If you grew up in the United States, at some point someone probably convinced you that if you work hard, success will follow, either in the form of good grades, fame, or fortune. And this equation, hard work = success, has probably informed many of your life’s decisions, like when to stick with a difficult task or job and what to say to friends and family when they struggle to accomplish their goals.
But what if this equation is untrue? Or more accurately, what if it’s only half true?
Social scientists have found that the most pernicious barrier to DEI is the myth of the self-made man, also known as rugged individualism. This myth is so implicit and widespread in US society that our minds automatically attribute disparate outcomes between groups to individual effort. So, if we state that African Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than White Americans, the average American brain attributes that difference to either better individual effort by White Americans to eat healthfully or less effort by African Americans to eat healthfully. We don’t see the food deserts, housing, and environmental factors contributing to these disparate outcomes. We simply can’t see how systems support some people’s success but not others’ because we have bought so completely into the myth that we all go it alone.
This idea shapes how we tell stories. The Hero’s Journey, a monomyth made famous by cultural and religious scholar Joseph Campbell, is the template used to shape narratives in media, from books and movies to journalism and documentaries. It involves a protagonist who goes on an adventure, experiences a crisis, overcomes it, and then returns home transformed. Everyone from Pixar cartoonists to nonprofit fundraising professionals has been influenced by this template – including public media.
The Hero’s Journey certainly holds people’s attention. But it also makes the system invisible and silent, thereby reinforcing oppressive behaviors and protecting those in power.
If we want to create a more equitable world, we need storytellers to break the silence and become transparent about the system, the privilege it affords some but not others, and the support any protagonist receives from others in their journey to success.