We need an alternative to the Hero’s Journey

Dear Nobody,

Our fixation on the Hero’s Journey is causing problems. I propose that we look for alternatives.

The alternative I’m looking for isn’t the Fool’s Journey, because in most Hero’s Journey stories the hero starts as a fool.

And I’m not looking for the Anti-Hero’s Journey either because that’s just a Hero’s Journey story flipped around. Every hero needs an anti-hero, and vice versa.

The problem I have with the Hero’s Journey is that the hero is biased to only address problems that they can solve, and to deny that anything else is a problem.

What if not all problems are solvable? The hero will throw up their hands and walk away. Why should we worry about problems that aren’t solvable? Surely every problem can be addressed at least in part! We just need the right hero, is all.

We’ve come to see the world through the Hero’s Journey lens, and only through the Hero’s Journey lens.

“Do or do not. There is no try.”

We don’t have very good words for stories that a hero can’t solve.

But these problems do exist! There are many real-world problems that a hero can’t solve. They exist under the cut line of our budget and priorities. They exist in the shadows of our collective psyche. They’re called wicked problems and they are everywhere once you start looking for them.

A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Another definition is “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point”. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.


Here are some qualities of a wicked problem:

  1. Never-ending. Wicked problems have no stopping rule, they just keep going.
  2. Ambiguous. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  3. Idiosyncratic. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  4. Resilient. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
  5. Unsolvable. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Economic problems like healthcare, income inequality, poverty, education, crime, nuclear proliferation, peak oil, etc.

Environmental problems like climate change, natural disasters, epidemics, water quality, extinction, etc.

Political problems like inequality, disenfranchisement, corruption, war, etc.


Can you imagine how Game of Thrones would have felt if there wasn’t a way to wipe out all the zombies with a single heroic leap and stab from Arya? What if, even after killing the Night King, all the rest of the zombies stuck around, including their fallen family members? Could there be a season (or 10) about the collective wake up call that maybe the zombies are also people with needs and a right to live? Where they explored the challenges of integrating zombies into society.

The long, brutal, pointless dramas of the Walking Dead come closer to what I’m hoping to find. In The Walking Dead, there are no heroes. But there’s also not much hope. It feels futile, and never-ending, as most wicked problems do.

It seems foolish to approach a wicked problem with hope. We use heroes as our symbols of hope, and when they can’t get the job done, we revert to hopelessness.

I am open to the possibility that there are more options that hope pinned to a hero and meaninglessness and futility.

This blog is going to be me thinking out loud about this question, generally with posts written in a single sitting so I don’t become paralyzed with theoretical doubt. When I run out of thoughts on the topic, I’ll shut it down. Low quality, short-lived, musings on a question that might not have an answer — this is my promise to you. Smash that Follow button. It’s foolish, and I’m gonna do it anyway.


Written by

Author of Why Are We Yelling? — a book about the art of productive disagreement. I run 750words.com. Previously product at Patreon, Slack, Twitter, and Amazon.

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