If Hollywood made your life into a movie, would people want to watch it?
Author Donald Miller got me thinking about stories, characters, and plots with his terrific new book Hero on a Mission. Drawing inspiration from great story tellers of the past, Miller argues that all great stories have four primary characters: the victim, the villain, the hero and the guide.
Using his own life as an example, Miller suggests most of us play all four of those roles at different times in our lives—sometimes even in a single day! But depending on which roles we choose to inhabit most, our lives will be either satisfying or frustrating. Energizing or boring. Hopeful or fearful.
Let’s explore those four roles briefly.
Victims are those who have been treated wrongly. Naturally, they feel helpless—at the mercy of people, circumstances, and events. However, if they embrace a victim mindset long-term, they tend to give up and become negative.
Villains are actually victims that never processed their pain. When complaining didn’t get the desired results, the villain’s mission became to make others equally miserable.
What about heroes? For most of us, that word conjures up images of Superman or Black Panther. But in stories, heroes don’t begin as powerful figures. Usually, they’re just victims who decide to embark on a more meaningful mission. (Think: Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, or Harry Potter in the J.K. Rowling series.)
And guides? They’re wise, mature heroes who’ve learned enough to lead others out of victimhood into hero-hood.
Miller confesses to living far too many of his young adult years as a victim – blaming others, wandering aimlessly, feeling depressed. But a progression of events (read the book!) led him to a decision—that he would accept responsibility for the direction and quality of his life. And in that moment, he began experiencing a more meaningful life.
I harp on this idea because every day I see people living out these four roles in their financial lives.
Victims take jobs they don’t like—and settle for inadequate pay. They figure life has dealt them a bad hand—”and there’s nothing I can do to change that!” To them, saving money is useless. Planning for the future is a waste of time. “Why bother? Everyone and everything are conspiring against me.”
Villains set out to make others small. “If I’m miserable,” they reason, “everybody else needs to pay.” Villains cause drama in the workplace. They try to sabotage the professional reputations of others. They start rumors and strategically withhold information. They’re experts at the warfare of office politics.
Heroes are flawed, but they are also progressing. They take responsibility for their financial future. They accept that challenges will come and setbacks are inevitable. But heroes never give up. They remain in pursuit of their goals, largely because in their corner they’ve got …
Guides only play a supporting role in most stories, but it’s a hugely important one. (Think: Yoda in Star Wars or Gandalf in The Hobbit.)
I’ve actually found the role of Guide to be the most satisfying role in life.
We should continue playing the hero all our days. But once a hero has made real progress, where’s the next challenge? Answer: In guiding others. Specifically, helping someone move from victim to hero of their own story.
In matters of personal wealth, that can be a parent coaching a child to grow out of being an immature consumer into becoming a mature value-creator. It can be mentoring a junior executive to fail, learn, recover and eventually thrive. It can be an advisor showing a client how to turn their fiscal jigsaw puzzle into a financial masterpiece.
To recap: Even if you feel stuck in a certain role—and a not-so-great story—you’re not. You get to choose the role you will play, and to a large degree, the story you will live.
Right now, the world (including the world of finance) has enough victims and villains. What we need are more heroes and guides. Choose those roles.
On a related note, I recently created a comprehensive checklist of pre-retirement questions for people who are 60-something. It’s free if you’d like a copy. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll send it to you right away.
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