The Orphan’s Journey

Preparation: The Orphan-Hero

  • A great crisis (dragon) drives the hero from his home.

  • Characterized by risk-aversion, powerlessness, and a dependence on others, the Orphan-Hero flees from the dragon, and is reborn as “the Wanderer”.

There’s no place like home, as they say, and so calling someone away from it requires a powerful motivation. In story, we call this “the inciting incident”. In our lives, it is a pivotal moment of catastrophe or a call to action significant enough to push or pull us out of our Ordinary World and into the Extraordinary World of the Hero’s Journey. This inciting incident transforms our Hero from an Innocent into an Orphan.

The Innocent

Before the start of the journey, the Hero is an Innocent. Characterized by optimism and a sense of security, the Innocent is totally dependent on parents (or other authority figures) to keep her Ordinary World in order. As a result , the Hero clings to her parents, and will resist any change to her comfortable Ordinary World.

In the opening of the classic Hero’s Journey film saga Star Wars, Luke Skywalker expresses a desire to join the Rebellion and fight the Empire, but his desire is not strong enough to override the objections of his adoptive parent, Uncle Owen. Later, when the mentor Obi-Wan first invites Luke to join him on a quest to help that same rebellion, Luke actually uses Owen’s own argument to refuse Obi-Wan’s invitation. In the Hero’s Journey, this invitation is known as the “Call to Adventure”, and “Refusal of the Call” is a mark of the Innocent.

In our careers, this period of innocence is much to be desired: we feel secure and happy; there is a sense that our employer values us; and our job meets our basic needs. It is tempting to believe that this happy circumstance will go on indefinitely. Like the characters Hem and Haw in Spencer Johnson’s 1998 business fable Who Moved My Cheese?, we may ignore signs of coming change. We may even remain in a situation long after it has become unsustainable. Change, however, is inevitable, and inevitably pushes us onto a new path.

The Dragon lays waste to the our Ordinary World, and a new journey begins…

The Dragon

The Dragon is the Fire-Bringer and the Orphan-Maker. In Star Wars, the Dragon comes in the form of Imperial Storm Troopers who set fire to the Skywalker homestead and kill the aunt and uncle who have raised Luke as their own son.

In our careers, the fires are usually more metaphorical than literal, but can be equally catastrophic. Company layoffs, serious illness or injury, or an unfavorable turn of office politics may expose us to loss of income and launch us on the “quest” to find a new job. Expenses due to a serious illness may deplete a lifetime of hard work and savings and leave us struggling to make ends meet on what was previously an adequate income.

Even something as commonplace graduating from school can be an inciting incident for change, psychologically speaking. The common reference to schools as Alma Mater, or “nourishing mother”, underscores this.  

First, we are forcibly pushed out of the familiar and nurturing environment we have inhabited for twelve or more years into a new world where it is no longer enough to do as we are told. Then, we are told we must seek our own way in an unfamiliar – and often unforgiving – world. A hero’s journey, indeed!

The Orphan

Where the Innocent was secure, the Orphan is fearful. Where the Innocent trusted in others to protect her, the Orphan is abandoned and alone. Just to survive, the Orphan must develop a level of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness that she was not required of her in her prior life; moreover, she must do this while trying to avoid the very Dragon that destroyed her Ordinary World. There may be a period of depression and inaction where we refuse the call, but eventually we must take action toward finding or creating a new “home”, and a new normal.

The first act of the Orphan, therefore, is to flee from the dragon and seek safety; the second is to piece together some new way to survive. As she relies on her own wits and resilience to provide for herself that which her parents previously supplied, the Orphan develops a new sense of self as distinct from the Family. With the Family gone, she eventually realizes that this loss brings not only responsibility but also a measure of freedom, including freedom she did not previously have to answer the Call to Adventure.

In Star Wars, Luke ultimately leaves the devastated farm and joins Obi-Wan on the quest to deliver valuable information to the Rebellion. In our lives, we also begin to consider next steps. Perhaps we simplify our lives and reduce our obligations to enable us to weather the storm. We may undertake training in an area of long-suppressed interest, setting our lives on a totally new path. Skills we previously thought of only as hobbies may become a source for new relationships or income opportunities.

With one decision – one small step – the Orphan crosses the threshold from the Ordinary into the Extraordinary World, and so her Hero’s Journey begins.

QUESTIONS: What Calls to Adventure have you received in your career, and how have you responded? What is the most significant Dragon that has impacted your career, professional or otherwise?

CO-MENTORING CHALLENGE: Review your current goals and identify the Dragon that incited you to pursue this goal. This “Dragon” might be a personal limitation, an external obstacle to professional advancement, or a personal catastrophe that is impacting your ability to perform at work. Whatever it is, discuss this challenge with your mentor and identify one way in which you can practice self-care and begin to rebuild your strength for the road ahead.


“Alma Mater”, Wikipedia 

Beyond the Hero’s Journey is a series of articles that explores elements of Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey as way to reclaim the power our professional “stories” for personal growth, and to bring the “Elixir” of our triumphs to benefit others by moving beyond the Hero archetype to become mentors in our own right. 

Beyond the Hero’s Journey is published on the 3rd Wednesday of every month at