Vertical Development

How Real Heroic Work Often Emerges From the Dark

What Justine Musk and Brené Brown teach us about the lighting the dark

While reflecting back upon Justine Musk’s work talking about creating a storyworld, I ran across some older notes of mine on her other talk about how Visionaries are People Who Can See In The Dark. Going through it again, I was dumbstruck by the poignancy of her following quote.

You know the women in my audience. Well we’ve spent part, if not most, if not all of our lives trying to amputate those parts of ourselves that did not fit. You know we’ve tried to be pleasing and we tried to what’s expected and we suck at it. And we eventually reach a point where we realize we are so depressed or stuck or numbed out, that the only way to save ourselves is to figure out how to be ourselves on purpose.

Justine Musk

What she’s talking about here isn’t something that just women experience but everyone experiences in different forms. For example, if you’re a man, you’re expected to be macho and tough. If you’re a transgender person, the expectations are even worse, as rather than being seen as a broader expression of humanity, you’re often effectively seen as an abomination of humanity by people themselves who have a very limited, narrow perception of what it even means to be human.

We Are the Hero’s We’ve Been Waiting For

But it’s her last words about saving ourselves that really hit home with me because I realized that what she’s talking about is the Hero’s Journey itself. In effect, when our worldview begins to crumble, it feels like our world is experiencing a cataclysm that is shaking the very foundations of it. And it is…because it’s shaking the very foundations of our beliefs.

Governing beliefs are beliefs that form the foundations of a lot of other beliefs. One of the reasons that they’re hard to change is because governing beliefs are deeply intertwined with your sense of yourself, your identity. Who you are and what you believe are not two things that are independent of each other.

When you find that those fundamental governing beliefs are being challenged, you will probably feel as if you’re being attacked, and it can be very hard to question them yourself because you’re also questioning your own identity.

Dave Gray

But when this happens, we want someone to come along and save us. Someone who can solve all of our problems and return the world to its normal, stable, “expected” state again. What we’re looking for is a hero. And in our rapidly changing world today, this is probably why superhero tv shows and movies are so prevalent.

But when it comes to questioning our identity as Dave Gray noted, we are the only ones able to undertake the quest arising from those questions because we are the only ones who truly know ourselves. Thus as Justine Musk highlights, we are the only ones who can truly save ourselves and our “world” by heroically exploring and navigating beyond the horizon of minds and discovering a larger world(view) along with a larger sense of Self identity where we can just be ourselves.

Exploring Our Dark Dungeons

Now if we return to Justine Musk’s talk about how Visionaries are People Who Can See In The Dark. We now can see it within a whole new light.

These visionaries aren’t something rare. They are effectively just the potential of what we can all be, if we so choose to step within the unknown darkness of ourselves, discover who we truly are, and bring back that wonder into the light of the world, expressing it like a unique beacon upon it.

They don’t just tell us a new story. They are that story.

It allows them to open up windows to another deeper reality in which transformation is possible and things of awe happen on a regular basis.

In the beginning, we don’t trust them because we think they’re crazy. By the end, we trust them because we know they’re crazy. They’re crazy enough to accomplish anything.

In order to bring us something new to believe in.

They bring light to the dark. And they show us the universe.

Justine Musk

Understanding the Dark

But wait! Let’s not stop there but fully commit ourselves and step into the dark to understand it better.

While reflecting upon Justine Musk’s talk, I was reminded of Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability. So walking over to my bookshelf, I grabbed my copy of The Gifts of Imperfection and began scanning my notes and highlights within it to see if I could find something that related.

In doing so, I found two passages that not only encapsulated what I am going through but also describe the essence and heart of the Hero’s Journey overall. Most important of all, they describe why delving into the darkness of ourselves and shining a light on it is so critical for our growth and development.

The first passage is at the beginning of the book where she describes her midlife crisis and what it actually means as an unravelling. This is poignant because this transformation can be seen as an act of social creativity whereby we are disintegrating our sense of self and reintegrating it into a larger sense.

People may call what happens at midlife “a crisis,” but it’s not. It’s an unravelling—a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re “supposed” to live. The unravelling is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.

Now the second passage delves even deeper when Brené talks about an experience she had earlier in her career, after her first book came out, when she was going to give a talk at a women’s networking club. When the woman in charge, who was going to introduce Brené before her speech, approached her to get her bio, it quickly became apparent that this woman 1) didn’t understand Brené’s work, 2) wouldn’t let her talk about anything negative (i.e. shame, fear, vulnerability), and 3) only wanted her talk to be “comfortable and joyful” as well as “light and breezy”, talking only about “how-to be happy.”

What Brené realized from this encounter though was something truly amazing because it gets to the very core of our world and my own life’s work.

For the first time in five years, I realized that the country club woman wasn’t out to get me and sabotage my talk. If that were the case, her ridiculous parameters wouldn’t have been so devastating for me. Her list was symptomatic of our cultural fears. We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We want a quick and dirty “how-to” list for happiness.

I don’t fit that bill. Never have. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to skip over the hard stuff, but it just doesn’t work. We don’t change, we don’t grow, and we don’t move forward without the work. If we really want to live a joyful, connected, and meaningful life, we must talk about things that get in the way.

Until I owned and spoke this story, I let my lack of “quick tips” and “five simple steps” get in the way of my professional worthiness. Now that I’ve claimed that story, I see that my understanding of the darkness gives my search for the light context and meaning.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

This is so on point it’s hilarious, as I’m often drowning in “five simple steps” articles when reading online nowadays. In effect, everything is about finding a shortcut in life and exploiting it to the fullest. Yet in the process, we’re missing out on what life is truly all about, it’s depth, because we’re auto-piloting through it all and using someone else’s script or prompt to do so.

Doing the Real “Heroic” Work

Yet if we truly want to experience life to the fullest, we have delve deep within the uncomfortable, unknown darkness of it, exploring and experiencing it ourselves.

That’s what the Hero’s Journey and my life’s work relating to vertical development is all about. It’s not just about understanding life at a deeper level, by rappelling down into the gaps and cracks of it (instead of intentionally denying them), but understanding your very sense of Self at a deeper level as well. Yet it requires you to step beyond your fears to save yourself and be yourself on purpose which allows you to understand your purpose in the process.

It’s about doing the “work” as Brené Brown calls it, the real work. That’s what the The Future of Work is really about, yet very few people are telling you about. That’s the real work required to step into a new reality. Work that is an embodiment of leadership, authenticity, and creativity, allowing you to take a heroic sense of agency over your own life and very sense of Self as well.

By Nollind Whachell

Questing to translate Joseph Campbell's Hero’s Journey into The Player’s Handbook for The Adventure of Your Life, thus making vertical (leadership) development an accessible, epic framework for everyone.

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