Editor’s Note: “How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
There is a script to life that most of us have internalized, whether consciously or not. It’s in many of the most beloved fictional stories, and—from the outside, at least—it looks like the lives of successful people tend to follow it as well. It is often called the hero’s journey, or the monomyth.
The 19th-century anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor was the first to identify the hero’s journey in literature. As he showed, many great adventure stories throughout history follow the basic formula. This is true from the Bible’s story of King David to Star Wars today. You can think of it as having three parts. The first is the call to adventure, where the hero-to-be is stimulated to act in some bold way, usually to meet a daunting task—say, fighting Goliath, or the Empire. The second is the ordeal, in which the hero is brutally tested and has to beat long odds—such as vanquishing a giant in battle or blowing up the Death Star. The third is victory, where the hero wins against these odds and returns home, triumphant.
Want to stay current with Arthur's writing? Sign up to get an email every time a new column comes out.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that successful people tend to see their own lives through the lens of this myth. “He is no hero who never met the dragon,” Jung wrote. “Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard…He alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself.” Jung sounds like an egg-headed Tony Robbins there: Want to be a winner in your career? Then live your own hero’s journey—set your goals, struggle, suffer, sacrifice, win, and return victorious! The End.
It’s a nice narrative, especially if you’ve worked hard and done pretty well in life. The problem is the real-life ending, after the triumphant return. People have no script for that part. There’s no Star Wars sequel where Luke Skywalker hangs around the house all day, yelling because someone touched the thermostat and telling his grandkids about blowing up the Death Star for the thousandth time while they roll their eyes.
Of course, some people enjoy retirement, but since I have been writing about happiness later in life, many people who were successful earlier in life have reached out to me to say that retirement has been brutal: They feel unhappy, aimless, and bored. In search of—well, they’re not quite sure what—some have made bad choices, tanking their marriages (leading to what social scientists call “gray divorce,” which doubled in the 25 years between 1990 and 2015) or making stupid business decisions they don’t think they would have made when they were still employed. One person told me, “Since I quit working, I feel like a stranger to myself.”
The hero’s journey is great when you’re in the middle of it. The trouble comes when your strengths start to wane, because now you’re off script. People rarely change the story they’ve constructed for their lives; they rage, instead, trying to pound their lives back into the story line, often with sad results.
But this rage is born from a misunderstanding of the hero’s journey. Defining it in terms of three phases, as I did above, makes the mistake of leaving out one last, critical phase. The literary scholar Joseph Campbell, author of the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, notes that many great myths involve a subtle twist after the triumph in battle. He calls it “The Crossing of the Return Threshold.” “The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world,” Campbell writes. “The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.” In other words, the end of the true hero’s journey is coming home and finding a battle to be waged not with an external enemy, but with one’s own demons. Win that final battle—the hardest one of all—and true victory is yours.
Consider the case of King David. He kills the lion; he beats Goliath; he vanquishes Israel’s foes and unites the nation’s twelve tribes. From shepherd boy to supreme ruler of his nation, David’s journey is the hero’s journey. But the story doesn’t stop there—it continues in the second book of Samuel, where we find the exalted King David in his post-victory life, hanging around his palace with a lot of time on his hands. He wakes up from a nap, goes for a walk on the roof of his palace, and spies a neighbor’s beautiful wife, Bathsheba, taking a bath. Famous long story short: David pursues an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and impregnates her. Then he sends her husband off to die in battle to cover his disgraceful misdeed.
Ancient Israel’s greatest leader, a man of impeccable valor and discipline, comes home from his triumph, and then falls prey to his own petty lust. Heroism turns to villainous rot not from anything on the battlefield, but precisely because of the “banalities and noisy obscenities of life,” in Campbell’s words. In failing to live an ordinary life, David failed in the last, hardest phase of the journey: being the master of himself.
On a much smaller scale, successful people sometimes behave more or less like David, hurting others and ruining their well-earned reputations later in life by giving in to their vanity, desires, and insecurities. I’m talking about the CEO who, even in the face of deteriorating performance, won’t turn over control of the company until she gets shoved out by the board, or the politician who, rather than cultivating a successor, makes one last run for office in his 80s and loses badly. Or, closer to home, my own beloved father-in-law, who after a lifetime running his own successful business put all his savings in a dodgy online investment company that suddenly went poof.
Though few lives will take the straightforward path of the hero’s journey, that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful framework for thinking about your goals. First, have a dream, and go for it. Second, remember that reaching your goals is going to hurt if they’re worth anything. You’ll suffer in your quest. Lean in to the sacrifice. Third, if you achieve your goals, savor your victory.
But don’t forget part four—the personal crucible. Unless you keel over in the prime of life, your victories will fade, your skills will decline, and life’s problems will intrude. If you try to hang on to glory, or lash out when it fades, it will squander your victories and mark an unhappy end to your journey. If you’re still in the middle of your hero’s journey, it would behoove you to make tangible plans now to show true strength and character in the final phase. Plan to spend the last part of your life serving others, loving your family and friends, and being a good example to those still in the first three stages of their own hero’s journey. Happiness in retirement depends on your choice of narrative.