The Art of Strengths Coaching

R is for The Rite Of Passage Of Learning To Take Responsibility


There are many definitions for a rite of passage. One of the most common is for a person moving from adolescence to adulthood. This ritual can take many forms.

A young person may leave their present circumstances, for example, and embark on tackling a challenge. The process involves them taking responsibility, making decisions and, when appropriate, returning with the fruits of their labours.

Some rites of passage involve ceremonies that mark individuals crossing thresholds in life. These may include transitions involving puberty, adulthood, marriage, embarking on a specific career, being accepted by a community, being recognised by peers or gaining authority.

Here are two dictionary definitions describing a rite of passage.

An important act or event that marks a person’s passage from one stage of life to another.  

A ceremony performed to facilitate or mark a person’s change of status upon any of several highly important occasions – such as the onset of puberty or entry into a marriage or clan. 

This article looks at the first of these two themes. Looking back at your own life, for example, can you recall going through a significant experience that enabled you to take responsibility?

You may have taken your first job as a Saturday worker, spent several months travelling, embarked on a particular challenge or whatever. Whatever the experience you chose, in some way it acted as a rite of passage that enabled you to develop.

Looking at my own life, for example, I was given the opportunity to work for six months as a housefather for mentally handicapped children. This called for taking responsibility, caring for other people and continuing to develop.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific experience you have had had that acted as a rite of passage and enabled you to take responsibility.  

Describe the specific things you did to take responsibility when going through this experience. 

Describe the specific benefits of going through this experience.

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Many anthropologists and researchers have studied this phenomenon. One of the most famous was Arnold van Gennep.

Below is an excerpt that provides an introduction to his work. You can discover more via the following link.

The worldwide distribution of these rites long ago attracted the attention of scholars, but the first substantial interpretation of them as a class of phenomena was presented in 1909 by the French anthropologist and folklorist Arnold van Gennep who coined the phrase rites of passage.  

Van Gennep saw such rites as means by which individuals are eased, without social disruption, through the difficulties of transition from one social role to another.

On the basis of an extensive survey of preliterate and literate societies, van Gennep held that rites of passage consist of three distinguishable, consecutive elements:




(Or, respectively, pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal stages before, at, and past the limen – Latin: “threshold”.)


The person (or persons) on whom the rites centre is first symbolically severed from his old status, then undergoes adjustment to the new status during the period of transition, and is finally reincorporated into society in his new social status.

Although the most commonly observed rites relate to crises in the life cycle, van Gennep saw the significance of the ceremonies as being social or cultural, celebrating important events that are primarily sociocultural or human-made rather than biological.

Different people choose to embark on different experiences that act as a rite of passage. There are several conditions to bear in mind, however, if you ever want to help a person to go through such a journey. Let’s explore these conditions.

The person chooses to take responsibility
and embarks on tackling the challenge

This is the crucial step. The person must choose to embark on pursuing the adventure.

Some individuals are proactive and seek out ways to expand their experience. They happily wave goodbye to the old world and enthusiastically throw themselves into the new challenge.

Some individuals ponder for a long time before setting out on the journey. They may only cross a particular threshold, for example, when the promise of moving on far outweighs the pain of staying in the same place.

The person then goes through the process
of separation, transition and development 

Moving into a new sphere can be difficult. This can be especially so for a person who was operating successfully in their previous environment.

Suddenly they are in a new land where they do not know the rules. This transition can leave some people in limbo. Sometimes they long to go back to their previous sense of security.

After awhile, however, they get to grips with the challenge. They become more self-managing, set goals and work hard to succeed. This enables them to grow in confidence and keep developing.

The person applies the
learning in their life or work

Different people develop in different ways during such experiences. Some go through the stages of striving, surviving and then thriving. Looking back in later years, they may say things like:

It helped me to stand on my own two feet … It helped me to see things in perspective … It gave me the chance to create a new role in a place where nobody knew me.

Some people go through stages similar to those that Joseph Campbell describes in his famous work on the Heroic Journey. Studying myths and legends from many civilisations, he found they often followed a similar structure. He described this in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. You can discover more about his work at the Joseph Campbell Foundation.

Joseph’s writings were popularised by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey. This became a set text for budding writers across the world. George Lucas brought Campbell’s work to an even wider audience, however, when paying homage to it as the director of Star Wars.

You can learn more about Christopher Vogler’s work via the following link to his web site.

The heroic journey involves many stages. But let’s explore three overall steps that you may take, for example, when pursuing your chosen journey.

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Travelling – setting-out on the
journey towards the Grail

You may be content in your world, but then comes the call to pursue an adventure or tackle a challenge. For example, you may lose your job, get an illness, see an injustice or catch a glimpse of the Holy Grail.

At first you refuse the call but, after repeated asking, you embark on the journey. Now you are in a different world and do not know the rules, so you gather information and search for a compass. Looking for guidance, you will meet helpers: but are they friends or enemies? Nevertheless, you continue on your chosen path.

Toiling – working hard on the
journey towards the Grail

You encounter tests on the journey: toils, trials and tribulations. There are highs, lows, breakthroughs and setbacks, but you try to keep your eyes on the Grail.

Christopher Vogler’s book shows how film plots often follow the structure that Joseph Campbell found in myths and legends. He writes:

A hero leaves her comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world.

It may be an outward journey to an actual place: a labyrinth, forest or cave, a strange city or country, a new locale that becomes the arena for her conflict with antagonistic, challenging forces.

But there are many stories that take the hero on an inward journey, one of the mind, the heart, the spirit.

In any good story the hero grows and changes, making a journey from one way of being to the next: from despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate, and back again.

It’s these emotional journeys that hook an audience and make a story worth watching.

(The Heroine’s Journey is similar to The Hero’s Journey, but with one vital difference. Women gather knowledge and wisdom from the tribe earlier. Men only ask for help at the last moment. Even then they may see it as a sign of ‘weakness’.)

Overcoming challenges, you finally stand on the edge of ‘victory’. You venture into what Campbell calls ‘the inmost cave’ and face the ‘supreme ordeal’. How will you behave in this moment of truth? For example, will you be generous or will you submit to greed? Will you fight, flee or flow?

Transcending – lifting the Grail and
gathering wisdom from the journey

You can only do your best, so you do the right thing. Sometimes you will lift the prize; sometimes you will simply gather wisdom for a future journey. You may enjoy a moment of transcendence – an epiphany – and see the world as if for the first time.

The Hero/Heroine sometimes returns with the prize, but first there is the journey home. This is the return to the ‘ordinary world’.

How can you make sense of what you have learned? Will people be able to understand? That is when the wisdom begins to seep into your bones and you are changed forever.

Joseph Campbell says people take one of three routes after returning to the world.

They share their vision, but the world does not want to know, so they retreat back to the woods, ‘with a dog and a pipe’.

They meet resistance, become disheartened, and revert to the ‘world’s way’.

They make a living by becoming, in the broadest sense, a ‘teacher’ and pass-on their message to people who are receptive.

Days, weeks and months pass. You rest for a while, but then you become restless. There is another mountain to climb, another adventure to pursue.

So you embark on your next chosen journey. Or does the journey choose you?

Let’s return to your own life and look to the future. Can you think of a situation in which you may want to help a person to embark on an experience that would enable them to take responsibility?

The person must want to embark on the adventure, but there may be things you can do to help them. They may want to travel abroad, work at Camp America, do voluntary work or test themselves physically or psychologically.

How can you encourage them to, in their own way, tackle the challenge? How can you give them enough distance to enable to stand on their own feet? How can you treat them with respect when they return from the journey?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a person who you can, if appropriate, encourage to embark on an experience that they want to have and that will help them to continue to take responsibility.

Describe the specific things you can to do to encourage them to embark on and go through the experience.

Describe the specific benefits the person may get from going through this experience.

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