Think back to the last big challenge you faced — in your career or in your personal life. How did you respond to it? Were you thankful? Maybe not at the time, but afterwards? Here’s to Thanking Our Dragons — the counter-intuitive approach to responding to life’s challenges.

Dragons | Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

                                                            From 9 Dragons | Museum of Fine Arts, Boston | LOVE THIS!

Last week I was in Denver for a conference. It was a terrific chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, to leave my every day schedule behind, and to re-connect with nature, with inspiring people and ideas, and with myself. All of that was great. The part about the dragons, well, that’s a little more complicated.

At the conference I was slated to give a talk. A talk I’d put far more work and worry into than I care to admit. And one that activated all of my self-esteem gremlins. It was a talk I’d signed up for — so I had no one to blame but myself.

Confession: I sign up for talks to challenge myself. I sign up not because I like giving talks but because I want to push myself outside my comfort zone.

Even though I’ve done a lot of teaching and presentations over the years, I still get nervous. I worry about whether or not I’ve got something worthwhile to say, and whether or not it’s new to the audience and me.

Why put myself through this?

Probably for the same reason you program that difficult work, or launch into writing that composition, article, or book — because it’s the one you’ve been afraid to tackle. Because the challenge is worth it. Because what you gain in the process far outweighs the pain of actually doing the thing.

Having to give a talk pushes me to synthesize what I’ve been learning. From my clients, from my reading and writing, and from whatever I’ve been wrestling with in my professional and personal development.

The talk I gave was on using the Hero’s Journey as metaphor and roadmap for musicians’ projects and artistic development.

As metaphor, the hero’s journey explains how life really works. How people change and are transformed by their struggles and experience. So of course, it was perfect that a talk on this subject was kicking my ass.

Here’s a quick refresher on the hero’s journey. It’s the narrative pattern that animates all of our favorite books, movies, plays, religions, and myths — and it’s common across all cultures. It’s the essential structure, the DNA that underpins everything from The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars, from the Magic Flute to Harry Potter, and from the Ring cycle to the Odyssey.

How does the Hero’s Journey go?

In stories and myths, the hero starts out in her everyday world where she receives a “call to adventure” to go forth on a quest. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s call is to rescue a princess and save the galaxy. Most heroes refuse the call at first — because who would ever, in her right mind, say yes? — but eventually, the hero does set off.

There’s help along the way from a mentor. Luke has Obi Wan Kenobi and in the Wizard of Oz Dorothy has Glinda The Good Witch. And the hero is typically given an object with magical powers to help her on the journey. Dorothy gets the ruby slippers, Luke gets a light saber, and Mozart’s Tamino gets a magic flute.

Heroes also find allies. Luke has Han Solo. And Dorothy has three allies: the Scare Crow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.

It’s great to have all this help because in myths — just as in life — heroes need it.

Essentially the hero’s quest takes her from her ordinary world to an extraordinary one, where she’ll face a series of trials (in The Magic Flute it’s trials of fire and water). These obstacles increase in danger until the hero faces an ultimate challenge — she must slay the dragon.

In movies this is the “all is lost moment” when the hero faces her biggest ordeal. This is Dorothy locked in the Wicked Witch’s tower with the hour glass measuring out the remaining minutes she has left to live.

The hero risks everything to fulfill her quest and capture the treasure to bring it back home. Siegfried in the Ring needs to slay Fafner to capture the gold ring. Luke Skywalker needs to defeat the evil empire. And Dorothy needs to kill the Wicked Witch in order get the broomstick to bring to the Wizard.

The hero faces death and is transformed in the process. She must bring the treasure — the wisdom gained from her journey — back home. Because the treasure isn’t hers to possess — it’s a gift for others. Heroes serve a higher purpose: to become who they’re meant to be so they can contribute fully to their community.

The Hero’s Journey explains how life really works.

In striving for our goals, we will inevitably face self-doubt, fear, and setbacks. In confronting these ‘dragons,’ we must let go of our ‘old selves’ to make room for the person we are becoming. It’s the scary and necessary process of becoming who we are meant to be.

It’s only by confronting our dragons, and working through and past these challenges, that we can fulfill our true potential.

The hero’s journey gives us a template for seeing where we are in our own journeys. The metaphor helps us make sense out of what otherwise can seem like random suffering. It provides the big picture view so we can recognize where we are and adjust our course as needed.

I’ve had many projects that were hero’s journeys — projects where I hit rock bottom and lost my sense of self and had to put the project and myself back together. Recognizing where I am in the cycle gives me hope, because I know that I can live past the all is lost moment and come out having gained new insights and valuable experience.

‘Dragons’ are essential for transformation.

For me, in going through the angst of preparing the talk and delivering it, the real win was in what I learned in the process, the ideas I was able to clarify for myself and share with others. I faced the all is lost moment about three days before the talk, when my confidence was non-existent, when I felt I had nothing worthwhile to say, and when I had far more material than could be presented in the time I had. It wasn’t pretty.

What was the dragon I confronted? It’s what Carl Jung referred to as the shadow — the part of ourselves that we’re ashamed of and want to hide and deny. All of our self-limiting beliefs and imposter syndrome run amok.

Remember yourself in junior high school? Chances are that’s pretty close to how your shadow feels. Abandoned, angry, unlovable. Our shadows are made up of all of our insecurities and all of our worst fears about who we are.

Confronting the dragon is about dealing the our worst fears. It’s about accepting the reality of ourselves, warts and all, embracing our shadows, and choosing to move ahead regardless.

Our dragons incite the development of a mental fighting spirit and the resilience to move forward in our journeys.

Working on and then delivering the talk forced me to get more honest, more clear about my message, my values, and my self. This led, I think, to a better talk, but for sure it’s led to a more courageous me.

Do I wish I could have prepared the talk in less time, with less anguish, and stress? Sure.

But I accept that what happened was what it actually took for me to learn what I needed to learn. Those are MY dragons and I’m thankful for them.

I’ve had several clients in recent weeks report big wins in their artistry and in their career credits — YAY! But their wins were of course hard won, too — these took courage. It’s so inspiring to coach artists as they move forward through their fears, deal with their dragons, and complete yet another journey in their careers.

Here’s to your next journey — and to the dragons who will help you become the hero you’re meant to be!

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