I recently watched the entire extended Lord of the Rings trilogy again and it got me thinking of how we can apply its timeless lessons to our career quest. First a few notes:
- I am referring here to the extended versions of Peter Jackson's movies, not the books, although most points will apply to both
- This post does not mean to condone or make light of the racist elements present in the films - hopefully future film versions of these stories will reject such awful stereotypes.
- SPOILER ALERT! I will delve into plot and ending, so if you haven't seen the movies yet, watch them before reading this post 😉
Ready? Let's dive right in.
YOU CANNOT GO IT ALONE
Frodo is tasked to take the ring all the way to the fires of Mordor, and he alone can carry this burden. But he can only get to his destination thanks to his friend Sam, who walks with him every step of the way. Sam comforts and encourages Frodo, makes sure he's taken care of, keeps his hopes up, and sometimes pushes him hard. Other friends help Frodo from afar, believing he can make it even though it looks unlikely.
We all need friends and supporters in our career quest. Don't attempt the journey alone. One close friend who keeps you positive, reminds you of your qualities and courage, and shares your journey will make all the difference.
Almost from the very beginning Frodo is shadowed by Gollum, someone who used to be a carefree being and has now become a consumed and tormented creature, craving the ring for himself. Early on Frodo expresses his wish to see Gollum killed, but as the story progresses, Frodo starts to feel real compassion for Gollum. While all other characters physically and verbally attack the creature, Frodo sees himself in Gollum. Abuse makes Gollum nastier and more deceitful, while compassion moves him to become good, even if just for a short time.
Gollum is Frodo's "shadow", and just like Frodo, we too have shadows. Our shadow shows up big time when we feel stuck and want a new career: we feel afraid, experience jealousy, anger, pettiness, we procrastinate, don't keep our word, and more. The way to deal with all this is to have compassion for ourselves, including for our worst impulses, as we get "unstuck." When we put ourselves down, and don't take care of ourselves, when we overwork or punish ourselves, we make our shadow grow stronger. Instead we need to develop a lot of compassion, learning to give our shadow love and comfort, while remaining alert for any trick it might throw our way. We will never be free of our shadow, but we can learn to keep it in check with kindness and awareness.
SEEK TRUE WISDOM
There are several older characters in The Lord of the Rings, representing both true wisdom and false leadership. Gandalf and the elves are old beings that have acquired wisdom rooted in the understanding that we are all interconnected and part of nature. They can wade through darkness while keeping their integrity, and remaining gentle and kind. The other older figures represent false knowledge and corruption instead. Saruman is a powerful wizard, yet only craves more power. He believes the only way to make it in life is to join the powerful, regardless of their values. And the Steward of Gondor has been driven mad by his attachment to his position of as a ruler, unable to find hope and see the true valor of those around him.
In your search for answers you will be given a lot of different advice. And you will have to make decisions that call into questions your values and beliefs. Focus on discerning wisdom and integrity from the lure of power and attachment - wisdom will lead you to a career that might not look glamorous, but will deeply satisfy you, while running after power for power's sake might take you on a path that looks good outwardly, but doesn't fulfill your deeper needs. Wisdom takes in consideration the needs of everyone involved, and creates unity and connection, look for those to be present as a way to recognize helpful advice.
FACE YOUR FEARS
There are hours of epic battles in The Lord of the Rings films as characters go to the battlefield to face numerous and seemingly invincible enemies. Take this lesson to heart: you have to face your fears head on, and walk into the battlefield of career change. There is no way to bypass being scared: feel the fear and do it anyway.
Often we look at people who have a great career or have already successfully transitioned to something new, we imagine they were not as scared as we are, or that success came "natural" to them. This is almost never the case. Chances are they were anxious and scared too, but did it anyway. Find your courage - and step into the "battle".
WORK WITH YOUR GHOSTS AND THEN LET THEM GO
In the third LOTR movie, Aragorn goes deep into the mountain to call ghosts of men from the past to help him win the war. These were men who had done all manner of horrible things in life and were bound to remain ghosts until freed by the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor. What can we learn from this?
Make friends with the ghosts of your past, all the baggage you are carrying from your family, your past misdeeds, everything that is haunting you. Use what you learned to move forward in life, and then let it go. Aragorn is tempted to keep the ghosts for future battles and you might feel the same about your past - you might feel that your past is an essential part of who you are. Wrong! Free yourself from the past, and move forward.
In Lord of the Rings, Mordor spews fire and gasses that create a constant cloud cover in the sky, blocking the sunlight. On the other hand, free lands are full of light. Light here is a powerful symbol of truth and awareness. You have to fight your tendency to lie to yourself, to act against your own truth. And the way you fight the darkness of untruth and unawareness is with the light of self-awareness.
Shine a light on your self-defeating behaviors, your self-limiting beliefs, and stop denying or ignoring the reality of the situation you find yourself in. Face your unhappiness, your lack of action, your finances, the workplace that doesn't satisfy you, your needs... Let the light in and you will start to see the way out of your current predicaments.
Gandalf fights a powerful demon only to undergo a kind of death - and be reborn as a more powerful wizard. This theme of death and rebirth is one of the most enduring in myths and stories, and for good reason. We all have to shed our old identities, behaviors, or beliefs, in order to transform.
You will have to experience a kind of dying as well before you can change careers. The deeper the transformation, the deeper the death of what is holding you back. It's not going to feel good, but there is no other way to become who you need to be to take different action. You will have to let go of who you think you are, and of what you think you are able to do, to discover new ways of being and relating to the world.
KNOW YOUR VALUE ...
One theme in The Lord of the Rings is how we underestimate some people who turn out to be amazing: Éowyn is not even allowed to go into battle, but goes anyway, disguised as a man. There she ends up killing the Witch-king of Angmar, lord of the Nazgûl - one of the scariest of all LOTR's monsters and one that "no man could kill". Faramir is constantly attacked and undermined by his father, but ends up showing more courage and integrity than either his brother or father.
Some of us grew up in families or experienced environments that did not recognize our value, and where we were put down or not given opportunities to learn and prove ourselves. Even though others might not recognize it yet, know that you too have what it takes to do something you love professionally. You might need to break tradition or to stand your ground doing the right thing even when it's hard, but there is no other way to a new career than by valuing yourself.
... AND YOUR LIMITS
Believing in yourself doesn't mean thinking you can do everything. Two of the most powerful characters in LOTR are offered the ring by Frodo and both refuse it. Galadriel and Gandalf know that even though they have some of the most powerful magic and wisdom, they are not strong enough to resist the power of the ring.
Know yourself: acknowledging your limitations is as important as recognizing your skills and potential when looking for a new career.
SMALL THINGS MATTER
At the end of the tale, when Aragorn is finally crowned king, everyone bows to him, but he bows to the four hobbits who made the journey possible. It's powerful to recognize that it's the small things that make a difference. We often think we need big changes, huge talent and great resources, when in reality it's how we handle the day to day that matters the most.
Value all the resources you already have, the smallest action can have the biggest impact.
RECONNECT WITH NATURE
The natural world literally comes alive in Middle-earth, with even trees and eagles joining battles. It's not a coincidence that all spiritual traditions give nature a primary role: Buddha achieves enlightenment under a tree, Jesus is born in a stable among animals, etc. Nature connects you to your deepest Self, and gives you the strength you need to overcome obstacles and achieve awareness.
Take walks in nature, look at the sky, spend some time near a tree. Reconnect to the natural world. Remind yourself that your career journey is a small part of all that is beautiful about life, and that there is much richness and vastness to this world. In other words, put things in perspective and enjoy what is all around you. Nature is a powerful reminder that finding your new career means finding your place in the wider web of relationships in your community, city, and the world.
KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR
Last, but not least, keep a sense of humor about it all! Never take yourself too seriously. Do what Merry and Pippin do: unplug once in a while and enjoy life's pleasures.
Good luck on your career journey and remember: "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."