A very popular and entertaining genre of films and novels are those based on some sort of quest. The plot of a quest generally entails a hero or heroine displaying great fortitude and resolve, along with the expenditure of much effort and energy to complete a mission, accomplish a goal or obtain something or someone of value.

Without fail, the quest involves a journey. Throughout the journey obstacles, hardships and difficulties invariably have to be overcome. Also, strong friendships and bonds are formed with others, often with some of the least likely characters.

On these journeys, the greatest insight, fulfillment or reward is not received through the successful completion of the quest, but in the journey itself. For the hero or heroine, the quest becomes the thing of value rather than what is sought after in the quest. In other words, the journey is the reward.

Though often existing in the world of fantasy or fiction, these tales have many parallels to real life. Indeed, life itself is a quest. This is evidenced at the start of each new year, as resolutions are established, plans formulated and priorities put in place in order to achieve or obtain some goal(s) by the end of the year. We assign to every new year a purpose or a mission.

Some may be more organized or detailed in this process, but the majority to some degree embrace the notion that January ushers in a new journey and one should prepare accordingly. As much as possible we want to make our journey a successful one. We want to fulfill our quest.

In attempting to do so, I believe that the many beloved fictional tales that so permeate our culture offer a template, themes and insights that can make us successful in our real-life quests.

One of the first that stands out is that we should expect difficulties. Rarely is anything worth accomplishing easy. From losing weight, to completing a degree, to raising children, to running a successful business — worthwhile achievements generally come with a lot of ups and downs, highs and lows, pain and joy. We set ourselves up for failure when we assume we can plan our way out of not experiencing difficulties and disappointments. In the quest that is our lives, difficulties, obstacles and trials will come.

They can end up being of inestimable value. Whether it be in the realm of politics, military combat, sports, business, etc. … the greatest leaders in these spheres from the past and present to some degree echo and affirm these words: “I’ve yet to meet a strong person with an easy past. … Struggle cultivates strength that cannot be developed any other way.” Difficulties can end up being our greatest teachers and our biggest blessings.

In the fictional tales, there is generally a dramatic moment or a series of them when the hero or heroine has to make a choice about how they will respond to a difficulty, obstacle or trial that lies before them. Such moments are pivotal points in the story.

They are pivotal ones in our story as well. When difficulties come — and they will — the key is in our response. We have to realize they don’t mark the end of the journey or the quest, far from it; they can end up being the periods of greatest understanding and insight.

A second insight that can be gleaned from quest stories is that it is rare to succeed alone. Dig into every real-life story of success and you often find this truth: at some point along the way there was a helping hand or hands that contributed to that success. Help, assistance or support was needed.

In our day terms such as networking, mentoring, support system, etc., are used routinely and acknowledged as essential to success. These words convey a timeless truth: We need others in our lives. At some point we will need the wisdom, support or assistance of others to help us navigate some critical juncture or part of our journey. We may desire to go it alone, but just as in the fictional quest tales, circumstances and events that transpire in our journey will compel us to do otherwise. We will need help. We will need others.

A third insight would be realizing that the greatest joy is found in the journey itself. The true prize lies not at the end but in the process of getting to the end. In reaching our goal(s), or accomplishing our objective(s), it’s who we’ve become, how we’ve changed, the knowledge and insight we’ve acquired that takes on a value we probably didn’t anticipate. As the prolific novelist Ursula K. Le Guin noted, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” 

As we begin another year and embark upon a new quest toward our own goals, objectives and destinations, like the legendary characters of Greek mythology, the fabled knights of old or inspiring characters of modern times, may we keep in constant remembrance: Success is found in the willingness to embrace and press through difficulties, in staying close to others and in realizing that the greatest joy is found in the steps taken in the journey itself.