The Call to Adventure

How to Plan Your Hero’s Journey in Data Science

Art Conroy, PhD
May 10 · 8 min read
Photo by iam_os on Unsplash

The monomyth is a concept made popular by Joseph Campbell and others. It is a story framework that describes a hero’s journey using a three part narrative — The Call to Adventure, Journey to the Unknown, and the Return with the Elixir. I highly recommend that anyone considering the Call to Adventure in Data Science, create a personal roadmap of the Hero’s Journey. This article is designed to give you insight into crafting your very own Hero’s Journey, no matter your age or stage in life. I discuss how to Plan Your Journey, Finding Yourself Along the Way, and Returning with the Elixir.

Planning Your Hero’s Journey in Data Science

The journey to becoming a data scientist, a journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step. This single step must be made with the realization that there is no way to predict where the journey will take you. Helen Keller captured this sentiment correctly in her 1940 book, Let Us Have Faith.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. God Himself is not secure, having given man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.”

So, embrace the Call to Adventure. Every plan needs mile markers, way stations, and a destination. Your plan should have each of these clearly in mind, when embarking on your Hero’s Journey.

Let me emphasize a very important misconception about the data science journey.

You can be located anywhere, anytime, be doing something else (tending bar or driving an Amazon delivery van), be any age (9 or 90), and still answer the Call to Adventure in the field of Data Science. I make this point because data science is really the art and science of understanding data and how it is nothing more than the representation of human behavior, captured at a moment in time. Any other explanation of data science is pure, unadulterated, obfuscation.

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

First — Prepare for the Journey

You have ZERO skills and knowledge regarding data science. No problem. Take a job in the mail room (if they still have these) or apply for any job that gets you inside a company that is data-driven. This job application is your Trojan Horse to gaining entry, passage past the guards, and magically, you find yourself, inside the Magic Kingdom. Nothing else matters until you get inside.

Second — Do Your Best at the Job for Which They Hired You

It doesn’t matter how you got inside. All that matters is that you have entered into the Unknown World. You have passed your first test and made it inside. Whether you find yourself in the mailroom or now a member of a machine learning project doing object recognition (something you know nothing about, by the way), they hired you for reasons you have yet to discover.

You now will live two lives. Your day job should have you consumed by doing and learning to do all things that make your boss and the team shine. Earn valuable credits by doing all the crap that no else wants to do — data entry, data cleaning, data analysis, data reporting, data verification, data validation, data munging, data discovery, and the list goes on. Along the way, you will learn to touch, see, feel, become part of the data. Every data science team has a dishwasher. This is a skill even the elite fail to master. It will save your life one day. Master it.

Third — The Invitation, Be Prepared

You will never know how or when, but an invitation will arrive. It is a personal request by someone you may not even know. It is the first time you will get to meet and learn from Merlin, this mysterious person that is held in high esteem, but shrouded in mystery. Pay close attention, you have been invited into the inner chamber for a reason. Let Merlin guide the way. Ask few questions, but take lots of mental notes, eyes wide open. Don’t be afraid to do things that show you are a novice. This is part of the test. They know something you don’t, about yourself. Fall down seven, get up eight. Success in data science means overcoming all odds, no matter how long it takes.

Fourth — Learn to Seek Safe Harbor Along the Journey

Your will experience trials and tribulations along the way. Be prepared to pivot, change, step away, and seek safe harbor during a storm. Living the journey of a data scientist means that your intuition to spot the fakes and the frauds will become a super power. You must learn to cultivate this power early and nurture it often. The data science business is a landscape adorned with artifacts of denial and deception. You will encounter all the evil archetypes that populate any modern corporation, data science is no different. Spot these landmines early, seek higher ground, even it it means leaving some of your hard won accolades on the table. Evil doers can literally put you in harm’s way. Deny this reality and you will never know what hit you.

Fifth — The Elixir Makes Itself Known

Pay no attention to that man behind the Green Curtain. The Elixir is not something hidden behind closed doors. It is not an algorithm, a platform, a python library, design thinking, user interface, the latest dev methodology, domain secret sauce, pending patent, statistical skill set, programming language, or coveted membership in a Secret Society. The Elixir is a way of seeing the world that makes itself known, in due time. It will be presented by the Lady of the Lake. She will appear out of the morning mist. She will be holding Excaliber, the Sword you first pulled from the Stone, by accident. It will be in the form of a sign, a symbol, a gesture, or experience in which the your mind will now see shapes, patterns, and behaviors, clearly defined with nodes and edges. You will know the time has come. You are being called back and must return to the normal world.

Sixth — The Return

Be prepared to resume a normal life. The Return does not mean that you get a Ticker Tape Parade or a chest full of Campaign Ribbons to adorn your Data Science Uniform. Rarely will you grab your first Million on the first adventure, and retire to a beach house in Maui or Thailand. More importantly, you will be changed, and see the world, and the behavior of others very differently. You will be able to move in and out of circumstances, relationships, engagements, and roles at will. You will learn how to fire your bosses, hire fellow Heros, and help them on their journey, even if, for them, the journey is still a mystery. You are now the Unicorn. Executives fear you most and understand you least. There are no employment agreements that can access the interior of your mind — a conceptual space that only a few data scientists ever acquire consciously. You return with this cognitive Elixir to the normal world.

Finding Yourself Along the Way

Photo by Firdouss Ross on Unsplash

My guess is that you have never considered your experience in the world of data science a Hero’s Journey, let alone a Call to Adventure. Now, you know. It is the best adventure anyone could embark upon, during this age of accelerated innovation and disruption.

I have outlined the Hero’s Journey for you. I am now a Pathfinder. I have acquired a special wayfinding power. I developed it as a young data scientist, living in and among many native cultures. Death, having been close a number of times, now obeys, and stands there, until I call. Learn to make the Data Science Journey intentional. It is way beyond sexy. The Call to Adventure as a Data Scientist will change the way you see the world. Use the roadmap as a guide, chart your course, no matter where along the journey you find yourself.

Returning with the Elixir

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

When you are young, the Return, with the Elixir, hidden in a secret pouch, will seem like the Peak Life Experience. It is not. It is only the beginning. The Call will return.

I have returned to the Underworld many times, on average, every three years. Each experience gives me additional powers, insights, knowledge, and abilities. Making a million dollars is now a side hustle. Over the years, the normal rules of compound interest don’t apply. The Elixir is the power to see the Unknown Unknowns. The Elixir is hidden from power and taxes. The Elixir is not only the goal of the Hero’s Journey, but will be a destination that changes as you age. You will be called again to Answer the Call at every stage of life.

My first Call to Adventure occurred when I was 25. It happened again at 30, and the time between now varies, at intervals from 2 to 3 years. This is not a journey for the timid. I have been a mentor for many students, peers, and strangers. After journeys that have taken me around the world, this article is a recap of what I believe is the essence of the Call to Adventure in Data Science.

I created my first Hero’s Journey when introduced to one of the many Merlins that appeared along my journey. These experiences happened before the age of the internet, social media, and mobile apps. I realized over the years that the Hero’s Journey is an embodied experience, one that involves all the senses, the features that make us the biological beings we have become. I returned to my home in the mountains, where I came into the world, and created a weekend retreat for those who wish to create their Hero’s Journey and Answer the Call to Adventure. You can find more information at the this link if you are interested. Now, you know. Data science is much more than a sexy career, it is the Ultimate Hero’s Journey.

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