Living in the Second Act: Not Sexy, but Totally Necessary

Something struck me today. Not physically, thank goodness, but in my heart.

There’s a book inside of me. It has been patiently hanging around, waiting to be born for about a year now. It’s called Leave in Love, and I have yet to write a single word of it. That’s not because I’m not thinking about it all the time. It’s not because I’m scared of writing it. It’s not because I don’t have time to do it. It’s not even because I’m holding myself up due to exquisite perfectionism. No, it’s because this book needs some time to form. And, to be honest, it’s because I do need a little permission from myself to be the expert on this topic.

But, I realized today that there is something else that I couldn’t name before that has also led me to take my sweet time on birthing this thing. It’s this: the book is going to be mostly about the second act. And the second act is all of humanity’s least favorite part of every story. Myself included.

If you’re not a nerd steeped in the works of Joseph Campbell (celebrity name: JoCam) – or the works of virtually every single person who has ever written or talked about storytelling, presentations, writing, living free and brave, ever since JoCam existed – from Nancy Duarte, presentation genius, to Brené Brown, shame researcher and complete soul-healing wonder-person to Pixar-freaking-Animation-Studios, you may not know about the Hero’s Journey. It’s the classic tale of a flawed, but loveable hero who is faced with a challenge, hesitates, finally heeds the call (this is the first act), overcomes obstacles and struggles (this is the second act – messy, stressful, sometimes seemingly hopeless), and finally emerges triumphant and victorious on the other side (the magnificent third act). If you are a nerd steeped in the works of JoCam, please forgive my hacky summary. On the other hand, if you aren’t a nerd, in general, just be grateful that I am the first person in the history of the world to reference Joseph Campbell without giving you a detailed, blow by blow account of how Star Wars is the perfect example of the Hero’s Journey. You’re welcome. (P.S. If you are a nerd, don’t waste your typing to inform me as to how awesome Star Wars is in the comments, OK? I get it)…

Now. Human beings LOVE the first act. It’s the introduction – it’s the moment of getting unstuck. It’s the moment of truth – of saying, “Here is a challenge – will you rise to meet it, or will you push it away?” It’s where the hero comes to realize a problem exists, she is the only one who can solve it, and then has to decide whether she can live with that knowledge by staying small or if she must pursue the resolution. We can relate to those moments, can’t we? They can be terrifying, but they are also inspiring. The first act is rad, because it leads to the leap. The leap is exhilarating. It is full of possibility and anticipation. It is a release.

This pattern is also true in self-help and entrepreneurship training and coaching [especially and to an almost unbearable degree]. So many empires are built upon people telling a variation of this story: “I was bored and sad in my stupid, poopy 9-5 job. I was just a drone, like all the other losers out there. Until one day, I threw away my tie and travel mug and took the leap into running my own business and so can you. Be like me! I jumped! Jump! Jump! Jump!”

Here’s how it unfolds – and why it works:

First Act: “I was bored and sad…blah blah blah…Until one day…Jump! Jump! Jump!” We’re all cheering and pumping our fists in the air, like YEAH!!!!! You know, it’s a cliff jump! You made the choice, you committed, and as soon as you leap, you get that thrill – that joy – that immediate rush! You DID IT!

…but we forget about the landing sometimes…

…and we definitely – DEFINITELY – don’t think about the long, cold descent into the water. Or the wearying and exhausting swim to some unfamiliar shore. Or the shaking legs wading out of the water, our weakened arms clawing onto the rocky beach.

Here’s the Third Act of these stories:

“And now I’m a bazillionaire and my life is amazing and I work HARD [or hardly work, depending on who tells it], but the internet gives me bucketloads of cash every day and so can you! Be like me! But first, help me get more bucketloads of cash by contributing your share to me so you, too, can be the hero!”

The Third Act is amazing because it is the victory march. It is the moment of nirvana. It is where one arrives, and lives happily ever after.

Some of these stories lack a Second Act altogether. A lot of people just say “I took the leap, and now here I am, and so can you!”

Hint: Be wary of people who don’t talk about the Second Act. They are selling you snake oil, and they will keep fleecing you until you have nothing left to give. I’m being real, here – I’ve bought a lot of training and coaching, and I completely believe in professional development – but I also have invested in my share of internet business gurus who peddle semi-abusive advice in exchange for a whole buncha money.

Now. If there is a Second Act in these success stories, it is glossed over. It is virtually avoided, or it is nullified by the amazing Third Act results. Here’s an example, inserting a Second and Third Act, for your reading pleasure:

Second Act (having taken the heroic leap): “For a while, I was an idiot [like you], and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was near bankruptcy, lost my lover, my dog and my kids.”

Third Act: “But I kept paying for coaches with my already maxed out credit cards [like I want you to do], and now I’m richer than Richie Rich ever riched! I’m a bazillionaire and my life is amazing and I work HARD [or hardly work], but the internet gives me bucketloads of cash every day and so can you! Be like me! But first, help me get more bucketloads of cash by contributing your share to me! You, too, can be the hero!”

That Second Act is so pesky! Because it is the HARD PARRRRT!!! AND WE HATE THAT PART!

That gets me back to the book. And all of my whole life, to be honest. And almost all of your whole life, since we’re being real, here.

Look. I love a good success story. But you know what I love even more than that? I love to see the humanity in people as they figure out how to live in this messy and crazy and unfair world. I love to see how we can work toward the good of all people in order to make the world a better place, and straight up – that is not easy. It’s not a “Hey! We’ve arrived!” kind of thing. It’s a, “well, fewer people died on the streets this winter than last. Let’s do better this year.” We live in the Second Act. Almost all the time.

My book about leaving isn’t meant to just help people quit when they aren’t quitters (though, it is that too). It’s about helping us make sense of the boring, horrible, hard-work, sweaty, sad and frustrating Second Act. It’s about choosing to stay – wholeheartedly – or choosing to leap.

The jump is thrilling! And when we hit the water, it hurts. It really, stinking hurts. And then we sink. And then we find the bottom – how low will we go and still be OK? And then we kick off. And we swim through the waves that batter and challenge us. We get to the shore. We slowly climb over cutting rocks and freezing water until we can rest a bit on the sand, warm up, and finally, slowly, find a bus stop and hop a ride to town where we can finally build that empire. Or…take another leap.

And this is the thing…our Second Act lives? They are completely beautiful and real and raw and awful and amazing all by themselves. This is where we find the essence of who we are. It is where we dig deep and connect with our souls. It is where we belly flop off a cliff, only to emerge stronger, wiser, and more beautiful than ever.

If you are in the Second Act right now, facing obstacle after obstacle, struggling like a madperson to get where you hope you’re going, take heart. You will have a Third Act – lots of them. But the heart is in this scuffling, skirmishing middle. I’m here with you, friend. Tussling and tossing about to figure out how to be the flawed, but likeable hero I know I am. And so can you.

Sarai Johnson is the best-selling author of two books, and a purveyor of nonprofit wisdom. If you have a story about leaving, and you’re willing to share, head to to leave a little note for us. While you’re there, sign up for notifications as the book comes alive.