7 Stages of a Mythic Adventure

Friday, November 6th, 02009 at 20:02 UTC

Recently, I have been working on several new products, brainstorming new features for existing products and just generally cursing at other people’s ideologies of what they are trying to sell me.

In reading, listening, learning about and experiencing building a loyal customer-base, several things have stood out. The big push for developing a killer product isn’t the product, it is the people. Many people talk about the idea of evangelizing your customers into feeling so great about themselves they will associate that feeling with your product. You don’t sell a product to do X, you sell them on the ideas of experiencing Y which product X enables. Back to the old adage, “You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle!”

I don’t think anyone would disagree with this line of thought, but trying to sell it up the management chain can be a problem. When things are going well, why change it? Empowering your customers is certainly a good thing, but at what cost? In the future, the companies that are still trying to force feed their ideas to the customers will be the ones overtaken by smaller, more nimble companies who work with the customers rather than just selling to them. “Playing it safe is risking, taking chances and spreading your risk is now the safest bet!” Sure, somethings won’t work, but at least you won’t have all your eggs in one basket.

So how do you engage and empower your customers to be evangelists for your product? How do you move from beginner to expert? One story which I love and always come back to, is the 7 stages of a mythic adventure. Sometimes this is called “The Hero’s story” or Monomyth. This doesn’t fit every possible scenario, but it is an option that you should keep in mind when working on any customer strategy.

Danny Hillis has his version of the journey and in it he broke into 7 stages. I will quickly run through them and then explain them more in depth.

  1. The Image
  2. The Embarkation
  3. The Labyrinth
  4. The Draw
  5. The Payoff
  6. The Return
  7. The Memento

Danny Hillis does a lot of work with the Long Now Foundation and as they were looking for places to build their 10,000 year clock, the final destination turns out to fit all these 7 criteria. Stewart Brand discusses these 7 steps at TED and how each is mapped out during the visit to the clock of the long now. Watching this really gives you an idea of how the journey can be constructed for any product. Edge.org has a nice write-up of the trip to up the mountain which fits the mythic journey. If they can do it for a clock in the middle of nowhere, we can create a similar journey for our products.

The Image

The journey begins with the ideal image. This is the expected outcome of this journey. When we see a beautiful painting we think to ourselves, I want to paint like that. When we taste a delicious meal, we say, I want to cook like this. It is the benchmark to which we want to commit ourselves. In terms of your product, it is the idealized goal that you want customers to achieve with the product. Even if your product is as boring as trash cans, it is possible to get your customers excited about ancillary aspects of their life such as recycling.

This goes back to the first part of empowering your customers. It is less about how awesome your product is and more about how they perceive themselves using it. An expensive copper pot for cooking makes the amateur cook feel professional. They can picture themselves cooking in a 5 star restaurant now that they have the right tools. At this point, The Image is about envy and achievement. Look at companies like Moleskine, they claim to create the notebooks for professionals like Van Gogh, Chatwin, Hemingway, Matisse and Céline. It allows you to envision yourself as one of the elite circle. Will using one type of notebook over another actually make you a better writer? Probably not, but the perception is that it will and that is what people are buying.

The Image is the starting point of the journey to anchor you into your future choices, without a desirable vision, there is no reason to start the journey.

The Embarkation

The embarkation is truly the start to the journey. Before this point you were just thinking about it, sitting on the couch debating about getting-up and starting. Once you embark it can only lead to success or failure, and there is no turning back once you are committed.

The act of embarking on the journey is significant and therefore should not only be symbolic, but also have some sort of physical act. Many religions and organizations have public displays of commitment for the start of the journey. A wedding is a public commitment that starts the journey. There is a ceremony with witnesses.

If you want to be come a professional snowboarder, the embarkation could be buying the equipment or the purchase of some lessons. It is a physical act of commitment. There is an epoch, a before and after this moment.

When thinking about selling your product, is there a point of embarkation? Do people buy your stuff, take it home and then start a journey? Most companies happily sell people an object, then that’s it, no follow-up, no “map” or next steps. Sometimes we look at companies who offer a full suite of activities as just trying to extract even more money out of you, but in reality, they are attempting to help their customers with a journey. A store that sells professional photography equipment to amateurs might also offer classes. This is not only the point of embarkation, but leads to the next step in the journey traveling from a new comer to an expert.

The Labyrinth

As part of the journey, you will need to enter a labyrinth. This is a metaphorical challenge that is not easy to get through. It takes work and dedication while asking the hard questions about whether this is something you really want and if it is worthwhile.

Danny Hillis explains this as not just a trial to overcome, but it is disorientation that leaves the travelers unsure of what they know.

As part of basic training in the millitary, boot camp is designed to break soldiers down through physical activities, lack of sleep and extreme conditions. This is the difficult labyrinth they go through. They question what they believe and at the end are reintegrated back into the unit in a new state of mind. Attending higher education is a similar experience. When going to University you tend to move away from home, have to make decisions for yourself, there is homesickness, parents worry, children grow-up into adults and are exposed to new things.

If your product is too easy, then there is no challenge, but if the labyrinth is too difficult then no one gets through! To help people get through this maze, there is The Draw.

The Draw

No matter how difficult the journey gets, the draw is visible to pull you through it. In the University scenario, students graduate each year. As a freshman you see the upper-classmen graduating, stories of success and achievement follow. It is the draw for you to stick with it through the bad times.

Software applications like image-editting software are difficult to learn and use, but every time you see someone create a beautiful work of art using the software it makes you want to continue to keep trying and working tword your image.

Even video games draw you in. The first Super Mario Brothers had the canned message at the end of each level. “Thank you, but our princess is in another castle.” The draw is to keep going to save the girl.

There are plenty of other situations where dangling the carrot keeps people interesting and moving forward. Sometimes the draw can be blackmail! In some weight watcher programs the first thing they do is take photos of the over-weight customer in reveling clothing. The draw to lose weight and meet their goal is knowing that if they fall behind they will be publicly humiliated by these photos. It isn’t always moral, but certainly a motivational draw.

The Payoff

When you reach the goal, you get the reward, the payoff. This could be something physical or some sort of knowledge. It’s what you have been striving for during the journey. If there was enough hard-work and the original image matches the payoff the journey was successful and worth it.

If your image was producing a feature length film, then the payoff is completing this and seeing it in a theatre. As someone who is creating products and software, does it enable your customers to achieve the payout? Making money shouldn’t be the goal as much as helping your customers to get the payoff which fits their image. If you can do that, then the money will follow.

Danny Hillis talks not only about the payoff which was expected, but a secret payoff which is the journey itself. Others might be able to acquire the goal. They could buy it, steal it, or take a short-cut to the same outcome, but then they would not get the secret payoff of the hard work and the experience of the journey.

Learning how to drive can be a journey. Taking courses, stressing parents, bills and insurance are all part of the labyrinth. The payoff is not only getting a license to drive, but the trip in getting there. All that you learned along the way, both good and bad, is irreplaceable. You could just be awarded the payoff and get the license, but then you lack the experience—the secret payout.

There are two ways to get to the top of a mountain, you can spend a long time trekking to the top or get a helicopter to take you there in minutes. Both achieve the same goal, but one is missing the secret payoff entirely, and which is truly the better journey?

The Return

When completing the journey, the traveller must return to a normal life. It will take time to come back to what is considered “normal” while the journey’s significance settles in. If the traveller rushes back to soon without contemplating the journey, then the secret payoff might be lost.

When attending a conference or other meeting where you learn new ideas and ways of thinking along with new technologies and new people, it takes time to digest everything you’ve learnt. If you immediately jump back into your normal routine, then you lose everything you gained. Taking time to sort out how your new experiences can be applied is important to enrich your life and not waste the journey.

When co-workers travel to conferences or give presentations to others, it is always good for them to recap the event for everyone who couldn’t make it. This spreads the knowledge to the group as well as asking critical questions about how the new knowledge could be applied and rolled into your current work day. Having this recap help smooth the return and slowly brings others up to your level so you can have these sorts of conversations.

The Memento

After the journey and the experience, the traveller must also be left with some sort of physical memento as a remembrance. Danny Hillis believes that it should be something that is rare or valuable, but not useful. This is so it will not be lost. This is a similar problem to the clock of the long now. The clock can’t be too valuable or it will be scraped for parts, nor become a political statement and destroyed in the future and it needs to be memorable so it is not forgotten. The memento needs to strike a similar balance of being worthy of being a prize, yet not useful enough to become a household object and lose the immaterial value.

Upon graduating school you get a diploma, when you attend seminars or conference you get a bag or a coffee mug, it is a symbol of your completion as well as a physical reminder of everything you learnt. These are powerful triggers and an important part of the journey.

When building software and products I am always asking myself, as a company do I have some sort of memento for customers? Some companies give away t-shirts, which sometimes feels like a cheap attempt at getting me to be a walking billboard for their product. T-shirts are useful, but trophies aren’t. Trophies serve no practical purpose and the types of people who can keep things for no reason have a higher status than those of us who must justify owning and caring for every last item. To have pointless things mean you can afford excess. The fact that you have something that no one else can go out an buy ties back into the secret payoff. This is the visual representation to others that you took the journey. It should speak for itself, t-shirts don’t do this.

I am constantly thinking about what is it that I can do for customers at the end of their journey.


The mythic journey might not work for every possible scenario. Sometimes your product is so simple or basic that it is like breathing air, for instance I don’t want to take a mythic journey every time I wash my hands. Once basic human needs such as food, shelter, etc. are met, the journey for self-fulfillment can begin.

There is no one way to best execute the mythic journey. I have outlined Danny Hillis’ 7 steps here, but sometimes there are more, sometimes less. If you look at classic novels, many follow this same formula. The main character learns something, goes through a life changing experience, gets help from friends, achieves a goal and comes back a different person.

As you work on new projects for you or your company, the mythic journey is something to keep in mind as a road map.

A life altering experience is certainly a strong emotion. If it can be because of your product, then that connection creates evangelists rather than just customers. It was because of your product X that I was able to do Y. If you want to do Y, use X!