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Quest for success: be the hero of your career

Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Conan the Destroyer" -- a true hero.

Story highlights

  • Our careers are a hero's journey -- a call to adventure, argues Whitney Johnson
  • Accepting the call to a new adventure may involve taking a demotion or pay cut, she says
  • To be the hero in your own story, seek out the right kind of mentors

I am a long-time fan of reality television: first American Idol, then, So You Think You Can Dance, Project Runway, and Master Chef.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell provides an explanation for the success of these programs: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

Isn't this what happens in reality TV?

We see people who are hoping to be called out of their everyday lives to an adventure, to be tested on a road of trials in hopes of obtaining the ultimate boon. Watching, we find pieces of ourselves mirrored in the contestants; we, too, are on the mythic journey of a hero.

Our careers are a hero's journey -- a call to adventure

Early on, it's fairly easy to see yourself as the hero. I, for example, fancied myself as Tess McGill, of the movie Working Girl, having started out as a secretary. But mid-career, accepting a beckoning call is far more difficult. You likely have achieved some success; the stakeholders in your life, including you, may be rather attached to the status quo.

    Mid-career, the "another day, another dollar mindset" can quickly sideline us if we avoid challenges and the growth our work can bring. What's important to remember here is that the dialing-it-in plateau can be a precipice: we avoid a career-killing plateau by accepting the call to a new adventure.

    It may mean taking a pay-cut, a demotion in terms of job title, or simply striking out into the uncharted waters of entrepreneurship. And daunting though it may be, we keep in our intellectual back pocket one of the findings of disruptive innovation theory: the odds of success are six times higher, the revenue opportunity 20 times greater, when we disrupt, and accept the call to adventure.

    See also: Is workplace boredom 'the new stress?'

    A road of trials or succession of tough experiences is inevitable

    Often they will come from where we least expect them, one obstacle being entitlement.

    We may believe, for example, that we have the right to a perk or promotion simply because we have shown up (when we played soccer as kids we all got trophies whether we won or lost, played or sat on the bench; why wouldn't this also be true at work?) Mid-career, we may be inclined to become benevolent dictators to our staff, deciding consensus isn't required. After all, we are literally en-titled.

    In battling the dragons of entitlement and complacency, you become the hero of your career. When you make and own your choices, fearlessly facing your challenges, you become someone whom others want to follow: "leader" is just another name for hero.

    See also: Jumping off the career ladder

    You are not meant to undertake this journey alone

    Most heroes in literature and film have a guide or a trainer: Frodo had Gandalf, Luke Skywalker had Yoda, King Arthur had Merlin -- guides, who aren't about exploiting you for their gain, but for whom your boon is also theirs.

    If you want to be the hero in your own story, seek out and cultivate the right kind of mentors. I could never have made the leap from secretary to professional without the sponsorship of a mentoring boss. If you are a professional woman, a guide is even more essential.

    We often measure the success of our career by how much money we make and our job title, and those are important yardsticks -- and an undeniable piece of achieving the boon. But a true hero looks to the horizon with a vision of the legacy he or she can leave -- what happens in the life of the company, the people you worked with once you are long gone.

    Ultimately the real boon of a hero's journey is not that others will believe you are a hero, but when you look in the mirror, you will see one.

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