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The Superhero Character Arc and Your Career

Post Highlights

  • The superhero character arc mimics our career
  • Superhero character arc has a typical flow as a story unfolds 
  • What can we learn from superheroes? How can this impact our career? 

 

Character arcs are a basic principle in screenwriting. Writers often develop an arc to show the development and growth of a character. The idea of a character arc is to show how a character evolves as a plot unfolds. As the plot line develops, so does the character, as they learn, grown, evolve, which nicely pairs with the plot of the story.


For those of us who love superheroes, there is always a clear arc to the superhero story. If we do a quick analysis of the superhero, we find four clear paths on the arc for the superhero:

  1. Resistance and Making a Choice
  2. Struggle to Control Powers
  3. The Introduction of the Villains
  4. Master of Powers


Yet, arcs are not just limited to superheroes, a similar arc could be applied to characters in books, plays, movies or on TV. Also, arcs are very common in music as well. In classical music, each movement typically has a style attached to it, the first movement is traditionally fast, followed by a slow movement, a dance-like movement and then back to a fast movement. Interestingly, there seems to be a natural order, or arc, to our careers and lives as well.

The character development and evolution of a superhero highlighted above also mimics our careers. As our careers progresses, the important element to focus on is continual evolution, constant growth, and continuing to hone and master our skills. Below I’ve elaborated on the four phases of a superhero, and how they relate to our careers.

1 - Resistance and Making a Choice
As we’ve all seen, some superheroes start off completely resistant to accepting their new powers. They refuse to accept they are different, that their powers exist, and may even feel ashamed of their newly discovered skills. They want to hide their talents and blend into society, just fly under the radar. At some point, typically through some horribly traumatic event, the super hero makes a choice, aligns towards good or evil, and accepts their superpowers.

Careers are quite similar. Personal events shape who we are, what career path we decide to take, and impact decisions we make throughout our career. Many of us feel a calling in our careers, work diligently to discover and work to understand our talents, and then leverage our newly discovered skills to better our community. Early in our careers, we search for some meaning, identifying what career path to take and how we can best use our skills to make a meaningful contribution to society.

2 - The Struggle to Control Powers
Once a superhero aligns towards doing good in the world, they struggle to hone and master their powers. I always love scenes when superheroes are learning how to control their powers. Their skills are  raw, and not quite at a point where they are very useful. For instance, if their power is time travel, they learn how to go forward in time, but can’t go back in time. If their power is to turn objects into gold, they accidently turn objects into rocks. But, through hard work and dedication, the super hero learns and masters their skills.

Think about our careers, when we enter the workforce, we are energetic and ready to roll and take on the world, but not all our skills are fully developed. Although the energy is there, the skill set may not be developed or polished yet, and takes some time and hard work to master the skills needed to excel. This process requires us to seek out and be proactive in learning about ourselves. This might mean finding a mentor, attending trainings, or pursuing higher education.

3 - The Introduction of the “Villains”
The Joker. Magneto. Darth Vader. Every superhero is fighting some kind evil, protecting their community and riding the world of evil. Our villains may not be as clear, but finding a cause that you are working towards, a higher calling is important. Your villain might be “poverty,” “equity,” “the tax code,” they are the villains you are fighting.

Just like superheroes, nearly everything we do is going to have challenges or villains. This is why it is so important to find a purpose, and when some days are bad, or you need to put in the extra hours to complete a project, you know that your work is contributing to a higher calling and purpose. These are the moments to remind yourself you are working to conquer your “villain.” Also, if your villain is Darth Vader, let me know because I want in. My midi-chlorians are off the charts.

4 - Master of Powers
This is where the magic starts to happen, you finally are routinely turning objects into gold, you’re traveling through time and space, not disrupting any equilibrium, just checking things out and having a great time. Villains may exist, but by and large, you’re on the winning side.

Although you’ve mastered your powers, you are still learning and evolving, and sharing wisdom with colleagues and peers. But, now is not the time to become complacent, now is the time to really start to make a dent in your villain - this phase is a great opportunity for you to witness and feel your positive impact on society.

These are just a few examples of how we can compare a character arc to our career. As we continue to grow and advance in our careers, whether you are a GS-7 or a GS-15, the lesson learned is to continue to evolve, continue to craft a skill, and continue to strive toward your higher calling.

What do you think? Are there any similarities to your career and the superhero character arc? Please share your thoughts below.

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Comment by Steve on February 12, 2013 at 12:38pm

I think arcs, both superhero and career - will also go back and forth between Villains and Master of Powers.  The whole arc process can repeat as well - a change or mutation of powers can start this cycle over again in the comics world, while a change in job or career starts it over in the career world.

I feel like that I am currently at the Villains stage.

Comment by Andrew Krzmarzick on February 11, 2013 at 3:38pm

This is brilliant, Pat. Love it. Here's how I see it has played out:

1. Resistance: This is the part where you bounce around in your career, typically your 20s, trying to find out where you fit. For me, I worked at several different kinds of non-profits, learning and honing my craft as a development professional (proposal writing, fundraising, etc.)

2. Struggle to Control Powers: Like you said, once you know you've got the powers, you decide how and where you want to apply them. They're always a double-edged sword and they can help or hurt you (and others). You have to pick the place to apply them and focus your power...that is, if you want to have the greatest impact. For me, that was the intersection of non-profit, education and government.

3. Villains: Reality hits. You don't get a promotion. You make a choice that leads to a less-than-what-you-anticipated result. You start seeing peers move faster up the ladder - and who's the real villain in all this? It's usually your own ego! Once you get that in check, you can move to the next level - and start exorcising what are usually more internal vs. external villains. This has happened over several years for me.

4. Master: So you get to a place where you finally feel comfortable in your superhero suit. You have significant impact. You feel heroic - regardless of whether others acknowledge it (but that often helps). Then an ironic thing happens. You feel like the first movie is over and you start asking, "What the sequel?" And sometimes it leads you back to one of the previous points in the arc. Ideally, you keep building on your powers and join forces with others (think "Avengers") to max out your individual powers and become stronger together than you are alone. That's when you solve the biggest problems...and that's where I feel I am now. :-)

Again, great post, Pat!

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