I’ll be giving three talks at the Willamette Writer’s conference this weekend. One on Afrofuturism, one on “A book a year in a sentence a day” and one on Lifewriting.
Lifewriting is where it all began. I’d studied various success strategies most of my life, ranging from THINK AND GROW RICH to Musashi and others, but it was a hodge-podge. Then one day about 28 years ago I was teaching a “Writer’s Toolbox” class at UCLA, and we were motoring. I mean, I was really on fire that day, and giving these students a machine-gun serving of flow state management, brainstorming, time management, structure, character, and on and on.
Then one of the students raised his hand. “Mr. Barnes,” he said. “You’ve taught us all kinds of great techniques, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to use them.”
“Because my wife doesn’t understand my goal of being a writer, and the kids need a lot of my time and are always interrupting, and my job burns up all my spare time…”
I listened to him, and as I did, something happened. There is an expression that from time to time life gives you a cubic inch of opportunity. Either you take it, or it’s gone forever. This has happened to me distinctly at least a dozen times, and this was one of them.
“Well,” I asked. “If you were a character in a story you were writing, and at the end of that story the character got everything he wanted, what would you have him do next?”
You could have heard a pin drop in that room. Steam was coming out of his ears as his brain scrambled to make sense of what I’d said. Then he slowly started speaking.
“Well…maybe I could exchange some household chores–things that are more intense but less time-heavy. My wife would probably like that. And I could enroll the kids in how cool it would be to have a dad who was a published author. And…I could take my lunch to work, so that I could work from my desk…”
I was stunned. The same guy who had been totally stuck suddenly was mind-storming (solitary brain-storming) like a champ. WTF? I asked the rest of the room the same question, and the next half-hour was filled with some of the most creative flow I’d seen in years. Amazing.
I went home that night and asked my wife Toni what she thought about what had happened, and she agreed I should. A couple of weeks of research followed, leading me to the work of Joseph Campbell, who said something to the effect of: “cultural stories are depersonalized personal dreams. And personal dreams are personalized cultural myths.”
In other words, the stories we tell as a culture reflect and spring and influence our personal lives and the stories we tell about them…and vice versa.
There are a lot of ways to interpret the Hero’s Journey, the core “meta-myth” Campbell describes in THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. What I asked myself was: what if this meta-myth is universal because it is a way of looking at the process of life, the process of accomplishing any goal at all? If it is the village elders telling the young folks what their lives would be like? I looked at several different interpretations of the Meta-myth and extracted a nine-step sequence. After almost thirty years I added a “zero” step to the process. What I did then was to organize everything I knew about success in any arena so that each major step related to one of the stages of the HJ. To my fascination…it seemed to fit very, very well.
0–The Ordinary world. This is the steady state existence. It will not change without a specific stimulus.
1–Hero confronted with a challenge. Something happens that changes the world, some realization that you need to reduce pain, or an awareness that greater pleasure is possible.
2–Hero rejects the challenge. Usually due to fear. “If I change, it will hurt”. FEAR mastery is critical here.
3–Accepts the challenge. The character must DECIDE to act. He may not have any idea precisely what he is going to do, but he has to reach that “Patience my ass, I’m gonna kill something” phase. Preferably, he writes his goal down, and gives himself a deadline. SELF-LOVE is a crucial attribute. We’ll do things for our children we won’t do for ourselves. Begin to see that taking care of yourself is the best way to care for your family. And yes, both men and women have this problem.
4–The Road of Trials. This is simply the gap between where he starts and where he wants to end up. Daily actions. This can last days, weeks, months, years, or longer, depending on the breadth and depth of the goal: “there are no unreasonable goals, just unreasonable time-lines.” The MORNING RITUAL to implant goals deeply and align emotions works like gangbusters.
5–Allies and Powers. The modeling of people who have accomplished your goals. What powers of mind, body, emotion do they have that you do not? Begin to develop them. You must DEFINE what the missing pieces are before you can figure out how to learn or acquire them.
5–Confront Evil, Fail. It is impossible to move from one level of your life to another without running into obstacles. If there was no obstacle, you’d already be there, or you’d be smoothly moving in that direction. YOU WILL FAIL. AGAIN AND AGAIN. Get over it. You KNOW this, from learning to walk and talk and ride bicycles. Why we forget that crucial lesson is a serious philosophical inquiry. Personally, I think it is because our egos force us to forget the very keys to self-growth, because change means ego-death.. But you need to study the lives of your role models so that you can SEE that its coming.
6–Dark Night of the Soul. Crushing depression can follow the sense that all your innate capacities are insufficient to the task at hand. Your dreams are doomed. Why bother?
7–The Leap of Faith–the leap of Faith is the way through the Dark Night. And it is always faith in one of three things: faith in yourself, faith in your companions, or faith in a higher power. You need to have SOME kind of faith, or the “Dark Night” will kick your butt, knock you off your game, and send you back to the beginning like some cosmic emotional game of Chutes n’ Ladders.
8–Confront evil, succeed. If you have done everything right, most stories lead to the character overcoming the obstacle. Sometimes they get what they NEED instead of what they WANT (Rocky, for instance) but we tend to believe that focus, hard work, refusing to succumb to pale thoughts and gathering a powerful team leads to success.
9–The Student becomes the teacher. Once you have completed a cycle, you learn more by teaching and sharing with others than by focusing on your own crap. You are also paying back the teachers who helped you. This step is critical.
All I had to do was see any goal I had as a movement along this path. Imagine a successful journey, and lay out the resources I would need to “win” assuming my process would follow the pattern.
Then begin, and pay attention to the results I’m getting, and see what I need to improve:
- Do I need clearer goals?
- Do I need better or more role models to extract the “critical path” of action, rather than idiosyncratic behaviors successful people just happen to practice?
- Do I need better control of fear or doubt? Need to love myself more?
- Do I need better allies and mentors?
- What new abilities do I need to learn, and have I modeled the method to learn them?
- Have I been honest about the inevitability of failure along the path? What have I done to prepare for it?
- What do I have faith in that is bigger or deeper than my ego and ego-needs?
- Do I celebrate my small victories, to develop the emotional power to go after the large ones?
- Do I honestly share my experiences, failures and victories to others so that they can model me if I am an appropriate teacher for them?
All of that is off the top of my head. For almost thirty years I’ve taught and explored this process, and have been unable to falsify it. It hasn’t always succeeded, but it has ALWAYS shown me where I am in a given life path, and what I need to move forward. Often it diagnoses what I did wrong that led me to a dead end.
And I offer it to you to get a conversation going. Choose a goal: something involving career, relationships, or your physical body. Where are you? Where do you want to be? What do you have to do next?
Can you take your favorite success principles and organize them on this ten-step pattern? If you will take the time to do that, you may find the results amazing.