It’s 4:54am in Cleveland, and I can’t sleep. I elected to stay in a youth hostel and it’s quite nice, but my sole roommate has been coughing all night like he has some 18th century affliction. I had hoped to get a solid night’s sleep but now I’m in the common area, in the dark, alone with my thoughts.
I’m normally quite confident in my abilities and projects; I’m competent at getting work done and believe that it will be needed and appreciated. But today my boundless optimism and enthusiasm is being challenged.
First, on the bus ride from the airport I got to get to know one of the speakers heading to Content Marketing World (a pretty huge conference, Kevin Spacey is keynoting). I’m also in Cleveland to speak at a conference – Author Marketing Live – and I’m excited about it, but suddenly my grand event seems smaller by comparison. This woman works with Nike and other huge companies, helping them tell better stories. She hangs out with people like Guy Kawasaki.
Then a contact told me she’s going to run a writer retreat in a chateau in the next 100 days. Fantastic! But it makes my dream of owning a castle seem a little further off, since I probably won’t be able to launch it this year.
Finally, I saw that one of my Twitter friends is going to start a “30 Day Author Platform” seminar – just as I’m beginning to build my “21 Day Author Platform” course.
My favorite book from the Bible has always been Ecclesiastes – a hopeless whine about the futility and pointlessness of life, with no hint of redemption or eternal bliss following death.
Everything you want to do has been done before, nobody will remember you after you die, everything is pissing into the wind.
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
If that seems depressing for you, it has the reverse effect on me: if there is no point to life then it doesn’t matter what we do. So, all things being equal, why not try hard to get rich and famous, enjoy the time we have love deeply and change the world?
But sometimes all that work seems futile; why not just pass the time sleeping, eating and reading Outlander? Frustration and disappointment comes from having lofty goals that we think we need to accomplish before we can be happy and satisfied.
Ordinarily, I feel much more excitement, happiness and enthusiasm working on my big goals than I feel frustration, fear or doubt. Through slight self-medication I keep depression at bay and remain just on the cusp of mania as often as possible.
But sometimes, despite my pharmaceutically induced, near boundless self-confidence, the little black dog visits me anyway.
When that happens, these are the things I know that gets me through it:
The Stars Can’t Shine Without Darkness
These existential questions and periods of self-doubt are a natural and necessary part of the hero’s journey. If you didn’t have them, you’d have a dead and boring story-arch that is never going to mean anything to anybody.
Which means, if you are facing them, congratulations! You’re a hero!
All you need to do now is to recognize where you are on your heroic path.
Most stories go like this:
The hero is set upon his quest (he refuses it at first, but changes his mind).
Every time he has a new idea and tries something new, he fails.
He tries, and fails, several times.
But as he’s failing, he’s also attracting new friends and allies to him, simply by virtue of his single-minded goal. He knows where he wants to get to, and announces it to the world, which allows other people and the universe to help him out in ways he couldn’t have expected.
(This is why I keep telling people about the castle I’m going to buy – even though it seems too big a goal to complete on my own).
He’s also friendly and kind to everyone he meets.
He learns new skills and is presented with magical gifts that will help him achieve his quest.
He faces his adversary and is defeated.
The hero NEVER succeeds easily or on the first try. He fails.
He loses. He probably put somebody he loved in danger.
He doubts himself and considers giving up.
He wonders whether anything he’s doing will ever make a difference.
The Epic Conclusion
There are two ways the hero’s journey can end. The more common way is this:
Even though there is great hardship and adversity, and powerful forces trying to stop the hero from completing his quest, even when all his friends have left him and nobody believes in him, he perseveres.
He often doesn’t have any special or magical abilities. He’s often weaker, less accomplished, less educated than his enemies. He’s got nothing going for him. Nobody thinks he will succeed, even himself. But he keeps going anyway, and that momentum kicks in, and somehow, against all odds, he wins.
The other way things can end is in tragedy. Tragedies are usually a series of unforseen events that make the hero accidentally make choices that lead to his own downfall. They often involve fate or destiny, or the gods, or things you can’t control.
We don’t like tragedies very much anymore, because we like to believe we are in total control over everything, and that we can set our own experiences based on how we think and act.
But tragedies happen: The Fault in Our Stars is a modern tragedy. Not all love stories have a happy ending. But the great thing about tragedies is that the powerful stories fill us with hope and give our lives meaning, and make us appreciate the small joys in our own lives.
So, if you’re feeling depressed, helpless, insecure and overwhelmed, remember this:
If you don’t feel like this sometimes, then you are not a hero. You’re just living a safe, comfortable life. You’re the background, the normal people.
And if you do feel like this, then you are a hero.
Which means your success is inevitable. The deeper and darker your depression, the harder your failure, the closer you are to that final victory. Everything needs to be stripped away, to test your resolve and help you discover your burning passion – that strength to keep going. You need to know that you have it in you, that you’re ready to risk everything, that you will not give up on your dreams no matter what happens.
Those periods of doubt are necessary to harden your resolve and give you the strength you’re going to need in the final battle. And you will win.
But even if you don’t, that’s OK, because your struggle will become legendary and inspire others. It will be understood that you should have won, even though fate got the better of you this time (think Vincent Van Gogh or Kafka or Emily Dickinson, whose talents weren’t discovered until after their deaths).
Since you can’t see the future, all you can do in the moment is announce your quest to the universe with single-minded intention and focus, put your all into achieving your goal every single day, show up and do the work even when you don’t feel like it, and remember to help others however you can, because everybody is struggling through their own epic journey.