July 6th, 2013
This spring I watched The West Wing in its entirety on Netflix. Somewhere around season 5 there was a marked decline in the show’s quality, attributed to the departure of series creator Aaron Sorkin. Despite my waning enthusiasm, I found myself engrossed in a particular storyline; the presidential campaign of Congressman Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits.
At first I attributed my newfound enthusiasm to a sunk-cost bias. I invested so much time in the show I felt a misguided responsibility to see it through to the end. As the series progressed I realized this was incorrect. The connection was deeper and more meaningful. I identified with Matt Santos and his journey from reluctant congressman to president-elect. His journey was analogous to my own, and to those of my teammates and competitors around the world. I began to draw parallels between running a presidential campaign (albeit a fictional one) and training for the Olympics.
These pursuits aren’t as different as they might appear. Like presidential elections, our chance comes once every four years. Like candidates, we make sacrifices and convince loved ones to sacrifice on our behalf. We raise money. We seek endorsements. We fight for victories every day on the track, just as candidates do on the trail. We push through setbacks and injury. We face inevitable defeat and occasionally emerge victorious. In the end, physically and emotionally fatigued, we strive to earn the right to represent our country on the world stage. Success is never guaranteed. Making the Olympic team is our campaign.
The Santos storyline nicely illustrates these similarities. That’s not coincidence. A good story is designed to illicit emotional connection between the characters and the audience. But underneath the superficiality lies a deeper connection, one that is ancient and visceral. The very structure of the story appeals to us because we have been telling it since the dawn of humanity. It is the Hero’s Journey, and through it we can learn much about ourselves and the pursuit of the Olympic dream.
The Hero’s Journey is the notion that all narratives share basic patterns with which the audience is intuitively familiar. All stories are fundamentally the same. The difference is in the details. This idea was popularized by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’ll spare you the details but the concept goes something like this: The hero receives a call to adventure which they often refuse. After some convincing they cross the threshold into a new world, face a series of trials, experience a death and rebirth, and emerge victorious before returning home changed. This pattern can be found in many of our favorite books and films including Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the Matrix. The difference is in the details.
The heritage of the Hero’s Journey stretches back thousands of years to when humans first gathered around fires to tell stories. The tradition is so primeval that it is woven into the very fabric of our being. We instinctively recognize these stories and draw comparison between ourselves and the hero. It’s why we root for a Jedi from Tatooine in a galaxy far, far away, or a boy wizard who lives in the cupboard under the stairs on Privet Drive. The Hero’s Journey transcends cultural and language barriers alike and gives us hope, courage, and strength to face our own challenges.
Matt Santos follows the classic Hero’s Journey. After initially refusing the Call to Adventure from future Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), he crosses the first threshold by announcing his candidacy. He faces numerous trials on the campaign trail and eventually realizes he cannot defeat his opponent. Against all odds, Santos narrowly wins the election and enters a new world as President of the United States. Aside from the parallels between Olympic and Presidential campaigns, his story resonated with me because it’s the story we all want told next February in Sochi. We long to live out our own Hero’s Journey because it is encoded in our DNA. The difference is in the details.
The best stories teach us something about the human experience, or reveal something about ourselves we didn’t know or recognize before. What can a fictional presidential campaign teach us about the Olympics? For one, it says the real work begins when the campaign is over. Winning the election doesn’t make you a great president. It simply gives you the opportunity to become a great president. The same is true of the Olympics. Earning a spot on the team gives us the opportunity to compete. What we do with that opportunity is the real challenge. In both cases the vetting process is necessarily long and arduous. It’s one thing to say “I’m running for President”, or “I’m training for the Olympics”. It’s quite another to lead the country or win a medal.
We don’t get to see Santos lead. The West Wing ended with his inauguration. His journey revealed enough of his character to assure us he’s qualified for the job. How the hero acts on the journey speaks volumes about the person who emerges at its conclusion. Every day, through victory or defeat, triumph or adversity, we reveal our true character. In the end we want to leave little doubt that we’re qualified for the job.
As Olympic athletes and hopefuls, we have the opportunity to achieve something rare and wonderful. Not everyone can be an Olympian. Not everyone wants to be. But for those of us who do, I hope the Hero’s Journey serves as inspiration to overcome the obstacles we will inevitably face. Whether I return triumphant or not remains to be written, but I can be certain of one thing. I’m not the person I was when my story began, and for that I am thankful. I hope to earn the opportunity to compete in February. I hope the adversity and trials I’ve faced along the way are a testament to my character. Like so many of my friends and competitors, I long to live out the Hero’s Journey on the world stage next February.
The difference is in the details.