Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a complete sucker for the Indiana Jones movies, particular parts 1-3. Part four, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008), never really did it for me – a bit too little too late. But ah, the first three segments, released between 1981 and 1989; they were amazing! In an Indiana Jones film from the 80’s, you had it all: a young Harrison Ford, action, excitement, humor, swashbuckling, exotic locales, beautiful heroines, etc. I put those three movies right up there with the very best Hollywood actioners, series like Star Wars, Back to the Future and Die Hard. But my question for you today is: were any of these stories “quests”? And what does this all have to do with teams and workplace engagement? To answer this, we have to come to some agreement on what a “quest” actually is.
According to Chris Guillebeau in his fascinating new book “The Happiness of Pursuit” (2014: Harmony Books), quests are something quite ancient in human history. Perhaps the first quest on record was Homer’s “The Odyssey”, written back in 800 B.C.E. or thereabouts. In it, the Greek hero, Odysseus, embarks on an epic, 10-year, homeward journey after the fall of Troy. Along the way, he faces a variety of trials and travails, from sultry sirens to one-eyed Cyclops. But Odysseus is steadfast, eventually succeeding in making his way home again, only to discover that his wife, Penelope, is fighting off a group of unruly suitors. With a little help from the gods, Odysseus manages to kill the suitors and reclaim his family and his estate. A nice little story, yes, but what makes it a quest?
In his book, Guillebeau describes six factors that elevate an endeavor to the level of a quest, namely:
A clear goal and a specific endpoint or deadline
A clear challenge…something to overcome
A sacrifice…something you must give up
A calling…a sense of mission…a deep sense of internal purpose
Small, incremental, measurable steps towards your goal
A transformation: by the end, you become a better person than when you started
Odysseus’ goal is to return home and reclaim his family. Along the way, he overcomes many challenges. He sacrifices 10 long years of his life to the task, seven of which he spends in jail. His sense of mission and purpose are clear – return home, get his life back. His steps in that direction are small and incremental – literally island by island. And by the end, Odysseus has learned much about himself and his place in the world.
The Odyssey clearly meets all the requirements of a quest story, but how about the Indiana Jones films?
Let’s see. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indy takes on the challenge of retrieving the famed lost ark of the covenant, an object of immense power. To find it, he needs to solve some really cool puzzles, fight off a greedy French archaeologist, and avoid the clutches of, what else, evil Nazi soldiers. Although a riveting adventure – one of the best ever to reach the big screen – Raiders, strictly speaking, is not really a quest. You never get the feeling that Indy has a deep sense of internal purpose. He doesn’t really sacrifice very much, and his personal transformation is negligible. In spite of all his scrapes and bruises, and a brush with about a thousand wriggly snakes, Indiana Jones is just having too much fun to be on a true quest.
On to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), easily the most maligned of the original series. Critics just didn’t like this one, and for good reason. The movie is dark and often violent, with evil witch doctors ripping the living hearts out of innocent Indian orphans. Many viewers (including me) found the heroine, Kate Capshaw, a tad on the annoying side. But I digress. The point is, Temple of Doom also fails to reach the exalted “quest” status. Like Raiders, Jones has a goal and a challenge: to retrieve some magical stones that will end a drought and save a village. But does our hero sacrifice much? Does he have a mission, a sense of deep purpose? Does he become a better person? I’d say no. Indiana takes on the challenge and gives it his all, but you never feel like this adventure will change him. In the end, Indy is an adventurer – he fights bad guys mostly because they really irritate him, he retrieves lost objects, and he has a lot of fun along the way.
And that brings us, finally, to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), in many ways the most moving and complete film in the series and, I would argue, the only “quest” in the bunch. Here we find our hero involved in a much more personal quest: quite literally, the search for the Holy Grail. But this is no Monty Pythonesque romp. The dreaded Nazis want the grail as well, as does Indy’s father, Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery). In pursuit of the lost object, father and son must team up to solve a series of clues leading to a clear and final endpoint (the cave of the grail). Along the way, they must give up their long-standing animosity, taking small, incremental steps towards their goal. Unlike his adventurer son, Henry is a man of faith, with a strong sense of calling about the grail; he needs to find it and protect it. And in the end, Indiana must overcome a series of obstacles that test his own concept of the word “faith”. When Indy steps blindly off that ledge in the cave, a “penitent man”, you feel his transformation, and the lengths he’s willing to go to save his father’s life.
In the end, quests involve a very personal journey. They change you. Often the successful quest-er develops a new sense of independence and confidence. He matures. His smaller viewpoint takes on a larger vision. He becomes empowered. After all, if he can succeed at this quest, how much more can he reach for on the next quest!
Like in the three Indiana Jones films, a quest often revolves around the reclaiming of something lost or stolen. And this is where the model of the epic quest applies so well to the world of the modern workplace. As employees, as teammates – we so often lose our way at work. When we first enter an organization, we enter with the highest of hopes: that this job will satisfy our very-human needs for growth, for safety, for variety, for significance, for connection and, most of all, for contribution. We begin with a strong belief in the mission and vision of the organization. “This is a goal worth fighting for!”, we say to ourselves. And then, over time, a kind of malaise sets in. The team loses its way. The group’s sense of energy, vitality, and mission diminishes. And what are we left with? A vague feeling of discontent. No, it’s more than that. It’s a feeling of strong, un-quelled dissatisfaction.
To turn things around in your office, in your team, in your organization, you’ll need to go on a quest together, to reclaim what has been lost!
Says Guillebeau, the formula for starting a quest is:
Dissatisfaction + The Big Idea + Willingness to Take Action.
Are you ready to re-discover the vitality of your team and the scope of your potential? Then take action! Initiate a quest! The steps are clear:
Set a clear goal and a specific endpoint or deadline
Determine a clear challenge…something to overcome
Decide on how much you’re willing to sacrifice in terms of time and resources
Be clear on your group calling…your collective purpose
Brace yourself for the small, incremental, sometimes tedious steps that will propel you towards your goal
And pay attention to the personal journey: how is this project helping you to become a better person than when you started?
Says Indy’s father to his son:
Professor Henry Jones: Elsa never really believed in the grail. She thought she’d found a prize.
Indiana Jones: And what did you find, Dad?
Professor Henry Jones: Me? Illumination.