Your Life Purpose? Go on the Hero’s Journey

By Scott T. Allison

What is your purpose in life? This question is as old as the human race itself. Some argue that our purpose is to find happiness. Others say our purpose is to love others, to become the best version of ourselves, or to follow God’s will. Still others say there is no purpose to life at all.

I believe that our lives do have a purpose, and that the clues are all around us in plain view. You can’t miss them. Our purpose is so deeply imbedded in our culture that we easily overlook it or take it for granted.

Put simply, your purpose in life is to live the life of a hero.

The hero’s journey is captured in all the great stories in literature, and in all the great movies we enjoy on the big screen. Hero stories endow our lives with meaning and reveal how a human life is meant to be lived.

Hero stories illuminate your true purpose in four ways:

1. You will go on a journey. At some point during your life, you will journey away from the comforts of your familiar world. In The Wizard of Oz, a tornado sends Dorothy to the land of Oz. In The Fault in Our Stars, cancer sends Hazel to Amsterdam. The hero’s journey can be real or metaphorical. Sometimes heroes choose the journey; sometimes the journey is chosen for them. Brace yourself – your life always includes some type of voyage, fraught with discomfort but crucial in revealing your life purpose.

2. You will grow from adversity. Overcoming obstacles and failures is a central part of your life journey. Children’s fairy tales prepare us for adversity by featuring heroes who grow from their setbacks. The three little pigs find a way to outsmart the big bad wolf. Bambi overcomes his mother’s death to grow into a great leader. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure,” observed mythologist Joseph Campbell. Heroes use adversity to better themselves. When you are challenged by the darkest of life circumstances, know that your journey is fashioning you into a wiser, more resilient individual.

3. You will assemble a team of allies. You should never undertake your journey alone. Heroes find a way to attract sidekicks, friends, and mentors to help them overcome obstacles. Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company calls it “building a team around you.” Often the person who helps you is someone you least expect. Remember that the point of the journey is to transform you into a stronger, better person. Trusted allies will guide you through adversity and will assist you in becoming forever transformed by your journey.

4. You will give back to society – The hero’s journey is far more than mere personal transformation. Once you return from your journey, you will use your new-found gifts to make the world a better place. In 12 Years a Slave, the hero Solomon survives his ordeal as a slave and then works to end slavery. In The Odyssey, Odysseus endures his turbulent voyage home and then becomes a wise ruler of Ithaca.

Your life purpose is to use your own personal transformation to help transform society. Once mentored by another, you will now mentor others. Your selfless service to the world will forge your place in the human chain of love shown by people who came before you and by people who will follow you.

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The hero’s journey is not just illustrated in fiction but in the real lives of the world’s greatest heroes, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These three legends lived the four truths of heroism outlined above and used their gifts to forever change the world.

You may not be on the life trajectory of a Gandhi or a Mandela, but rest assured you are on a hero’s journey that has momentous implications for yourself and for the world. Perhaps you are in the process of overcoming cancer, a difficult childhood, a financial setback, or some major transgression. As you struggle, remember that regardless of the outcome, you are fulfilling your life’s purpose. Each human life is meant to be a heroic life.

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Why Jesus Is A Hero To Billions

By Scott T. Allison

Regardless of whether you believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no denying his unparalleled impact on western thought and culture. Jesus is the spiritual leader and hero to more than 2 billion people around the world. What accounts for the enduring power of his heroism? An examination of his life reveals five important clues.

1. Jesus Was A ‘Born Hero’

In our studies of heroism, we have found that the “born hero” is a rare breed. Extraordinary situations typically bring out the heroes among us. But in every Sunday Christian service, and especially during the Christmas and Easter seasons, much of the world honors the most powerful story of the born hero in the western world. Being endowed with divine DNA makes Jesus an especially revered hero.

2. Jesus Was A Revolutionary

Jesus was, and is, a polarizing figure. During his lifetime, his followers witnessed him perform miracles and believed in the new morality that he preached: a message of love, gentleness, generosity, and forgiveness. These values conflicted with Roman values of power and strength.

People admire the courage of a revolutionary. In his day Jesus was a rebel who violated Jewish customs and defied Roman law. Like Socrates of ancient Greece, Jesus could have spared his own life by offering some defense of the social disruptions he caused. But he did not. His threat to the status quo was deemed too great by Roman authorities, and he was gruesomely executed.

3. Jesus Suffered On The Cross

Our research on heroes indicates that people especially honor heroes who experience pain and suffering during their heroic acts. The more that heroes suffer for their cause, the higher the pedestal on which we place them.

The Romans made sure than anyone who died by crucifixion would suffer horrifically. Jesus was violently flogged before his crucifixion. Iron balls and sharp sheep bones were fastened near the ends of the whips. The iron balls caused deep bruising and the bones lacerated the skin. There was ample blood loss and Jesus’ level of pain would have put him a state of shock.

Jesus was then forced to carry the heavy cross to the crucifixion area, where his wrists and heels were nailed to the wooden beams. After hours of agony on the cross, Jesus would have succumbed to a combination of asphyxiation and blood loss.

4. Jesus Died To Save Others

Christians believe that Jesus died to save the world. The circumstances surrounding his death are largely responsible for the formation of the Christian faith. The Gospels tell us that three days after he died, Jesus rose from the dead and was lifted to heaven. The story of the resurrection is a central part of Christianity because it signifies to Christians that God approved of Jesus’ work on earth and that Jesus lives forever.

After Jesus died, many of his followers were burned, stoned, or crucified by Roman authorities. This persecution backfired. As martyrs, these Christians were the source of inspiration for millions of people who began practicing the faith.

5. Jesus Transformed Society

Jesus was, and is, a transforming leader, inspiring people and elevating them to new levels of morality. Historian and author H. G. Wells wrote, “I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.”

Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, had nothing but praise for Jesus, describing him as “a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world.” Referring to Jesus’ sacrifice at the cross, Gandhi said, “It was a perfect act.”

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In summary, there are five reasons for Jesus’ heroism: his birthright, his revolutionary beliefs, his suffering, his mission to save the world, and his transformation of the western world. Will he still be worshipped as a hero 2,000 years from now? We cannot even begin to conjecture. As with many transforming heroes, the legend is compelling, the message is powerful, and there are iconic institutions in place to ensure significant staying power.

References

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals. New York: Routledge.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New York: New World Library.

Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2012). Making heroes: The construction of courage, competence, and virtue. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. San Diego: Elsevier.

Smith, G., & Allison, S. T. (2014). Reel heroes, Volume 1. Agile Writers Press.

Our 4th Book — Conceptions of Leadership: Enduring Ideas and Emerging Insights

Our fourth book on heroism and leadership is now available.  Entitled Conceptions of Leadership, this new volume gathers together the latest work by distinguished leadership scholars in social psychology and related disciplines to explore classic conceptions of leadership.

The book reviews topics such as interpersonal influence, charisma, personality, and power, as well as recent perspectives on those enduring concerns. It includes contemporary departures from traditional approaches to leadership in considering gender, trust, narratives, and the complex relationships between leaders and followers. Together the chapters provide a wide-ranging and coherent account of how human beings get along and the ways they engage and work together to accomplish their goals.

Conceptions of Leadership is edited by George Goethals, Scott Allison, Rod Kramer, and David Messick. Here is an excerpt, taken from David Messick’s opening chapter:

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“In the spring of 1999, two of this book’s editors, Kramer and I, met for lunch at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago. Kramer was on the faculty of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and I was on the faculty of the Kellogg School at Northwestern University. One of the topics that we talked about during lunch was the shift in emphasis in both business schools away from cooperation, trust, communication, coordination, and the like, to the related but distinct topic of leadership. Kramer and I were social psychologists and knew that the topic of leadership had been an important theme in some of the earliest research on group processes. However, as social psychology experienced an infatuation with the “cognitive” revolution in psychology, the topic of leadership shrank into obscurity. By the turn of the millennium, though, there were some new ways of thinking about leadership that had not been introduced to the business school environment. Why not, we thought, have a conference and invite some of social psychology’s most creative innovators to a conference to discuss these new approaches to leadership and then publish a book based on the talks? The conference was held in August of 2000 at the Kellogg School of Management, and the book based on this conference, The Psychology of Leadership, was published in 2005. Two of the creative innovators who were invited to the conference and who wrote chapters for the book are the other two editors of the current book, Allison and Goethals.

“Now, a decade, more or less, later, and there has been a virtual tsunami of books and articles about leadership. When the issue of updating the earlier book was first raised, Kramer and I wondered what the point of a revision would be. We then became aware of the creative work by Allison and Goethals and realized that there was indeed a body of research that had not been described in their earlier book. So Kramer and I discussed the idea of a revision with Allison and Goethals, and we all agreed that such a project was worth exploring. After much discussion and the exchange of scads of ideas, the current book was agreed upon by all of us, who, we should note, are all associated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I was a faculty member, Allison and Kramer were graduate students, and Goethals was a visiting scholar.

“The familiarity of us four editors with each other is a blessing but also a shortcoming. We are all male, white, North American university professors. These facts surely limit our views of what constitutes good leader- ship and who qualifies to be thought of as a leader. Famous people from around the world, people like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, are all well known and admired. But there are many others who would be unrecognized by most Americans. Take, for instance, Lee Kuan Yew (familiarly known in Asia as LKY). LKY was the first prime minister of Singapore and one of the most famous and admired political leaders in Asia. When one of us (DM) taught in Hong Kong to a broad mix of Asian executives, LKY was one of the most popular figures executives wrote about to illustrate excellence in leadership. Consider also Molly Melching, about whom a book has appeared (Molloy, 2013). She is a volunteer in a not-for-profit organization in Senegal who spends time in rural villages where the practice of female genital cutting is a well-established cultural tradition. She has begun the process of gradually eliminating this barbaric practice from hundreds of villages in Senegal but remains relatively obscure in the United States. Finally, think of Simon Bolivar. His name is recognized by a fraction of US scholars, but he is famous throughout Latin America for having led the South American people in a rebellion against Spanish domination. Indeed he has one nation named after him (Bolivia) and is widely known as el Libertador throughout Central and South America. He is to Latin America what George Washington is to the United States.

“Inescapably then, we editors are constrained by our backgrounds in our selection of “core” issues about leadership, and we are constrained in ways that will often be invisible to us. For instance, we are all social psychologists and have read much of the same literature on leadership. But that literature is different from that which a political scientist or a journalist or a military historian will have read. Their books on core concepts would be different from ours—not better, necessarily, nor worse, just different. The way we define leadership is likely to differ from the way people whose backgrounds and experiences are different from ours define leadership. This fact is true about professional experiences and it is equally true about political and social differences. Most citizens of the United States, for instance, would not consider Fidel Castro to be a hero and a leader, but most Cubans would. Most North Koreans think their leaders have almost godlike qualities and most Americans think these leaders are monomaniacal lunatics. What is implied by these differences is that leadership, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. If history is written by winners, one will either be viewed as a hero or a terrorist depending on who wins….”

Conceptions of Leadership is available in both hardcover and paperback.

Our 7th Book — Presidential Leadership and African Americans

In this book, George Goethals  traces the leadership affecting African Americans of eight US Presidents, from George Washington through Lyndon B. Johnson.  In addition to chapters on each of these men, the volume includes an Introduction and a concluding chapter that considers progress during the past 50 years.  The overall arc of the story begins with slavery and ends with the election of an African American president.

The lives and leadership of individual presidents is considered within two important contexts.  The first is the evolution of the United States, starting as a collection of thirteen separate colonies joining together in 1775 to fight a war against England, and eventually becoming the world’s leading economic and military power.  A second is the evolution of the role and status of African Americans in the United States from slavery to emancipation, through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, to civil rights and voting rights, through affirmative action and to the White House.

But the focus is on the evolving psychology that underlies the attitudes and actions of men who served as US president throughout America’s history of constitutional government.  How did their backgrounds as well as the challenges they faced as presidents shape their values, attitudes, moral development, judgment and, ultimately, their decisions?  We see that historic, economic, and cultural evolutions affect both the lives of African Americans and the nature of presidential leadership.  We see that specific events and politics combine in influencing each president’s attitudes and actions toward blacks.  And we see that the contributions and actions of African Americans alter economic, military, and cultural developments, and, ultimately, presidential leadership.

The life histories and the administrations of the eight presidents we consider both shape and are shaped by Americans of African descent.  While the story highlights the leadership of these chief executives, it also emphasizes the agency of African Americans, some well- known, some never to be known.  These include figures such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  They also include unnamed escaping slaves and as well as fighters in America’s battles from Bunker Hill in 1775 to the present day in the Middle East.

In appraising the personalities, policies, and initiatives of these selected American presidents, the book situates their lives and administrations within the political and cultural context of their times.  The actions of all of them, and the credit or blame we attribute to them, have to be understood within these parameters.  In each case, the historical and situational forces that shape their values, priorities, and ultimately, their actions are highly relevant.  In evaluating their leadership we often overlook these contextual influences.  One goal of this book is to weigh them more fairly.

Presidential Leadership and African Americans is published by Routledge and is now available for purchase.

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Dr. James Barry: The Hero with a Secret

By Jesse Schultz

It seems almost like the makings of a popular television show: A roguish doctor who travels the world, helping the sick and the poor, all the while fighting duels and enraging those in power. He’s an outwardly unpleasant man with a sharp tongue, but one with compassion for his patients and a determination to help those he can.

But this wasn’t the plot to some new medical drama but the actual life of Dr. James Barry. Little is known for certain of his early life, but he began his medical studies in University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1809 and earned his MD in 1812. He continued his studies in London and passed his examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant in the British Army in 1813.

From there Dr. Barry rapidly rose in rank and served in a variety of places in the world; from India to South Africa to Malta to Crimea and to Jamaica. Wherever he went though he fought for better food, sanitation, and medical care for troops and their families, prisoners, and lepers. While in South Africa he performed the first successful Caesarean section, resulting in the infant being named after him. He decried unnecessary suffering and often advocated for the underclass.

He did seem to get into frequent trouble for his work. He made enemies, was demoted, accused of being homosexual, and even arrested during his career. None of that seemed to stop him or deter him from his work.

Dr. Barry retired in 1864 and died of dysentery in 1865. During the examination of his body it was reported that he appeared to have stretch marks indicating that he had given birth some years earlier.

James Barry had been a woman.

It is speculated that Dr. Barry was born as Margaret Ann Bulkley and took the name of her uncle, the Irish artist James Barry, in order to gain access to medical school. The ruse seemed to be a perfect one as no one apparently discovered it until his death. His enemies would occasionally call him “effeminate”, which reportedly led to a few duels as Barry would take offense to that.

But Barry was a woman who excelled all the while maintaining a near-perfect masquerade and in a time period when it was assumed that women could not do such things. Male or female Barry had a career that would make anyone proud. A life devoted to making the world a better place.

One of the dictionary definitions of a hero is: “somebody who is admired and looked up to for outstanding qualities or achievements”. In that case Dr. Barry is doubly so. One for devoting her life for others and the other for finding a way in overcoming the limitations that society had imposed on her.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, has often pretended to be a writer on this blog, but in reality he just dresses like one.

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Bill Cosby and the Transition from Hero to Villain

By Scott T. Allison

The unthinkable has happened again. Another widely admired public figure is facing allegations of horrific conduct, and fans are scrambling to make sense of it all.

For at least a decade, rumors have swirled about Bill Cosby’s improprieties with women. The accusations never stuck and so we could easily dismiss them and give Cosby the benefit of the doubt. But over the past few weeks at least a dozen women have come forward with allegations that Cosby sexually assaulted them, used date rape drugs on them, or both.

A former employee of Cosby has also admitted to helping Cosby find private time with these women and then paying them thousands of dollars, presumably to keep them quiet.

These repulsive acts, if they occurred, contrast so markedly from the image of Cosby as America’s dad, Mr. Huxtable, who gently and lovingly parented his children in his 1980s television sitcom. This same Cosby made us laugh and gave us great joy with his Fat Albert series and in his groundbreaking role in the 1960s series, I Spy.

Four years ago, we blogged about Cosby as a hero. He overcame racism directed toward him to blaze a trail for African-Americans. Cosby broke down stereotypes, and he was unafraid to take strong and sometimes unpopular stances about race and class in America.

Now this.

We don’t know all the facts yet, but what we do know is that the usual polarization of opinion about a fallen hero has occurred. Some fans have decided to remain fans of Cosby. At a recent concert, Cosby received two standing ovations. But many other fans have jumped ship and are spouting venomous ire toward Cosby. To them, he is now a villain.

The psychology here is not yet clear. What distinguishes fans who may be loyal to a fault from fans who bolt at the first sign of trouble? There appear to be individual differences in the elasticity of the hero concept. Those with low elasticity may not tolerate much deviation from the idealized image of the hero. In contrast, those with high elasticity may have a higher tolerance for ambiguity and for evidence that contradicts the heroic ideal.

Psychologists who study social cognition have found that people engage in motivated cognition. Our motivations influence the way we interpret information. For example, people who like President Obama will interpret neutral and ambiguous behaviors performed by Obama more favorably than will people who dislike the President. And those who truly love Bill Cosby may be willing to give him far more benefit of the doubt compared to those who only have a neutral or mildly positive opinion of him.

In an earlier post, we proposed that people form an implicit contract with their heroes. The agreement involves the idea that we will give heroes our adulation and support, but in return they must maintain an idealized image of human greatness. If a hero misbehaves, we consider it a breech of contract and we withdraw our admiration and support. We may also show considerable anger about the contract violation — witness the outrage directed toward Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong that still lingers today. A broken agreement can turn a hero into a villain quickly and easily.

For many people, Cosby has broken this implicit contract and deserves condemnation, if not a prison sentence.

More than a half-century ago, Carl Jung proposed the idea that all humans have collectively inherited unconscious images, ideas, or thoughts, which he called archetypes. These archetypes reflect common experiences that all humans (and their ancestors) have shared over millions of years of evolution, and the main purpose of these archetypes is to prepare us for these common experiences. Two such archetypes, according to Jung, are heroes and demons.

People tend to paint their social world with all-or-nothing brushstrokes. For many of us, Bill Cosby’s sexual transgressions moved him quickly from the hero category to the villain category. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between category, suggesting that there is more of a fine line between heroism and villainy than we realize.

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