxiety and fear which initially prevents you from beginning your journey. This is the “push-back phase.”
Something (a person, comment, or event) finally pushes you over the edge. You reach the point where avoiding this journey of self-improvement is no longer an option you can live with. This is when you seek your first mentor: it could be a book, online fitness program, new diet, or a trainer. Whatever it is, this “mentor” helps you learn some basic understanding of how to be successful. Let’s call this the “mentor phase.”
You eventually meet some allies along the way—old friends who join you in your journey and support your new lifestyle, or new friends who are traveling a similar road. These people help you stay on track and traverse the obstacles you are bound to face. You also meet some enemies: foods that cause you to overeat, people who (knowingly or unknowingly) sabotage your efforts, and old habits that try to prevent your success. This is your “allies and enemies phase.”
You face many trials and obstacles in your journey. You must learn to navigate social dinners, birthday parties, and food cravings. You have to complete exercises and workouts when you don’t want to do them. Sure, you fail some of the time. Other times, however, you have a win.
It may be a small win, but each of these small victories builds your skills and confidence to reach the next level. Maybe you made a smart choice when eating at a restaurant. Maybe you set a new personal record in the gym. Each trial and obstacle is slowly morphing you into the hero you are meant to become. We’ll call this the “trial and error phase.”
Next, you face your final villain. This may be the last ten pounds of your weight loss goal. This may be participating in an event that you were previously too afraid to do (for me this was how I summed up my first physique show).
In whatever form this final obstacle presents itself, this is where the most important realization happens. You realize the battle you’re fighting isn’t with your weight or the food you eat. You realize you aren’t fighting some external evil force that’s prevented you from being happy all these years.
You realize you’ve actually been battling yourself the whole time.
This is where you add some spice to the original story arc. It’s like saying Harry came to the realization that he was Voldemort the whole time, or that Luke Skywalker was Darth Vader (okay it was his dad, that’s pretty close). Mind blown.
Not only do you realize you’ve been battling yourself, but you internalize this fact. Let me explain the significance of this. When you recognize and identify that you are your main villain, and that you’ve transformed into a person that can defeat this evil-twin version of yourself, you have the powerful insight that you are in complete control of your destiny. This is the “achievement phase.”
After defeating your evil twin, you also come to the realization that your life can never be the same again. You can’t go back to your old eating habits or your old couch-potato ways. You come out of your hero journey a new person, both physically and mentally. You have new confidence, new skills, and a new outlook on life.
You are more prepared to attempt even bigger challenges, some of which might even excite you. (You can consider these the sequels to your hero journey. Although, unlike the movies, the sequels are usually just as good or better than the original). This is your “rebirth phase.” During this phase, you’ve basically become a dragon-slaying, world-saving, magic-wielding badass!
I am going to provide you tips for actions you can take at any stage of your hero’s journey. No matter what stage you might find yourself in, I am going to help you reach the epic conclusion. Below are some concrete actions you can take depending on which phase you find yourself in.
1. Yearn Phase
You feel deep down something about your life needs to change. Stop fighting it. Acceptance is the key to moving into the next phase. Accept that you deserve to be fit, healthy, and happy. You deserve to craft the life for yourself that you so desire. Accept that you have the power to become whatever and whoever you want.
In a world full of averages and statistics, there need to be outliers. Why not you?
What don’t you have? You don’t have the right to be these things. You’re going to have to work for it. This realization is what will lead you into the next phase of your journey.
2. Push-Back Phase
Change is your biggest enemy here. You know something isn’t right, or it could be better, but trying to change your current circumstances takes you into the unknown. You’re left with choosing between the devil you know—the actions and unhappiness you feel now—and the devil you don’t.
We are amazing creatures of rationalization. We can convince ourselves things aren’t as bad as we know, deep down, that they really are. You might feel unhappy with your body, but convince yourself you’re wrong because of the short-lived pleasure you feel going out to eat with friends. These fleeting events can mistakenly stack the pro-list in your pro/con analysis preventing you from taking any action.
“The only opinion that matters is how you feel about yourself, when you’re by yourself.”
Keep a journal where you evaluate your feelings when you’re alone. Think to the last time you had a moment of intense desire to change something about your life. Were you with other people, or were you alone somewhere contemplating your life?
This will help make abundantly clear all the lurking reasons why you want, and need, to make a change in your life. The first step to moving past the yearn phase is to come face-to-face with the pain of staying the same.
3. Mentor Phase
Intrinsic motivation is the desire to engage in a behavior because it brings you joy. Truthfully, no one is intrinsically motivated to begin an exercise program unless they’re already fit. (And they know what being healthy and fit actually feels like—damn good, BTW).
Therefore, your motivation to fight through the push-back phase will likely come from some external source. It could be another person in your life (a love interest maybe?), a special event (wedding pictures, duh), or even a comment made by someone in your life (“are you really going to eat another slice? Maybe you should slow down.”).
This is the moment that pushes you over the edge. Now the pain of staying the same is worse than the unknown of changing something about your life. Welcome to the game.
A good mentor is invaluable to your success. (Think of where Harry would be without Dumbledore!) A good mentor, someone more experienced in the area of interest than you, can provide valuable tips and insight into where to begin your journey.
This is the point in which I would recommend looking into hiring a personal trainer, or getting involved in some sort of group fitness class. If finding a good trainer proves difficult, even a friend who is passionate about exercise and nutrition can be of benefit. They will help motivate and support you, and can fill in any blanks about getting started.
4. Allies and Enemies Phase
Once you’ve begun your journey and found a mentor, you soon realize your mentor cannot be by your side for every moment. This is where you’ll begin to distinguish between allies and enemies. Allies are your friends who are supportive of your goals.
They may have no problem changing where you go out to eat because you want to make better food choices. They have no problem waiting to go out until after you’ve completed your workout, or they simply respect your decision to not order dessert whenever you’re out together. They might be a workout buddy or even someone you met in a fitness class. Regardless, hold these people close. They will act as positive reinforcement toward your fitness goals.
If you find you don’t immediately have any allies, you can learn how to build your team of allies.
Likewise, along with allies you will confront enemies. These could be unsupportive friends or family who question the healthy changes you’re trying to make. It could be the realization that keeping certain foods in the house leads to your downfall. (Yes, some foods can be considered “enemies,” too.) Be aware of how these enemies influence your decisions in the wrong direction, and commit to avoiding these foods that cause you to go off the rails.
The key to battling the negative influence of enemies is to spend greater amounts of time around your allies and have good strategies in place for battling the influence of enemies.
Keep in mind that your friends and family members can be considered “enemies” in regard to their influence on your fitness goals. This does not necessarily mean they are bad people, or even that they are doing it on purpose.
We have to remember that whenever we decide to make big life changes, we are also causing a change in the lives of those close to us; everyone is affected in some way. The difference is that we are choosing these changes. They are not. And not everyone is open to those changes in their own lives.
5. Trial and Error Phase
This is the longest phase of the hero’s journey. This is the period of time when you’re simply grinding it out. You have a plan in place, you are starting to have a better idea of what healthy eating looks like, and are starting to see some real progress toward those goals you’ve set.
However, this is all a learning process, so failure from time to time is an inevitable part of the process. The key thing to remember is that failing does not make you a failure. Quite the opposite, these periodic failures can strengthen you and teach you valuable lessons for the future.
Maybe you went out to eat with a friend and made poor choices that led to overeating. You could beat yourself up over failing to stay on track, but you could also realize you learned a valuable lesson on the importance of planning ahead when going out to eat.
During the trial-and-error phase you are experimenting to find what works best for you—the eating methods, healthy foods, and workouts that you enjoy and can maintain consistently. Remember, sometimes knowing what not to do (or what doesn’t work for you) is just as important as knowing what does work.
6. Achievement Phase
This is the moment it all becomes worth it. You’ve achieved that goal you set for yourself, and it feels amazing. However, you’re also experiencing some emotions you weren’t expecting. By now you’ve spent so much time working toward these goals that when you reach the achievement phase you might feel a little lost and unsure about what comes next.
To overcome this lost feeling you need to set new goals. But, how do you find new, meaningful goals to set? The solution: focus on the new person you’ve become. At this point you likely have a much better sense of who you want to be. With this understanding, you should be able to set even more goals (some fitness related and some not) that allow you to continue growing into this person.
For example, when I lost over 80lbs I didn’t know what to do afterwards. I struggled with my weight my whole life, often thinking I would never lose it, yet here I was having successfully lost all of the extra weight.
However, I also grew to become someone who wanted to be the opposite of the inactive, shy kid I was growing up. I wanted to radiate confidence and have the ability to perform physical tasks unimaginable to my younger self.
Since then I’ve run a marathon, competed in two body-building shows, started a fitness business, and become comfortable (and even excited about) speaking in front of large crowds. Each goal has brought me closer to the ultimate version of myself—the vision that was crafted during my weight loss journey.
7. Rebirth Phase
The achievement and rebirth phase have a ton of overlap. Truthfully, the achievement phase begins when you’ve reached your goal, and ends when you lose the “on top of the world” feeling. This means the achievement phase is actually the shortest phase of all, and you generally will move right into the rebirth phase.
The rebirth phase is the moment you begin to recognize that you are not the same person who started this journey. You’ve grown in immeasurable ways. You are the phoenix rising from the ashes of your old self. The most important thing to recognize here, and the most important for your long-term success, is the realization that you can never go back to that old version of yourself—or that old lifestyle.
By now, however, these changes should be welcome. All of your goals going forward will be through the lens of these new values and skills you’ve acquired over the course of your journey. You are that much closer to unleashing your full awesomeness on the world. But don’t stop here—keep going with new and more challenging goals.
You are the hero in your story. Never stop the journey!