Have you ever brought home an exercise bike and let it gather dust in the basement? Ever started and quit a diet? Do you have a project 80% of the way done that is sitting on your hard drive not doing you any favors?
If you are, I welcome you to the club. I have done all of these things (multiple times)!
This is as near a universal human phenomenon as I can imagine.
The Hero’s Journey is a story structure that Carl Jung originally noted that was popularized by Joseph Campbell in the 1970s. It observes that across societies from Native Americans to Africa to Eurasia that myths tend to follow a similar structure.
The hero received a call to adventure, something in their world changes fundamentally. Initially, the hero refuses the call – they fear the difficult journey ahead. Eventually, the hero chooses to undertake the journey, crossing the threshold.
George Lucas famously used this structure for the original Star Wars trilogy: Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobe and learns about his father and receives the call to adventures. Initially, he refuses the call, saying he wants to stay at home. When he returns to find his home destroyed, he agrees to go with Obi-Wan on his quest.
Beyond just being a structure to tell a good story, Campbell and Jung believed that this “monomyth” was so pervasive because it represented a natural pattern in everyone’s life. Whether it’s growing up and leaving home, starting a job, quitting a job, finding a partner, changing jobs, starting a business, having kids or any other major life event, you can pretty much always map it to the hero’s journey.
You start to do it, then you get worried and maybe refuse and either you eventually accept the call and embark on the new path or you don’t.
The critical moment is this crossing of the threshold where the hero moves from their known and comfortable world to an unknown and frightening world.
Once this threshold has been crossed, there is no going back. You are irrevocably committed to the new path. Once you’ve turned in your resignation, announced your project launch date, or said “I do” you have passed into an unknown world.
While it’s interesting and simple to look at this in a story format, the lived experience of the fear and worry that accompanies the period before the crossing of the threshold is no joke. Quitting a job to move to a new field, starting a business, making a big investment is almost always accompanied by a real sense of fear.
The Resistance is that voice in the back of your head that tells you that you aren’t good enough, that you don’t have enough time, or that it will never work.
The Resistance is what causes the Hero to refuse the call. The Resistance is normal, indeed omnipresent in basically everyone’s life. Where that Resistance lies changes over time: it is a little scary to live by yourself when you are a teenager. It is not so scary at 40, but something else likely is: raising a family, changing careers or taking care of aging parents.
Every major life decision I’ve ever made was accompanied by a strong dose of The Resistance.
To forever refuse the call is a terrible state. It is an admission to yourself that you are incapable of growth or transformation. In retrospect, all the periods of my life where I was refusing the call tended to be accompanied by some level of self-loathing.
Creative exploration is impossible without acknowledging the unknown, without accepting the possibility of failure.
Naming The Resistance is powerful. It helps to distinguish it from similar emotional feelings. When I look over the railing of a tall building, the emotional feeling I have is pretty similar to when I worry about making some big change.
However, that’s a different and more legitimate fear. Jumping over the railing really will end badly in a way that publishing a blog post will not.
My friend Sebastian Marshall coined another term that made dealing with The Resistance a lot easier for me: Terminator Mode.
The Resistance is strongest the closest you get to the finish line. When you start writing your book, it’s all fun and games. The month before the launch is when you start sweating bullets. So too with any other project. When you are about to cross the threshold, to irrevocably commit yourself to a major change and enter an unknown world is when you start coming up with all sorts of reasons why it’s actually a bad idea.
When the finish line is in sight, The Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.
Well, maybe I’ll just hang around at this job I hate for another year and it might get better.”
This book could use some extra revisions, maybe I’ll just do that 32nd revision to make sure it’s ok.”
Terminator Mode prevents this.
What Terminator Mode means is that when you get to 80% complete, you go all Arnold Schwarzenegger and start obsessively focusing on the project that’s 80% complete.
The mind will play all sorts of tricks on you when you get to 80% complete with a task. It will try to seduce you into doing something unrelated or new. Never give in to that.
An “almost done” project is just like a project you haven’t started. The half-written books on my hard drive are doing me no good! The worst thing you can do is get a project to “almost done” and quit.
Always be asking yourself “how has the world changed due to my work here?” If the world isn’t any different then you haven’t accomplished anything, no matter how hard you’ve worked. You have to cross the threshold.
The Terminator has only one job and he will not be distracted. Be The Terminator.