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Action learning and the hero’s journey

The Hero’s Journey was first articulated by Joseph Campbell. He explored patterns in myths and Jungian psychology. Many others have written about how this concept applies to Marvel films, Starwars, the Lord of the Rings saga (just Google – other search engines available). But does it apply to action learning[1] and research? First I’ll introduce the Hero’s Journey with a graphic and then I’ll give some reflections on my own experiences on action learning projects.

Ordinary world and call to adventure

I’ve had a great weekend, picnicing at Ally Pally (Alexandra Palace to those not acquainted) with friends. It’s really enjoyable to have time to see friends and be outdoors. For me this spare time also means time to think. And that’s where I start to get curious about a topic, a wicked problem that needs to be solved or how a system works.

Refusal of the call

I talk to myself about all the reasons not to do it: Will you cope with all you’ve got on at work? Isn’t it nice to just have free time? What if you fail? I remind myself that this is just imposter syndrome talking, use all the positive psychology I know to kick it away and look for the things that are going to help me on my journey: a mentor and friends.

Meeting the mentor and crossing the threshold

The action learning I’ve done has involved a formal programme with action learning sets (of other’s doing the same thing) and mentors/facilitators. However, I also seek out others to help me reflect and advise on the journey ahead. An old boss, my friend who’s an excellent coach, someone in my network I know is an expert on an element of my project. I have inspiring conversations, generate a hugh reading wish list and then embark on a journey into the unknown.

Tests, allies and enemies and ordeal

I’m not sure I should talk about stakeholder management here, when this stage of the journey in the film and myth world would be when the enemies come in! However, working as a consultant, by this stage I’ve filled my head with blue sky ideas and created a scarily ambitous project plan. I’m articulating this to an Executive Committee and challenging their assumptions and trying to encourage them to be brave and break convention in persuit of a better world of work.

There’s significant pushback on my bold and visionary ideas. My boss is worried we’ve gone to far and thinks we should give up. I have to weild the sword that is data and evidence. And I have to form a powerful coalition, so I look to find allies. Together we robustly prototype and test models until we can overcome resistance.

I start to think, am I actually any good at my job? I’ve read so much that I’m accutely aware of how much more there is to learn. It feels hard. Eventually I remember I have a great mentor and I should talk to them!

At this point on the last action learning programme I was involved in, I had to have an emergency operation and subsequently found out I had cancer. Mentally and phsically I had a lot of work to do get back on track.

Right at the begining of my journey, I’d set myself a goal of achieving a distinction on this Master’s programme. After each chemo cycle (a rollercoaster of being high on steriods and then crashing down in to a pit of sheer exhastion as the toxic chemicals try and destry every cell in my body) there’s a voice in my head saying that it would be okay to give up that gets a little louder. However, with love and support from friends and family and an excellent psychologist, I feed the voice that is instead saying SCREW. YOU. CANCER!!!


The hard work pays off. I complete the learning programme. Later on, I do find out I got the distinction. And while I’m still being monitored, I’m assured the cancer is gone, for now.

Although I’ve had to get through what seemed an impossible obstacle course, when I was in the abyss, I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve – be that delivering a successful project (most of the time) or celebrating failure – learning in either event.

I’ll often have an eurika! moment where everything in the system I’ve been working in makes sense to me and I feel at peace for the first time in a long time, since embarking on the journey.

The road back and resurection

Much like in the Wizard of Oz as Dorothy says goodbye to her new friends, there’s some sadness to letting go of the excitement and new connections formed on the project. Writing up your essay on your action learning makes you reflect on everything that’s gone on. You realise that while there were moments that felt uncomfortable (concious incompetence) in your learning journey, you’re now at a stage of concious competence and can embark on a new journey with new wisdom.

Return with the elixir and a new journey

I’m excited to share what I’ve learnt. I’ve now started to act as a mentor for others on their own journeys. I’m on a plane heading back from a relaxing holiday and reading the in flight magazine and read an article that sparks my curiosity…


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