What Joseph Campbell taught me about managing my money

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I have always struggled with doing a better job with my money. It’s almost laughable and yet sad because I have a Finance MBA, and have worked in financial services my entire life so I should know better. I should, but I don’t. Maybe you can relate.

I could tell a million stories of why this is, but the bottom-line is this: it’s a no-win, no-reward situation, so I won’t do it, despite my best intentions. My lizard brain sees this:

  • Do a lot of drudgery for the next twenty years
  • Periodically look at mind-numbing series of numbers and graphs that mean little to my dreams of sun and sand (or impact to the world)
  • Make more sacrifices. Repeat.

And bingo: I might (or might not) have some money to retire on after twenty years (assuming the market doesn’t get wiped out, the earth doesn’t crash into the sun, the fifth week of the month doesn’t have a Sunday, or whatever). Talk about an offer you can’t resist. Lizard brain says no way.

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Inspiration whacked my head when I was least expecting it: from an article on Joseph Campbell. Campbell was the rock-star mythologist who gave the mantra “Follow your bliss” a whole new power.

His single biggest discovery: that myths, legends and hero stories of virtually all cultures follow a simple arc:

  1. Hero lives in the workaday world. Faces some deep inner call, suppresses it from fear or self-doubt.
  2. Wise mentor shows up and convinces the hero to undertake the difficult challenge.
  3. Hero enters the special world, performs quests, overcomes challenges, gains allies, and learns something about himself (it’s usually a “he”) and what he has set out to do.
  4. Hero encounters final challenge inside the dragon’s cave, survives an epic battle with evil, and snatches victory from the jaws of death.
  5. Hero returns home with the precious prize, overcomes more challenges on the way home, and reintegrates into the workaday world with his hard-won prize that now makes the world a better place for himself and all those around.

The reason this mono-myth is so prevalent and compelling is that it hits all the chords and elements needed to make for an emotionally satisfying tale. Stories are memorable, gripping and efficiently transmit important lessons. It’s no surprise that this structure has been used countless times to spin great tales and experiences, a spectacular version of which is the Star Wars series.

Cue light bulb moment: What if taking care of our financial future were no longer a tale of dull investment account statements and incomprehensible disclosures or bore-me-to tears “market commentary”? What, instead, if this were the tale of our own personal hero’s journey, of conquering the dark and scary challenge of our insecurities? What if we could emerge after a near-death fight with whatever our biggest challenge happens to be? What if we could create our own story, drawing energy, inspiration and staying power by equating every step with its equivalent in the Hero’s Journey.

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The metaphor packs a punch. Looking at it this new way provides us a whole new toolkit with which to approach this Hydra-headed monster. The next time you encounter one of those nasty “financial planning” nightmares, try this little trick instead:

  1. What is the heroic, breathtaking aspiration that never fails to inspire you, regardless of its difficulty?

Keep this image front and center in your mind. Now make the link between the task at hand and this big aspiration. Got it? Good. Keep that plastered in your mind’s eye.

2. What is the one big strength you know you have, that you can rely on to take the first step?

Is it persistence? Then perhaps you can push through to the next level of your task. Is it the ability to connect the dots? Maybe you start to see how all your investment accounts are adding up (or not) to whatever you are building up to. Pick the strength and imagine its application to a specific task on the matter at hand

3. What is the first challenge you can undertake? What scares you? What can come to your aid?

Pick a small challenge first. Then identify one barrier. Then find a way to demolish that challenge (using any hero’s secret — whether it’s an ally, a secret strength or finding the chink in the armor of the challenge). There is always one challenge you can overcome and there is always only that one task at hand.

Now that you’re done with that bad boy, what did you learn? In what way are you stronger?

4. Progressively working up your way, what is the next (scarier) challenge you can take up with the power you just acquired?

Silly as it may sound, it suddenly made grunt work a lot more fun and lively for me. Using this approach, I managed to conquer my long-dreaded 401k rollover, and am well on my way to tackling my next scary one: allocating funds across a bunch of accounts at a bunch of different companies.

How about you? Does it work for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to post your comments in the responses.

Thanks for reading!

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