The heroes have traveled far and wide, braved many obstacles and even challenged the forces of darkness to find the legendary lost treasure. Maybe it's a fortune in gold and jewels left behind by a long-dead king, or perhaps it's a book of ancient wisdom, or a magic mirror that lets the bearer see the future; whatever the case, the protagonists (and any number of rivals) have good cause to believe what they're after is very valuable and/or powerful, the sort of thing that could change their lives - perhaps even change the world - and definitely not something that should fall into the wrong hands.
So they find the ancient tomb. They open the sarcophagus. And what do they find inside?
Nothing. No pile of treasure or legendary artifact, just an old coin and a note telling them that they've already found the greatest treasure of all.
And it's true. The legends may have been greatly exaggerated, but all of our heroes have become better people as a result of their experiences. What they found at the end of their journey may only have sentimental value, but its message is clear: these are lessons they would only have learned by setting out in search of it. As the old saying goes: "it's the journey, not the destination".
When It's the Journey That Counts, the object of the seeker's quest turns out to be materially worthless, but also constitutes a revelation that the seeker has grown or developed in some meaningful way during the course of their journey. Of course, if the protagonist's development is nullified or ignored, then you have a "Shaggy Dog" Story on your hands. Wanting Is Better Than Having is another aesop that is often invoked with this one.
Compare All That Glitters, where the twist is merely that the treasure is worthless, not that the characters have benefited from the search for it; Bluebird of Happiness, where the bird is often found back home; Going to See the Elephant, when arriving at the destination is simply not as important to the plot as the journey there; Magic Feather, where the protagonist discovers he's always had the abilities he ascribed to the MacGuffin; and The Homeward Journey. Contrast Boring Return Journey.
Note that, by this trope's very nature, spoilers follow!
- Dragon Ball: Goku spends a good while trying to catch Karin before finding out that catching him is the training; the "magic water" is just that: water. Master Roshi, on the other had, spends a lot longer trying to catch Corin (and finding out the truth).
- In the Sakura Wars OVA, Sakura Shinguuji receives a scroll purporting to carry the secrets of her family's sword-fighting style. It turns out to be blank. She spends a good long while looking for secret writing before figuring out it means she needs to look within herself for the secrets.
- In Mahou Sensei Negima!, Negi and the "Baka Rangers" (the five worst students in his class) go looking for a magic book that will make them smarter in time for final exams. In order to get the book, a giant statue quizzes them on translating English words into Japanese. Then they get stuck in a lower level of the library, and pass the time by studying. Then the giant statue shows up again, and chases them up a stairway barred by review questions. Then they end up throwing the book away to make the group light enough to take the only elevator to the surface. And in the end, the whole thing turned out to be a Secret Test of Character designed by the headmaster.
- Looking at the themes and morals of One Piece, it is highly likely that the series is going to end on this note.
- "It's funny that pirates were always going around searching for treasure, and they never realized that the real treasure was the fond memories they were creating."
- Luffy himself believes strongly in this, to the point that he absolutely refuses to listen to any information about the titular treasure when the opportunity arises or else he will quit being a pirate - because he does not want to have a boring adventure.
- Word of God on the matter is it won't end on one of these and One Piece actually IS something.
- Martian Successor Nadesico: The heroes discover a MacGuffin which could theoretically be used as a Reset Button to prevent the war but decide not to use it because the sacrifices they have made mean too much to discard.
- Invoked in Medaka Box when Medaka sends the student council on a treasure hunt. Everyone is absolutely sure from the beginning that the reward will be one of these notes, and 50 chapters later it turns out they were right.
- In Monster Rancher, Monol reveals that Mocchi, Suezo, Golem, Tiger and Hare contain pieces of the Phoenix's soul. However, the reason why he didn't tell them right away was because they needed to strengthen their spirits through their journey.
- In Gold Digger, Gina finds herself trapped in a Lotus-Eater Machine with a pair of supervillains. Gina manages to break herself out because every time she is given her greatest desire, she gets consumed by questions about how she got there. Unfortunately, the two villains, who gave up on evil after discovering that Constant Victory Is Boring, end up seeing her memories on the subject and become reinvigorated towards conquest.
- In the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fanfiction It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door, Twilight Sparkle comes down with a terrible case of Horn Rot, and Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity go on a long and dangerous quest to Find the Cure. While a lot of fans of the story pointed out they could have just asked Twilight's mentor Princess Celestia for help, over the course of the story the three girls learn and accomplish a number of things they never would have if they hadn't done it themselves.
- Kung Fu Panda has the Dragon Scroll: after much build-up the scroll turns out to be blank, shiny paper. Later, the eponymous Panda realizes it's a mirror, and learns the lesson. In a twist on the usual trope, the Master who gives him permission to take the scroll had no idea the scroll was blank, because his master, Oogway, never told him what was on the scroll, either.
- Treasure Planet—one of the biggest deviations from the original book (aside from all the Steampunk, of course) is that Captain Flint rigged the treasure to blow...and Long John Silver gives up (most of) what he could save of the treasure in order to save Jim. Everyone acts like it's all okay, because they're all the better from the experience.
- Circle of Iron. The protagonist Cord goes on a quest for the Book of All Knowledge. When he finally finds it, he opens it and discovers... a mirror. And then he laughs at the monks who guarded the Book when they practically begged him to tell them what was in it - they were forbidden to look, after all.
- Discussed Trope and paraphrased in Pirates of the Caribbean.
- The Wizard of Oz:
- The Wizard himself has a ton of these: he gives the characters worthless trinkets to symbolize the heart, brains and courage that they've earned in their quest to find him.
- A more metaphorical read on the same concept: Dorothy uses the ruby slippers to get back to Earth; she's always had the power, but it took the events of the story to teach her the true value of her Kansas home.
- In The Neverending Story Atreyu is outraged that the Empress knew how she could be cured all along yet still sent him on his harrowing quest. She explains that he needed to carry out the quest so a human child, Bastian, would follow him.
- The Last Dragon starts with Leroy Green's master telling him there is no more he can teach him. "Bruce Leroy" insists on learning more. His master gives him a dragon-shaped amulet and tells him to seek out a master of "The Final Level" in Chinatown. Throughout the film, Leroy protects his friends, family, girlfriend and neighbourhood from villains, and unlocks "the glow", but returns to his master in shame, never finding the hidden master of Chinatown. Whereupon his master informs him he learned everything he needed to in his struggles, and the amulet was merely a belt buckle.
- Subverted in National Treasure. When they enter the fake treasure room, Ben's group starts into this to him. Then they find the real treasure.
- The Indiana Jones movies play with this trope. While there usually is an actual treasure, the central journey of each of the movies generally involves Indy reaching some deeper understanding about himself or the nature of the treasure over the process of finding it; he often doesn't end up with the actual treasure but comes away from the adventure a better person regardless.
- The Mummy (1999) ends with the protagonists heading home, Evie and Rick having found love with each other and Johnathan bitching that they ended up empty-handed... only for it to turn out that, unbeknownst to them, the saddlebags of their camels have been stuffed with gold that another character had meant to steal.
- A very strong implication of the ending of the original Game of Death. Bruce decides to not go up to the highest floor but descend the stairs and not retrieve the treasure, as he learns that after all of the fighting, the treasure is ultimately unimportant but the quest for enlightenment and improvement is and no treasure can keep up with this.
- In The Alchemist, Santiago goes through the whole book just to find out that the treasure spent the whole book looking for was buried right under his location from page 1.
- In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, The Fountain of Fair Fortune turns out to be exactly this. The trials that the heroes had to suffer through only forced them to recognize their own gifts and talents, or move on past their own heartache, or rely on each other. It works.
- The way of hiding the Resurrection Stone within the Snitch is this in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It is literally with the hero at all times - however, it isn't until he achieves the maturity to accept his mission that he is able to fully implement it.
- The Mirror of Llunet from The Chronicles of Prydain. After Taran's journey, it shows him exactly as he is: his faults, his strengths, and how much he's grown. It is a revelation that makes him Take a Level in Badass. The Big Bad of the book Dorath, however, was expecting riches like the legends told, and, not comprehending the true meaning of the mirror, crushes the sacred mirror with the heel of his boot in a rage.
- Marauders of Gor had the tomb of a great hero, which turned out to contain nothing but an arrow. The protagonists realize that the arrow means they need to step up and become heroes themselves.
- Little Vampire Learns Kung Fu has one of Little Vampire's human friends learning kung fu from a supernatural teacher so that they can reach the top of a temple and read a scroll that will tell them how to be a true master. The scroll ended up reading "If you were able to reach here, you already have learned all the kung fu you need to be a master."
- Geraldine Harris' Seven Citadels series plays this trope mostly straight; after an arduous quest by the main characters to acquire seven keys to unlock the prophesied savior, the hero unlocks and enters the cave of the savior, only to see his own face reflected in the mirror that is the only thing there. Toyed with by the fact that he has been religiously forbidden to see his own face (until now), so it takes him a moment to realize who that face is... and then the wife of his god shows up to hammer the point home in case he couldn't figure it out himself.
- The Redwall book Loamhedge had a few of the main cast go on a journey to find a cure for another main character's paraplegia. After a long arduous journey (where one of them nearly dies from thirst and two others do die in battle), they discover that there's nothing there but a poem, and that the main character they did the quest for learned to walk on her own. On the bright side, all three of the younger members of the questing group were immature, rude, and spoiled, and they came back from the journey much more matured. Two of them grow up to be the Abbess and Recorder respectively.
- In The Stormlight Archive, part of the Badass Creed of the Knights Radiant is "Journey Before Destination". Their philosophy is that this idea applies to one's entire life, and it's how you got to the end that matters.
- In Robert Bloch's story "The Hell-Bound Train," protagonist Martin makes a Deal with the Devil that the Devil can have his soul if he, Martin, has the power to stop time when he reaches the moment of perfect happiness. Because Martin is always convinced that he could be happier, he never uses that power during his lifetime. After his death, he acknowledges this trope and uses his power to stop time aboard the hell-bound train so he can enjoy an endless journey with "all the jolly crew" of the damned.
- Day of the Dissonance by Alan Dean Foster has the apprentice making a lonnnnng journey to find medicine for the very ill mentor. The apprentice is not amused by the lesson, but does understand it. It helps that said mentor is up front about being a Jerk Ass Trickster Mentor. Extra: The apprentice, Jon-Tom, is a UCLA law student pulled into the magical world, which are the setting for 8 books, called the Spellsinger Series. This is the third. The medicine is aspirin, which Jon-Tom had with him in his college backpack at the mentor's house when the wizard first started feeling poorly.
- A pervasive trait of the Xanth series. It's almost a formula: the protagonist(s) leave their home because some personal problem, visit the Magician of knowledge for a solution, and is sent wandering the land, picking up companions and having adventures. In the end, they find what they were sent out for, but realize that they no longer want or need it, because the journey has changed them - they've outgrown their old childish need, or realized that there are bigger problems to deal with, or the love they were hoping to win is shallow compared to the companion they've been journeying with.
- Invoked in Discworld: Granny Weatherwax orders a sick man to make a pilgrimage to a remote pond every day for a month to appease the water spirits. It turns out she was just making him take a walk every day to improve his health.
- In the novelisation of Fire Warrior, the main character's commanding officer eventually tells him that when confronted with the harshness and brutality of the Crapsack World they exist in, he realised that the vaunted 'Greater Good' all Tau strive towards simply doesn't exist. However, he then stresses that it is still worth pursuing those ideals because in striving towards them, the Tau can become more virtuous as a race.
- The Book of the New Sun: most of the four volumes is taken up with journeying. In a humorous moment Jonas lists all the things that Severian is trying to achieve at the same time note . All Severian's successes prove ephemeral, yet he returns home a changed man, having achieved the unintended goal which he mentioned in passing at the end of Chapter one. In fact, large elements of Severians journey were being orchestrated by beings who knew far more of Severian's significance than he ever realised.
- Discussed Trope in The Great Divorce: the (apostate) bishop believes this, while his more heavenly-minded friend disagrees—if the destination isn't worth traveling to, then how could anyone go anywhere in hope?
- In BIONICLE, Norik tells this to Vakama and Matau at the end of Web of Shadows. While Keetongu could have cured them of the Visorak venom right off the bat, but they had to become worthy of it first.
- Game of Thrones: Littlefinger believes in a villainous version of this: chaos is a ladder, and the climb is all there is.
- Subverted on Glee when Mr. Schuester tries to teach the Glee Club this when they place last in regionals. They do appreciate the journey, but it still sucks.
- Appears as something of a Broken Aesop in Star Trek: Voyager's final episode, where the characters talk about how the journey is more important than the destination... then risk their lives in order to skip the rest of their journey and get to their destination. (This dissonance is the result of minds changing during the writing process — originally, Voyager's crew didn't get to "have [their] cake and eat it too", and they chose to sacrifice their shortcut home to deal a crippling blow to the Borg.)
- Many teams on The Amazing Race will say that being on the show and getting to play the game was more important than actually winning it.
- Discussed in the pilot episode of Firefly. Kaylee notices Shepard Book is more interested in ships, as opposed to destinations. When asked why, he replies, "Because how you get there is the worthier part."'
- Doctor Who calls this "the long way 'round."
- "One Tin Soldier": "Now the valley cried with anger, 'Mount your horses, draw your swords!' And they killed the mountain people, so they won their just reward. Now they stood beside the treasure, on the mountain dark and red. Turned the stone and looked beneath it; PEACE ON EARTH was all it said."
- Linkin Park's rap remix of "In The End":
"Because from the start to the end no matter what I pretend / The journey is more important than the end or the start".
- "Ain't about how fast I get there/Ain't about what's waitin' on the other side/It's The Climb."
- Marillion's Happiness is the Road, in this case crossing with Survival Mantra:
Happiness aint at the end of the roadHappiness IS the road
- In Prickly City, when Carmen speculates about what they are looking for, and whether they could recognize it or find it, Winslow offers this trope. Carmen assures him he's quite a find.
- Tokaido is all about this. The goal isn't to get to the end of the path first—in fact, at multiple points in the game (the Inns), you have to wait for the other players to catch up. Instead, the players try to accumulate the most points from activities along the way, representing their characters attempting to have the most fulfilling experience possible on their travels.
- In Skies of Arcadia, Vyse is split up from his friends, who wind up separately searching for the Treasure Of Daccat. At the end of their quest, they're re-united, and when they're looking inside the big honking treasure chest, all they find is a single gold coin, and a letter which lampshades the lesson, explaining that that Vyse's friends are the true treasure. ...Also, the single coin has just about the highest selling price of any item in the game.
- During Aqua's quest in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, she ends up with Peter Pan and his Lost Boys on a quest for treasure. Eventually, it turns out that the treasure map simply led them all on a circle around Neverland to the same space they started—at which point Peter points out that the supposed treasure didn't matter, what did matter was that the boys pushed themselves to overcome obstacles in order to get to it.
- In the first Street Fighter Alpha Gouki / Akuma's ending is a rather bitter version of this. He has reached the end of his journey to become the absolute best, but upon reaching his goal, he finds himself feeling empty. The final quote of that ending is "For some it's the path not the goal."
- Journey, as implied by the title itself, has this as its major theme. Especially apparent in the ending.
- The Crusaders, a playable class added in the expansion to Diablo III, were founded in order to seek a solution to the corruption within the Zakarum faith. They never expected they would succeed at such an abstract goal, however; they believe that the quest has value unto itself. In practice, this mostly means Walking the Earth and doing good deeds.
- Parodied at the end of the Captain Scarlett DLC of Borderlands 2, where just as you reach the treasure room the game cuts to the credits and a child acting as the narrator claims that the real treasure were the friends they made during the journey. Marcus, the real narrator points how lame of an ending that is. Thankfully, after the credits you get to loot Captain Blade's treasure room for reals.
- In Pillars of Eternity, the monk Zahua has a sidequest to unlock the ancient secret of the anitlei, which will allow him to become an unstoppable warrior, so that he can rescue his tribe, which has been conquered and enslaved. He goes on a shroom-induced vision quest to discover this secret...only to realize from his introspective visions that he must come to terms with his survivor's guilt and accept that his tribe cannot be saved. (Confusingly, completing this sidequest gives him the anitlei attribute anyway, which turns out to be a fairly disappointing stat boost.)
- In Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, Plachta tells Sophie about the Cauldron of Knowledge, an alchemy cauldron that will make Sophie into a great alchemist. In the end, she doesn't get it, but in the process of searching for it and fighting the alchemist who was using it for evil, she had to master alchemy anyway.
- It is the central theme in Uru: Ages Beyond Myst: Yeesha sends the player to explore the mysterious worlds of the D'ni to learn about their not-so-honorable history and wrongdoings. The "journeys" are also pieces of cloth scattered around each of the Ages the player visits, and must all be activated in order to complete the Age.
- Parodied in Life Is Strange: Before the Storm's bonus episode "Farewell". A tape recorded by William Price tells Max and Chloe not to forget "the real treasure...", and the girls guess "Love" and "Friendship" respectively, but William finishes by saying it's their college funds.
- This is basically what The Reward is all about.
- Subverted when a post credits scene shows that behind the mirror the duo saw is a vast room filled with gold.
- Used in Far Lands Or Bust pretty much verbatim.
- Joked about on Image Boards focusing on long stories with an overarching plot. The usual response to these stories will be "What if the [goal main character has set for themselves] is the friends we made along the way?"
- South Park:
- Played with in the episode "Fourth Grade". It's apparently played straight when, as part of Ms. Choksondik's training to teach the fourth graders of South Park, she goes inside The Tree of Insight, only to find nothing there. Though at first disappointed, she realizes that it means she already has what she needs to reach the kids. It's then subverted, as Mr. Garrison goes in after her and does find a physical representation of his "gay side."
- Subverted again in the episode "Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes". The boys are told that in order to destroy Wall-Mart, they have to find and destroy its heart. Stan and Kyle make their way to the TV section (where the heart is said to reside) and encounter the Anthropomorphic Personification of Wall-Mart itself, who directs them to a small door. They open the door and find a mirror, which Wall-Mart says is "the heart" of Wall-Mart, i.e. the consumers. Stan and Kyle, however, take the instructions to "destroy the heart" literally, and smash the mirror, causing the building to implode.
- Parodied, like many things, in The Simpsons.
- In an alternate future with Lisa as president, Homer decides to run around the grounds of the White House in search of Lincoln's gold. He eventually finds a chest, with a note saying that his gold is in the heart of every American. Homer isn't amused.
- In another episode, Mr. Burns holds a team-building retreat in the mountains. When Lenny and Carl reach the "finish line", the cabin that's supposed to be there is nowhere in sight; Carl suggests that the "cabin" is a metaphor for the trust they built over the course of the journey. Lenny is disappointed because Burns said there would be sandwiches. (In reality, there is a cabin, but Burns and Homer got there early by cheating and subsequently ended up buried in an avalanche.)
- He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002) had this and Magic Feather as the origin of King Grayskull. Grayskull seeks the power to defeat Hordak, and is told by a seer to give up his sword and journey to find a new magic sword. When he does, he finds the seer, who returns Grayskull's sword and tells Grayskull he always had the power, he just needed the trip to focus his abilities.
- An episode of Teen Titans focuses in Robin trying to find a Master to teach him kung fu so that he can defeat the episode's bad guy, who's also trying to reach said Master by using Robin to bypass the mountain of challenges. By the end of the episode, Robin manages to defeat the bad guy before finding the Master, who is the old woman he met before.
- The Christmas Special Nick & NoŽl runs entirely on this trope. What began as a quest to deliver the christmas letter of a little girl who wanted nothing but a new mother instead became the quest that brought a cat and dog together as friends And it brought their two neighboring humans together. The neighbors even married and Sarah in the end, got the mother she was wishing for. Awww.
- In an episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, Mandy goes on a journey to get her nerve back after it's stolen by Billy. The nerve rejects her and she walks away, only to realize that going on such a risky adventure and facing all the challenges that came with it meant that she still had her nerve to begin with. She then promptly gives her old nerve a "Reason You Suck" Speech.
- The Door Lord tries to invoke this on Adventure Time by stealing things so that their owners can band together and discover the real treasure: friendship. Which is all well and good, but not enough to excuse the theft.
- 90's children's series Magic Adventures of Mumfie is a great example of this trope. On his adventures, Mumfie does not seek a goal, but rather likes the journey he goes on. "If you want adventure, this is where to start" indeed...
- Parodied in Tiny Toon Adventures where Buster (as "Pasadena Jones") is searching for the tomb containing the secret of the "Meaning of Life". When he gets there, he finds Babs, Plucky and Hamton there to explain that the meaning of life is friendship. Buster is not impressed, declaring that "in the sequel, I'm going after some gold!"
- Parodied in the Wander over Yonder episode "The Matchmaker" (though later played straight in "The Party Poopers" and "The Heebie Jeebies"):
"We'll just end up in a temple, solving a bunch of riddles, dodging poison darts and getting chased by a giant bolder just to find out that the greatest treasure's our friendship, which we already knew."
- This now happens with people who earn Ph.D.s and other terminal graduate degrees. In the modern era, research and employment opportunities both change at such a rapid rate today that the information a newly minted Ph.D. has acquired over several formidable years of academic study is often out of date before the diploma has even been printed up — what matters to other researchers and to employers are the skills and background the Ph.D. has acquired from the academic journey as these are what enable the individual with a Ph.D. to handle and investigate the studies in his or her doctoral field. Thus, the most intellectually (and professionally) successful Ph.D. is not someone who is questing to take possession of a doctorate but instead someone who is on a journey to become a better person.
- The "graduate glut" issue means that this is increasingly applying to undergraduate courses too - university is often now prized more for the life experience that people gain than for the bit of paper at the end of it.
- Some modern Christians now believe that when you pray for something like courage, God gives you ''opportunities'' to be courageous, rather than having you just wake up with instant courage. But plenty of others totes believe the prayer worked.