The Hero’s Journey as Boot Camp

With apologies to readers who are getting tired of these “hero’s journey” posts (this is the fourth in as many weeks), I can say only, “Hang in there, baby!” The last one is coming next week. Today’s is about using the hero’s journey intentionally, as a way to achieve a species of self-transformation.


Ari Gold in action. Working for him can be a "hero's journey"

Navy SEAL training is a hero’s journey. So is Marine Corps boot camp or spring football camp at ‘Bama or a season dancing with the Joffrey Ballet. A Jenny Craig diet is a hero’s journey. For that matter, so is being a contestant on Dancing With The Stars.

Did you just take a job as a photographer’s assistant? You’re on the hero’s journey. Are you an intern for a law firm, a P.A. on a movie set? You’re on the path too.

Recall the broad strokes of the hero’s passage:

He begins unconscious and “stuck.” He experiences a “call.” He is cast out of the world he knows. He enters upon an ordeal; he becomes lost. He pursues an objective (sometimes simply his own survival) in the face of monumental resistance. He experiences adventures, encounters outlandish characters, receives aid from unexpected sources. At the climax of his passage, the hero hits bottom. Then: a breakthrough! The hero overcomes! He completes his dark passage and returns home, a different person than when he set forth.

This mythic journey is exactly what you and I experience in real life in Army Ranger training, in the mail room at William Morris, or doing research for Alan Dershowitz. The difference between the hero’s journey as undergone spontaneously in real life and the hero’s journey experienced in boot camp or athletic/artistic/commercial training is that the latter has been deliberately designed to produce a specific transformation in the individual undergoing the passage.

Military training is designed to produce soldiers. Taking class with the Joffrey is meant to produce dancers. Either way, the transformation sticks. Why? Because it follows beat-by-beat the software (the hero’s journey) that already exists in our hearts.

Like the hero’s journey in myth, training tests us. It pushes us beyond our limits (or what we believe are our limits.) Such passages provide mentors. They supply role models. They reward specified success and they punish specified failure.

Training courses are dramas. They start slowly. They adhere to a theme. And they build to a climax (Hell Week, the Final Four, the Boston Marathon) within which we hit the wall and yet somehow survive. And these programs provide a built-in “return home”—commencement, Bonus Day, the finish line.

If you and I aim to transform ourselves, we can employ the hero’s journey artificially. We can create our own ordeal. Or we can sign up for one that already exists. Commit to the Iditarod, apply to Cordon Bleu, enlist in the Foreign Legion. The hero’s journey will be imposed upon us from outside. Our only decision will come up front: what do we want to learn, whom do we wish to become?

This is the hero’s journey, packaged and domesticated. It’s still real. It still works. We still experience all the passage’s beats, and in a measure (not too much, not too little) that has been proved to work without overloading and possibly destroying us. We will be pushed beyond our limits, rewarded and punished, and finally, with luck, we’ll emerge as different people. And to some extent we’ll retain control. We will at least have embarked upon the passage by choice.

Then there’s the real hero’s journey.

The authentic hero’s journey.

This passage occurs spontaneously. We don’t choose it; it chooses us. We can’t control it. We don’t know where it will take us. And we have no idea how it will end.

The real hero’s journey arises from the unconscious imperative of our own hearts, which is by definition unknown to us.

For the artist, this passage is critical because it sets her on the path to authenticity—to becoming who she really is, and to speaking, for the first time, in her own voice.

Further thoughts next week.


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  1. andrew lubin on May 30, 2012 at 6:04 am

    I’m not so sure; as society continues to dumb itself down, perhaps the term ‘hero’ is in danger of overuse?

    While being the best dancer, bond trader, or chef one can be is a good thing, it’s hardly the same as a fireman pulling a kid from a burning building or a Marine pulling his buddy out of an flaming humvee.

    Putting yourself at risk to save someone else makes one a hero; the Pantheon of heroes includes Cpl Jason Dunham, Sgt John Basilone, the firemen walking into the Trade Centers on 9/11…while working hard is laudable, it’s hard to see those running the Boston Marathon, that poor schlump getting out of bed at 0400 to make the donuts, or even successes like Steve Jobs as their equals.

    Your thoughts?

    • skip on May 31, 2012 at 4:30 am

      most heroes are posthumously so.

    • Victoria on March 20, 2021 at 6:03 pm

      I have been a firefighter officer, paramedic Emergency Medical First Responder, and after that, 20 years in a hospital ER saving lives and limbs, and it was hard and often heartbreaking.. But I did it with a dedicated team of people like myself, and none of it was as hard as what I’m doing now, writing the story of my own path thru it, and trying to share what it meant to me. I think you missed the point of “the hero’s journey” by interpreting the phrase very narrowly and socially. It’s not about that. It’s about confronting the demons of your life, the internal as well as the external, and the invisible ones are for sure most powerful and limiting of all. That’s the hard part that nobody else can really prepare you for, except to show you how universal it is to the human story. Every human story.

  2. Steve Lovelace on May 30, 2012 at 6:36 am

    Steve’s point is how we view heroes and relate their journey to our own. Perhaps we can’t all be literal “heroes”, saving people from burning buildings, but we can look at their ordeals to help us get through our own journeys in life.

  3. Basilis on May 30, 2012 at 6:55 am

    The symbol of the Hero.
    The symbol of the Journey.
    The Heroic Journey of life.

    • Steven Pressfield on May 30, 2012 at 7:23 am

      “Hero” is a bit of an overstated word if you look at it in the context of, say, tomorrow’s newspaper. But “Hero’s Journey” comes from Joseph Campbell’s study of world mythology and the unconscious, where it means the archetype of the hero — i.e. protagonist, primary actor, Everyman — rather than a “hero” as we think of it in being decorated for valor in war or, as you say, Andy, a fireman running into a burning building to save a child.

  4. Mary on May 30, 2012 at 8:32 am

    The mythical structure of the hero’s journey can light our way when navigating the challenges of creative production–and can also help us make constructive sense of the challenges we encounter in the ongoing rough and tumble of daily living.  This approach can be so efficacious because it is so fundamental to our human consciousness.  Thank you, Steven, for writing this great series!

  5. Maddisen on May 30, 2012 at 9:14 am

    Synchronicity as an Elixir

    Steven, I resonate with your series “The Hero’s Journey as Boot Camp”. It comes at a time when I’ve personally been navigating a dark night of the soul. Sacrificing myself into the terrifying abyss of surrender at the end of my recent Act II has brought more inner peace than I could have possibly imagined or expected. I’ve been intrigued by the Hero’s Journey paradigm for many years, and have lived it palpably through my vision quest experiences with the School of Lost Borders, and through studying the works of Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, Steven Foster & Meredith Little, and others. The hero’s journey is the blueprint of life. Thank you Steven. I look forward to more of your musings…

  6. Linda on May 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks for the reminder. I’m 64 and, once again, on the Hero’s Journey. It’s a great opportunity. For reinvention.

  7. Jodie Shull on May 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    No need to apologize for as many “Hero’s Journey” blogs as you care to create! We can’t hear about this enough, in my thinking. Like Linda, I am on yet another such journey on the far side of the mountain. And I’m still hoping to create some meaningful versions of this template of the human heart in fiction. Thank you!

  8. David Y.B. Kaufmann on May 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I for one am not tiring of these essays-discussions-ruminations. I only wish I had more to add, more insight to find new channels. So, as I embark on daily journeys – thanks.

  9. Emily Breder on May 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Do not apologize! These are the only emails that I really look forward to. That really started with the Hero’s Journey series. I’ve been literally taking notes and putting them in my reference file.

  10. John H on May 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    A few J.C. quotes:

    A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.
    Joseph Campbell

    “And so Galahad decided that it would be a disgrace to set off on a quest with the other knights. Alone he would enter the dark forest where there was no path. This is the myth of the Hero’s Journey.” —Joseph Campbell

    I think the person who takes a job in order to live – that is to say, for the money – has turned himself into a slave.
    Joseph Campbell

    Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?
    Joseph Campbell

    It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
    Joseph Campbell

    Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.
    Joseph Campbell

    God is a metaphor for that which trancends all levels of intellectual thought. It’s as simple as that.
    Joseph Campbell

  11. S. J. Crown on May 30, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Isn’t the person who sacrifices self for the sake of others a hero BEFORE they do so? I’d say the person who runs into a burning building has probably already successfully negotiated their hero’s journey. I think Steve’s novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, a great example of the hero’s journey, demonstrates this well. (And in my opinion, the movie botches the journey, so if you’ve only seen the movie, please don’t judge the book from the movie.)Protagonist Rannulph Junah, under the tutelage of the mysterious Bagger Vance, endures his “boot camp” ordeal on the golf course, and Junah emerges from the journey as a self-sacrificing hero.
    So even if someone’s journey involves trying to become nothing more than the best dancer, chef, or whatever, the journey still might result in a new outlook that fosters a greater sense of self-sacrifice. The journey might produce a new hero, a person who used to run away but who now sprints into the fire. So at what point along the journey should we call anyone a hero? I don’t know; I’d say it’s probably before others recognize it. Still, perhaps the term “hero” is overused. But whether we decide to call somebody a hero or not, we are all, in some sense, on hero’s journeys.

  12. skip on May 31, 2012 at 4:35 am

    good stuff, steve. totally agreed usmc bootcamp hell is a hero’s journey! 40+ years ago we began usmc btcamp with 72 recruits. we finished with 46 marines. all heroes in my book to this day, every one of them!

    • Anonymous on March 20, 2021 at 6:07 pm

      Amen. Fire Service is like that too – you have to want it really really really bad, or els don’t even waste your time.

  13. andrew lubin on May 31, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    Great quotes John H; you’ve got the context to which I referred, and I think the others missed.

    In Campbell’s context, as a world-class half-miler, he was reported to have said “I should have said follow your blisters.”

    It’s not floating thru life looking for a participation award, it’s following your blister to the best of your ability.

    Now, does that make one a hero? No, it makes you a good human being; what makes one a HERO is giving up one’s life, or offering to give up one’s life, for another. It’s sad how the word ‘hero’ been dumbed-down.

  14. Michael M on June 6, 2012 at 7:54 am

    Please don’t apologize for posting about the Hero’s Journey. I think it was Joseph Campbell who said that “myths never happened, but they always are.” We’re all of us heroes, and those who are aware of the path will know best how to voyage into the darkness and back again. Mr. Pressfield is a worthy guide, and I’m happy to have discovered his work–after I exhausted the work of Campbell, I thought I’d read it all. Mr. Pressfield continues to provide further instruction, and for that…I’m most grateful.

  15. Marty Holthaus on June 7, 2012 at 12:32 am

    How could anyone find Steven Pressfield tiring?

  16. Tyrone on March 19, 2013 at 9:34 am

    No matter if some one searches for his necessary thing, so he/she desires to be available that in detail, so that thing is maintained over here.

  17. Johnsie Krause on March 8, 2018 at 8:36 am

    A hero just might be a feeling,When you go through something and emerge on the other side,you feel stronger ,better about yourself.and then resistance comes in and you begin another journey or life brings another thing to over come,but as you go through each challenge you can think back to the hero feeling from before and that can help to pull you through.Belive me ,when you get older and realize all that you have endured. You might feel like a hero ,the unbelievable kind,not because you saved someone else but because you made it through yourself.

  18. khalrty on October 16, 2023 at 2:18 am

    Get ready to embark on an exciting journey as we explore the magical and infinite world of geometry dash lite

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