Markus Gull

Hero's Journey (2): Why does every story begin with pain?

Do you know the most densely populated place on earth? It is the comfort zone. Every one of us lives there, hardly anyone wants to get out voluntarily.

This is understandable for many reasons. One very decisive reason is that our brains have been polarised towards safety for thousands and thousands of years and, despite all the development we have undergone as humans, are still afraid of dangers that no longer exist today; and even more so of those that do not yet exist but could.


In the blogcast, I read this recent blog article to you. With emphasis, of course!

To prevent the evil tiger from eating us, we take the precaution of staying where we are safe: at home in the comfort zone. There are no tigers in our latitudes, but there are other monsters we have to hide from. The most monstrous monster we know is the unknown itself, uncertainty. And even if the unknown looks like it could be much better than the known, we still don't trust it and remain where the known is: in the safe haven of what is, as it is.

Just think of the many people who remain in unhappy relationships all their lives, with the often even verbatim justification: "At least there I know where I stand."

You have what you have, and safe is safe.

Are you really sure about that? Only one thing is certain: security and happiness are not the same thing. And unfortunately, happiness requires courage. A little bit, anyway.

Courage in this case is experienced as John Wayne describes it: "Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway."

We are going on the journey.

So for us to move out of this - supposedly - safe haven called the comfort zone into the sea of possibilities, all kinds of things have to happen. Often it is a concrete occasion that shakes up our normal, accustomed world and shakes us out.

This is where the hero's journey begins.

Joseph Campbell, the US myth researcher, studied the irrepressible power that stories unleash in our culture and personal lives and helped modern society understand them.

70 years ago, he developed the Hero's Journey, a model with which he describes the inner laws that underlie our stories to explain the world.

Joseph Campbell speaks of a monomyth, because in their structure all significant stories resemble each other - beginning with the primeval myths of mankind. On her journey, the heroine - i.e. the main character of the story - passes through 17 stations of development, from the departure from the familiar world to the liberated return home.

Hero's Journey

I have condensed Joseph Campbell's model of the Hero's Journey into a simplified version in my Hero Brandingmethod.® into a simplified, easy-to-understand and practically applicable version and will walk through the individual stages with you as a story insider in the next episodes of my blog.

Hero's Journey


Part 1 can be found here.

Story means transformation.

Every story tells of a transformation, of a journey of a person who sets out from his familiar world to reach his bliss. At the end of a successful journey, not only is something different, but everything is better.

In Story's architecture, this event that shakes everything up is called the Inciting Incident.

You could also say conflict, whereby conflict can be many things, not only negative. For example, you live comfortably, think of nothing bad, and suddenly you bump into someone with whom you fall head over heels in love. And nothing is the same any more. Especially not if you have long been stuck in one of the unhappy but familiar relationships mentioned above.

So - new - happiness knocks on the door of the heart, and what do you do? Be afraid, as a rule.

For companies or entrepreneurial people, such a conflict can be disguised as a new idea. A new idea? "Wow!", you might think. But the usual standard reaction, even in companies, is usually to be afraid. And fear is not only a bad advisor, but also the perfect breeding ground for wrong decisions.

Do you still remember the Kodak brand ? Since its foundation 130 years ago (1888), Kodak has dominated the photographic market: camera, film, darkroom equipment, chemicals, photographic paper ... And so massively that the term "Kodak moment" used in advertising entered everyday language as a synonym for experiences you will never forget.

Kodak also experienced such a special moment itself, an inciting incident as the starting point of a tragedy, a reverse hero's journey. Steve Sasson, an employee of the company, built the world's first digital camera in 1974. But many in the company knew nothing about it. And those who understood the value of this innovation prevented it because they did not want to endanger the core business. "Why change anything? We're doing fine!"

In 2012 Kodak was broke and went bankrupt.

One of the most innovative companies in the world, one that dominated its market, a global billion-dollar corporation, slept through its own innovative power and failed to recognise the Inciting Incident for the next chapter of its brand story. Unbelievable? Really?

I suspect that Kodak did not really know the powerful, multi-faceted meaning of its own story. They didn't really understand what business Kodak was in. If you only produce films, you produce films until no one needs them any more. That is exactly the moment when the Kodak moment is over. But if you are in the business of "preserving precious memories forever" and understand this not only as an advertising platform but as the purpose, the story of the company, then you will experience one exciting chapter after another in the history of the company.

Always look for the pain point.

A conflict, the Pain, the Inciting Incident , is always triggered: either by an inner urge - for example, by the unbearable feeling of loneliness - or by an external conflict: for example, by an earthquake; or by a social conflict: for example, by exploitation by a government.

Through this impetus, normal life is thrown out of balance and must be brought back into balance in the course of the story. For this to happen, an achievement is necessary, which the heroine must accomplish through a completion or through a realisation, usually through both at the same time.

Falling in love, having an idea, a wish, an illness, hunger; the cat high up in the treetop on the rotten branch, war, the new product and the new advertising campaign of the competition, the economic crisis, a social paradigm shift such as the car and meat industries are currently experiencing; we are expecting a baby - conflicts have a thousand different shapes, large and small causes and just as many effects.

Without conflict, no hero's journey begins. Without adversity, no ordinary person moves towards their shadow to jump over to land on the other side as a transformed hero. No company, no NGO was ever founded without first having a problem to solve.

So when I accompany companies with my team in search of their story, one of the first questions is always: "Where's the pain? Where is the pain that you are alleviating?

Most people answer the question wrong. Kodak would probably have said: "People need perfect film for their photos," instead of: "Images - even those of irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime events - will fade into memory if we don't find the best ways to preserve them forever."

There, at the beginning of the hero's journey, the source of a company's usefulness bubbles up. That is where it shows where it can be helpful; that is where a brand takes on meaning, where it becomes full of value and meaning. This is exactly how a person's hero's journey begins, with the goal of finding meaning and proving oneself in doubt.

The antagonist also draws his - antagonistic - power from precisely this point. In a thriller, one often encounters this antagonist at the same time as the Inciting Incident. Nevertheless - the antagonist is always only the personified inner conflict of a protagonist in a story.

In "Rocky" Rocky fights Apollo Creed, but his real opponent is himself, the old underdog Rocky with his bent self-esteem, who can finally show in the ring that in truth he has the heart of a champion and finally admit to himself: "I am worthy of being loved."

The opponent of a company or a brand can therefore never be the competition. So for Kodak it would never be Agfa, or Ilford, but oblivion, the extinguished memory ...

Why you need a strong opponent for your story and how you can find the perfect one, I have written down some thoughts here.

Brand story in transition.

The transformation of Apple 's brand story illustrates this phenomenon beautifully. In 1984 , Apple launched the Macintosh with a story that had an external opponent. In the legendary 1984 advertising film, the overpowering competitor(IBM) was described as evil par excellence, dominating and oppressing people as in Orwell's "1984" dystopia. But then comes the stroke of liberation, packaged in the Macintosh, and we can experience "... why 1984 won't be like 1984". A powerful story about freedom and liberation.

Even stronger, however, because it was developed from the brand core and a vision of the future, was the story from 1997 when the iMac was introduced. With "Think different" , a brand story was created that not only became a postulate for generations and triggered a common longing of many people, but also resonates to this day and surrounds the Apple brand with a positive mystical aura that it has actually long since ceased to live up to.

The opponent in this story is not a competitor, but the ordinary, the everyday, the bland, the traditional, the comfortable. This story drives the company internally as a commitment and has an involving effect for the brand externally. This creates a tribe, a culture, a lifestyle, a movement. The Pain renews itself daily as if by itself and strings together one Inciting Incident after the next. A brand story with a self-feeding growth guarantee ...

The opponent is yourself. The conflict too.

Conflicts, their triggers, our opponents appear in a variety of guises, but always have the same face: our own.

In pain, in conflict, we are thrown back on ourselves, especially if this conflict means a dilemma. We have to leave our safe haven and choose between two equally valid goals: between two good goals - or we have to recognise and choose the lesser of two evils. Most of the time, however, the easier path leads us to the greater evil ...

In resolving conflicts we show and recognise who we really are. There lies a root strand for the answer to our primal question: "Who am I?"

For this, evolution has implemented the Story app in our human operating system. This app always updates itself through heavy use and gives our operating system an upgrade. And the absolute StoryApp super feature is: we don't have to experience stories ourselves. We also upgrade ourselves when we read stories, see them on a stage, watch them in real life, follow them in the cinema... Great, isn't it?

Stories make us grow, in the best case beyond ourselves. That hurts, that causes growing pains. But as they say: All is well in the end, and if it is not well, it is not yet the end ...

That's why we - as companies and as people - should always go through life with open eyes, ears and hearts, so that we recognise where inciting incidents present themselves to us, these wonderful invitations to transformation. A little tip: Where it hurts the most is probably where the greatest opportunity for growth and development lies.

Every person, but also every company - whether a global corporation, whether an SME/small and medium-sized enterprise -, every organisation is on a journey, triggered by a necessity, the fulfilment of which leads to the meaning of the thing. Everyone needs meaning, a mission, a purpose for their own truth, i.e. at least one archaic value and the story activated by it, around which everything revolves. This is how one wins like-minded comrades-in-arms; this is how one becomes the heroine of one's own story.

So to all those who say, "It doesn't apply to me or to my brand!", I would like to recommend those words that my grandmother, old Story Dudette, Karl Baedeker wrote on the cover of his first travel guide: "No Story. No Glory."

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