The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
– Joseph Campbell
My mother always taught me that a woman could do and be anything she chose, if she worked hard enough. She modeled that every day for me as well, which was no easy feat as a professional woman in the 1960’s and 70’s. She was a physical education teacher and coach, who worked in the world of men every day – in the gym, in the classroom and on the playing field. In college, she played and excelled in a variety of sports, from basketball to golf to synchronized swimming, but only in intramural events. Women were not permitted to play in intercollegiate contests until the late 1960’s. She coached young high school women in the period before Title IX was enacted, when women’s sports were underfunded and undervalued. When she passed away in 2010, we heard from several women friends who shared heartwarming stories of how her singular encouragement and support was the impetus for them to apply to college.
When I was a teenager, my mom went back to school – part time at night – to earn her Master’s Degree. I remember editing her papers for her at the dining room table. After obtaining her degree, she moved from the classroom to the School Board office, as an administrator. I listened to her stories – actually they were more like rants – as she fought the superintendent for pay and stature equal to her male peers. She had a rather big chip on her shoulder, having experienced discrimination all her life, even from her family. She had wanted to be a nurse, but her wealthy and formidable grandmother would not fund her medical schooling. Her brother got most of the gifts and benefits – the new car, spending money– and was doted on as the only boy and heir. (In a sad turn of fate, he turned out in later life to be a very angry drunk and a rabid gambler. They hated each other to the end and never reconciled.)
Looking back, I think the subliminal lessons I took to heart were:
- You have to fight and work hard for what you want.
- Expect people to tell you NO, just because you are a woman.
- Don’t let yourself be pushed around.
- It’s a tough world and you might always be judged as inferior. Keep fighting.
On the eve of my wedding she gave me one piece of advice: “Love and respect your husband, but always – always – have your own money.” It was the advice of someone who did not trust the universe to support her, someone whose paradigm said a woman must always be on her toes, pugnacious and hyper-ready for a certain future fight. It was the advice of someone who always expected to have to prove themselves, over and over, day after day. I don’t know if she was ever plagued by moments of debilitating self-doubt, we didn’t talk about those sorts of things. But most likely any such feelings were washed away in a sea of righteous anger.
I thought of my mother and the legacy she left me as I networked and interviewed for a new job over the last 8-10 weeks. The large enterprise project I have been dedicated to for the past two years was successfully completed in May, and now everyone must find a new role.
I sought out one of my mentors for advice during this period. She is a senior female executive, who has led many multi-million dollar programs. She’s a great leader – brilliant, savvy and tough, but also ethical, warm, and caring. One piece of advice she gave me really resonated. As I responded to her question about what I wanted to do next, I said something that started with, “I think I have proven that I can do XXX…” Her response was, “I think it’s time that we [female executives] stop apologizing and trying to constantly prove ourselves in the workplace.” It started me thinking about why, after 30 years of experience, with the SAME organization, I still feel the need to prove myself. Even though I have multiple years of strong performance ratings, and a rolodex of deep and broad relationships, WHY do I still worry that I might not be deemed “good enough”? I see my mother with her dukes and hackles up, readying herself for a fight where she has to earn the right to even enter the ring.
This theme of being “good enough” came to play a huge role in my job search. I was fortunate to have several different types of opportunities. Midway into the process, I met with a gentleman who was running a very large project. My goal in the conversation was to position myself for a role on the project management team. As we talked, it became clear to me that he was interviewing me for the LEAD project management role. And here’s what I told him. “What I am about to say is probably a very serious faux pas for an interview, and something I’ve never done before, but I have to tell you – I don’t think I’m qualified for that role.”
What the hell?? Would a man do that? My manager and several of my peers urged me to “go for it”, telling me I was definitely ready and would do a great job. It was the next big step in my career progression.
There were three opportunities I was seriously considering. I laid them out on a nice worksheet, listing the pros and cons of each. I gave them each a one-word description. #1 – Interesting (strategically placed, intellectually intriguing), #2 – Smart (aligned with career objectives, solid challenges but good support structure, I felt ready) and #3 – Scary (HUGE and scary). The job above was the one I labeled Scary. I then proceeded to mentally write that Scary one off. I was convinced I was not a strong candidate, so I put it out of my mind. Since I didn’t think I was good enough, how could I possibly be on the short list? I moved down the path toward accepting one of the other roles.
And that’s when the universe reached out and slapped me in the face. I got a call offering me the Scary role. Have you heard the term “gobsmacked”? That was me. Holy crap, what was I going to do now? I asked for the weekend to think it over. I alternated between waves of fear (Oh my God, I don’t think I can do it.), to flattery (Oh my God, THEY think I can do it!), to doubt (Take a REST for God’s sake, do you REALLY want to do this?), to finally, determination (dammit, you know you want it, you CAN do it.)
Joseph Campbell developed the theory of the monomyth, or hero’s journey, to describe the pattern of progression that all great stories follow. The hero’s journey is one that is universal: the classic heroes of myths, legends and movies, whether they come from western or eastern traditions, all travel a similar path. But the path is traveled not just by heroes in stories, but by us normal humans as well. The steps of the hero’s journey are also applicable to each individual’s personal psychic and spiritual journeys. The general pattern of the journey is: The Call, The Threshold, Challenges, The Abyss, Death/Rebirth, Transformation, Atonement and Return.
Stepping over the Threshold is a critical moment in the journey. At the threshold, we encounter people, beings or situations which block our passage. These ‘guardians’ protect us by keeping us from taking a journey for which we are not yet ready. However, once we become prepared, these guardians step aside and often become the helper or mentor on the quest (like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, or Yoda in Star Wars). In the psychic world, these threshold guardians are harder to see. They can be our fears, our doubts, our ineffective patterns of thought and behavior that keep us from crossing the threshold. Even more ominous, they can also be the “dragon in disguise”, our greatest fear in masquerade, pushing us into the journey, taunting us to come face them in the abyss. (Shit, that doesn’t sound good.)
Beyond the threshold lie challenges and temptations. The journey is guaranteed to put us more and more at risk, either emotionally or physically. The challenges will strike at our greatest weakness or our most vulnerable emotions. For it is only by facing those weaknesses and fears, only by acknowledging them and incorporating them, that we move forward. If we don’t, we will have to turn back. Game Over.
The path of the hero’s journey promises that if we conquer our personal Abyss, overcome our greatest fear, we become transformed. There is a kind of death and a rebirth. Fear dies to make way for courage. Ignorance dies and knowledge and enlightenment begin to appear. Dependency dies so that independence and personal power can grow. We discover our true gifts.
I’m just one day into this new job. Something tells me I will meet my fear of not being good enough again and again, probably on a daily basis. I may make it through my Abyss and be transformed, or I might have to turn around and quit. But regardless, I have stepped over the threshold. I have entered the cave. Dragons, real and imagined, here I come.
When have you felt that you were on the threshold of your own hero’s journey? What helped you make the decision to step over and take on the challenge?