There's a myth going round that we're heroes, or at any rate can be. It's a myth that started with Jung, infected Hollywood, and is now rippling through the personal development and marketing communities like avocados on Instagram. And it's a myth about a myth. One known as The Hero's Journey.
Joseph Campbell was a student of Jung. Influenced by his mentor's fascination with archetypes and an interest in stories, he discovered that stories have an archetypal structure. Just the one, hence he called it the monomyth. The fact that he boiled down thousands of stories from hundreds of cultures and concluded there was actually just the one story should raise an eyebrow. It's reminiscent of the bit in Hitchhiker's Guide where the entry in the Guide for Earth reads 'Mostly harmless' - and that's the longer revised version.
For sure, Campbell discovered something when he distilled all those myths and legends and folklore into one handy dandy template. George Lucas consulted Campbell when he made the first Star Wars film. Thanks to Chris Vogler, who wrote a memo about it when he worked at Disney that shaped films including The Lion King, Campbell's monomyth has become the default shape of Hollywood films for a couple of decades now. You know the one. The hero is called to do something that disrupts their life and ultimately answers a fundamental question for them, in the process changing them for ever more thanks to an experience of rebirth. Neo in The Matrix, getting the cheat codes for reality. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, redeeming himself from a meaningless life through love. Any film where an unlikely mentor supports our plucky hero in their hour of need, eg Splinter - the giant rat who teaches ninjutsu to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And who could forget Legally Blonde?
Boil a story down to the essence it has in common with thousands of others, and by definition you lose what makes it unique. And there's something too conveniently Hollywood-friendly about Vogler's condensed take on Campbell. The success of Marvel's superhero movies suggests that filmgoers are tiring of the tried and tested. That might seem counterintuitive given how self-evidently heroic Marvel heroes are, and yes - they have their own kind of saminess. True, but it's only part of the story. Part of what audiences are loving in Marvel films is the way characters recur. And it's in those multiple appearances we see them in a new light. Captain America, hero in his own film, is the butt of jokes in other Marvel movies. Black Panther was clearly the star of his own movie, but in Infinity War he's got a supporting role. Iron Man has a major but not lead role in Infinity War, and if anyone's the protagonist it's Thanos - and he's the villain, in a film which also cheats audience expectations powerfully with its ending and yet is still doing huge box office.
Research demonstrates that when Japanese people respond to a painting, they are concerned with its setting, taking the whole in. Americans focus instead on the dominant image, particularly if it's of a person. And there's something about that which connects with the American Dream, the notion that anyone can go from log cabin to Whitehouse. That's the story of the entrepreneur too, a strong-willed individual who is driven by their dream to change the world and profit from it. Not much sense of the context and supporting cast in that picture - the market which might simply be ready for someone's idea and wasn't a year before when someone else tried the same idea, a handy beta for their successor. Then there are employees, whose talent and hard work created the detail of the founder's dream without which it would be vaporware. And what about suppliers and customers?
The point isn't to be picky, but to present a different picture. It's something that can be seen in Japanese work culture. In the day, working together as a team, colleagues collaborate to achieve outcomes. It's at night when they socialise together that it's acceptable to criticise bosses when alcohol is a means of expressing truths that would be less tolerable in the office. There's a sense of communal endeavour, and setpiece boardroom chestbeating and people standing their ground don't figure in it in the same way.
These differences of perspective matter. Not least at a time when strong-willed individuals in the form of billionaire oligarchs and the politicians they bankroll are carving up the world for their advantage and willing to sacrifice others in pursuit of their greed. Back in the day, a strong-willed individual like James Stewart would stand up for what was right in the films of the day. Today's political titans are more likely to speak on behalf of an oil lobby-funded belief that climate change is a myth, wilfully oblivious to the bigger picture we're all part of.
Do we need people willing to take risks and make sacrifices? Sure. And we need them to do so in alliance with others rather than through their pig-headedness. Another of the central tenets of the Marvel movies is that superheroes were once like you and me before being granted their powers. It's as a team and with shared goals that they get to put the world to rights - and that doesn't mean in their own image, because as Peter Parker learned tragically when he became Spider-Man, 'with great power comes great responsibility'.
Countless websites detail coaches and trainers who reckon they fit the role of mentor in your Hero's Journey. Can you really imagine Frida Kahlo or Martin Luther King attending a seminar on manifesting their hero within? Even as a typology, the Hero's Journey is just one of those available. Vladimir Propp checked out Russian folklore and mythology a decade or two before Campbell and came up with something equally valid. Propp's schema is not as glamourous, noting as it does the likelihood of the hero being scarred along the way, and doing a lot of their work without even being recognised. That's not going to go down well on a weekend workshop, which as much as anything are about inflating the participants' sense of who they are and what they can achieve.
Take a note from the Japanese. When you're being sold someone's big heroic story, ask questions which will give you details about who else was involved, and the environment which supported their success. And do it over a beer. It's great that we have ideas and do things to make them come true - but the Hero's Journey fuels the story that change happens without a social and economic context to make it possible, and that's a myth we can do without.