Jeff Goins recently released The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do. The book has already reached bestseller status!
I had the immense privilege of chatting with Jeff about The Art of Work and how we can use the hero’s journey in our own lives to discover our callings.
This book is really something special: I hope a sliver of that comes through in this illustrated transcript of our conversation.
Christine: In your book, you say that to find your calling, you have to “listen to your life.” How do we do that?
Jeff: We do that by looking at our everyday, ordinary circumstances and instead of feeling like “This sucks,” we ask, “What’s something that we can learn about ourselves from something that feels very ordinary and obvious to us?”
If you think about the big epic stories like Star Wars, a character always starts out in a place that they don’t want to be . . .
Jeff: They want something, there’s conflict, and they work through that to achieve their goals. Luke Skywalker is hanging out in Tatooine but he doesn’t want to be there and he doesn’t want to be a farmer— he wants to fight!
All these events end up going wrong, and he joins the fight in ways that he’s never imagined. All along the way he is being prepared for what’s to come. He makes mistakes and learns as he goes.
I think when it comes to our own hero’s journey, where we all begin is with this thing that I call “awareness.”
And awareness isn’t like you know what you’re supposed to do. It’s this idea, this nagging sense that “There’s an adventure out there that’s a story that’s being told, and I’m not a part of it.”
Jeff: So we listen to our lives by paying attention to the things that bother us and frustrate us, and we also pay attention to the things that excite us.
Awareness is where we all begin, and when you start listening to your life, you realize that that thing that you’re supposed to do is not such a mystery. You begin to realize there are things that you can learn from your life that are preparing you for the call.
Christine: I like the idea of awareness being what prepares you for the inciting incident in your life. In your book, you said something cool about deciding not to be a bystander.
I thought that was interesting because we read these stories, and we participate as readers by imagining them, but we’re also bystanders to the story. So how would you say you switch gears from “awareness” to the “I’m the hero” part?
Jeff: Yeah, awareness to action, really… like how do you move from preparing for something to doing it? And is there a smart way to do it? I think there is. I think that you can’t rush — you can force the inciting incident and it doesn’t unfold the way it’s supposed to, or not as well.
If you understand the way a story works, you can better understand the way your life works, which is why I love the work that you do. There are all these different stages of a story, it’s not just “I want this thing, I work real hard, and I get it.” That is the sort of the story we’ve been told in terms of the self-made man or woman– you make a plan and you go after it.
But really good stories are filled with these complications– things that go wrong that actually end up paving the way for where you’re supposed to go.
The way you take action is by first listening to your life, preparing for the “call” and then realizing that inciting incidents are happening in your life every day.
Jeff: I think there’s this idea that we’re waiting for some big moment, some shining light to come down. There is a reason why we get lost in stories, because our lives feel a little too ordinary for own liking.
What I learned in writing this book and telling other people’s real life stories about people who found their calling is that there was this point when they realized this difficulty, this painful circumstance– sometimes a tragedy– in their life was not the thing that was preventing them for their calling. It was the thing that was preparing them for it.
The inciting incident is not when something happens to the character, it’s when the characters responds to the incident, right?
The inciting incident isn’t when the tornado picks Dorothy up and takes her to Oz– the inciting incident is when she starts walking on the yellow brick road– when she decides to follow the path that takes her through all sorts of danger to get her where she is supposed to go. The inciting incident isn’t when the Empire kills Luke’s family. It’s when he goes, “I’m going to leave this place; I’m going to follow Obi Wan and learn the ways of the force.”
Christine: And like in The Hunger Games– they call Prim’s name, but the real incident is Katniss’s response, volunteering– that’s the choice.
Jeff: Yeah, there’s always a choice that the character has to make.
So the inciting incident isn’t when something happens to us– because things are always happening to us. The inciting incident is when we decide to do something with that. I would argue that we’re being incited everyday– there are things that are happening in our life that don’t feel like they’re a part of the plan. How can you respond more intentionally to that?
What makes life extraordinary isn’t the chances you get. It’s not the inciting incidents that happen to you, it’s what you do with them.
Christine: In a novel, there’s a “trail of trials” or series of obstacles along the hero’s journey. In real life, how does failure lead us to success?
Jeff: We have this idea when we think about successful people like Michael Jordan or Steve Jobs– that they somehow succeeded in spite of their failure, or that they overcame it– and I think that’s not true.
I think successful people succeed because of their failure. Because Michael Jordan got cut from his varsity team, and went home and his mom said “You didn’t try hard enough. You need to practice and practice and practice.”
I think that those things lead to success.
They lead to success through what I call “pivot points.” You run into an obstacle and you go “what am I supposed to do?” The yellow brick road leads you through the forest, you encounter a new enemy, something happens where you go, “I didn’t plan this to happen.”
You think it’s a setback that you need to overcome– this is how we approach it in our lives– but in stories, we’re waiting for these things to happen. It’s what makes it interesting, right? It’s what makes it suspenseful.
Jeff: So again, our stories are not “I want this thing. I overcome this obstacle. I get it.” Instead, it’s “I want this thing. I overcome this obstacle. And then this other thing happens . . . and then this bad thing happens . . .and then I do this . . and then I succeed . . . and then the Empire comes back and Luke’s hand gets cut off.” All these things happen that you didn’t anticipate. And if these things didn’t happen, we wouldn’t get to the result.
The same thing is true in our lives: a person getting fired from that job, or boyfriend breaking up with you, or your mom telling you that you’re not going to amount to anything as a kid– these are the things that give therapists jobs, but they are also the fuel for our journey (and at times are very painful).
I would never say that trials and failures are good. But they help us find our way. They are friends in disguise. They are the guides at the right time, that help us get to where we want to go. Because failure is feedback.
Failure teaches me something about what I am doing wrong. Instead of trying to go through an obstacle, maybe I need to go over it or around it. Maybe I need to pivot in one direction or the other.
The most successful people I know are not doing the thing that they set out to do. They are doing something sometimes slightly and sometimes significantly different, and that’s because they experienced failure at some point, and had to pivot in a different direction.
Jeff: Good stories never end the way you think they will. There’s something satisfying about that because it taps into our natural understanding that things don’t end up in life the way we think they will. And when that’s happening it might feel frustrating and upsetting, but it’s also exciting. It means you are alive and engaged.
* * *
A special thank you to Jeff Goins for taking the time to speak with me and sharing these insights with Better Novel Project readers.
No matter what kind of creative life you are pursuing, I hope you check out The Art of Work and enjoy it as much as I did.