My good friend and business partner Josh LaJaunie placed third in his first 100-mile race last Saturday.
My first reaction upon hearing the news: “So what?”
No, I haven’t turned all jealous and snarky.
I wasn’t asking Josh, or the Universe. I was asking myself.
Because here’s the thing: running a hundred mile race is objectively amazing. Josh ran/jogged/walked for almost 23 hours straight. How friggin’ amazing is that?
Too amazing, that’s how amazing.
As in, that accomplishment is so far out of my league, I can’t even relate. It’s inspiring in a Facebook-comment sort of way (“You’re a beast!”; “Go get ‘em!”; “Plant-based for the win!”; “Congrats, bruh!”). It’s inspiring in a Rocky-esque underdog-sports-movie kind of way.
But not in the way that really matters: “What am I going to do, what action am I going to take, based on that inspiration?”
Because when I got honest with myself, I realized that my unexamined answer was, “Nothing.”
You see, by putting Josh on that 100-mile pedestal, I let myself off the hook.
Without conscious intent, I took a potential source of potent inspiration and denatured it. Relegated it to “out there” instead of taking it to heart, where it could work its magic “in here.”
I’ve done it before. Lots of times.
Getting Psyched Out By Greatness
I remember reading about Rich Roll before meeting him on the Holistic Holiday at Sea cruise in 2014. I was at that point the slightly dumpy, decidedly middle-aged contributing author to T. Colin Campbell’s Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition.
I looked at Rich’s photo in the cruise brochure – incredibly ripped, lean guy who went from dumpy middle-aged lawyer to one of the world’s 25 fittest men.
And I was inspired.
Just not to take action.
In fact, I was inspired to stop looking at myself in the mirror for a few weeks. Because, truth be told, I kind of resembled his Before photo.
So instead of looking at his Before photo and saying to myself, “I can do what he did,” I looked at his After photo and dismissed his achievements as impossible, or at least way too much work.
Plus, I discovered that he had this really successful podcast. Closing in, at the time, on 1 million downloads on iTunes. I had a podcast at the time too, with about 80 episodes published. It was averaging maybe 3 downloads an episode, and 2 of them were my guest and me. (Big thanks to that third person, whoever you are.)
Even though Rich had started with a podcast as small and insignificant as mine, all I saw was the heights he had already achieved, rather than the actions he took and the mindsets he adopted to get from zero to hero.
And those heights had nothing to do with me. Or so I believed.
Who Am I Kidding?
A recurring Saturday Night Live skit from the 1980s, “Sammies,” captures the stuck dynamic perfectly. The two Sammies, played by Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey, sit in Sammy #2s basement, watching sports on TV, drinking beer, eating greasy takeout, sharing various self-improvement projects with each other.
Their tag line, following each declaration of good intentions, is, “Who am I kidding? That’s another thing I’m never gonna do.”
And by default and defeat and degree, that was my exact reaction to learning about Rich Roll, and so many other people whom kind and generous destiny placed in my path that I might learn and grow.
Inspired or Titillated by the Hero’s Journey?
One of my favorite podcasts is Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl’s The Story Grid Podcast. Shawn Coyne is a successful fiction editor who’s put together a powerful system for creating and evaluating stories. He’s into the commercial part of publishing – producing books that lots of people want to read all the way to the end.
And he knows that we the readers have to feel a connection with the protagonist. And we have to root for the protagonist to succeed. And the protagonist must face ever-increasing obstacles and complications on the way to their goals. And the most satisfying works have more-or-less “Hollywood endings.”
Why is there such a universally-adored structure for narrative fiction?
Shawn argues that it’s because such stories are necessary for us. As necessary, perhaps, as food and shelter. They tell us about how to be in the world. How to overcome whatever shitty situations we find ourselves in. How to develop ourselves into mature, contributing human beings.
Throughout human history, stories have been the backbone of culture. Through tales of bravery, cleverness, virtue, and devotion, we discover how to behave in the face of life’s challenges. Stories, while entertaining, contain our source code, our marching orders.
That’s why we all love the Hero’s Journey, the universally-told tale described by Joseph Campbell as the “monomyth” about “The hero with a thousand faces.” Through its description of trials, calls to adventure, challenges, dark nights of the soul, deaths and resurrections, redemptions, and sharing of the elixir of transformation, the Hero’s Journey informs our own journey’s in this human incarnation.
I Get to Choose Inspiration
So why do I resist being informed and changed by actual people’s inspiring stories?
I have my theories, but I don’t think they’re important here.
Because in the end, it’s my choice whether to take a story to heart (in French cour, the root of courage) or just let it titillate my brain for a few minutes before I go on to the next thing.
I get to make a conscious choice to identify with the Before Protagonist. The wounded, imperfect one who took the steps, one at a time, that led haltingly and painfully out of their prison of being.
I get to see myself in the mirror of their fear, their inadequate pedigree and preparation, their comfortably little lives.
And I get to choose to watch their journeys carefully. Their hesitant first steps. Their minor mind shifts. Their almost unnoticeable tiny acts of courage. Their leap of faith into the unknown as they accept the Call to Adventure.
And then I get to feel the stirrings in my own soul, as it sits trapped in the prison of my own self-imposed limitations.
I get to observe all the reasons the Before Protagonist could have used to stay stuck. Too poor, fat, too old, too busy, too tired, too burdened. I get to watch each of them burn away in the face of a steadfast commitment that makes hope and faith seem like frivolous things.
And then I get to look hard at my own excuses and see them for the bullshit they are.
The Gift of Facing My Bullshit
Once I realized that I was falling into a familiar pattern in my response to Josh’s 100-mile achievement, I reclaimed the gift of free will.
I could still dismiss his achievement as titillating but irrelevant.
Or I could honestly, boldly, mindfully ask myself, “So what?”
(Cue “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, the 1964 Broadway musical that, perhaps coincidentally or not, co-starred my great-uncle Irving Jacobson as Don Quixote’s faithful sidekick Sancho Panza.)
“What’s my next challenge that will hurt, and require sacrifice, and test my limits, and make me better and stronger for having made the attempt?”
“What can I learn from Josh’s example of not quitting even at mile 83 when he was sobbing and feeling like a failure?”
“What can I do to create a supportive team around myself as I up the demands upon myself?”
And perhaps most important, “How can I connect my current Before state with the Hero inside me, the one who returns from the underworld with the healing elixir for this world?”
What Moves You?
The truth is, inspiration isn’t in short supply. It’s not a bolt of lightning, a once-in-a-lifetime invitation to greatness that we might miss if we blink.
Every single moment contains within it what meditation teacher Adyashanti calls “a now-or-never” invitation.
The call to adventure is not a singular event; instead, it’s the steady backbeat of our lives, pounding out 1 2 3 4 as patiently as can be until we’re ready to pick ourselves up and march to it.
The call to adventure is embedded everywhere: movies, Downy commercials, pop songs, speeding tickets, mosquito bites.
We can discern our our Hero’s Journey from what we notice. What excites us. What moves us. What recalls us to our childhood dreams and fantasies.
Trust the call to adventure. Trust that it hasn’t made a mistake.
Look around you and ask the most important question of all: “So what?”