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".
With this trope, 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 and All Is Well That Ends Well.
Note that, by this trope's very nature, spoilers follow!
- Spoofed in Dr. STONE, where Senku and Chrome go on a mining expedition that results in their forging a tentative peace with Jerk Jock and former enemy Magma. When they find the motherlode, Chrome says "the friendship we made is worth more than any gemstone!" Both Senku and Magma are creeped out by the sentiment, and even Chrome admits that he just kind of blurted it out on accident and regretted it immediately.
- Dragon Ball: Goku spends a good while trying to catch Korin before finding out that catching him is the training; the "magic water" is just that: water. Master Roshi, on the other hand, spends a lot longer trying to catch Korin (and finding out the truth).
- In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Steel Ball Run, Pocoloco ends up winning the titular race and the prize money, but unlike our protagonists - who don't even finish the race - he's essentially the same character as he was when the race started, whereas Johnny and Gyro have grown and improved vastly as people over the course of their journey from San Diego.
- 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.
- Discussed in Monster Rancher: The Searchers note that Holly's Magic Stone, which is supposed to be guiding them towards the Phoenix, seems at times to switch directions. Holly and Genki suggest that it's about the experiences they're having along the way, finding allies and becoming stronger. Eventually, Monol reveals that Mocchi, Suezo, Golem, Tiger, and Hare contain pieces of the Phoenix's soul. While Monol knew this from the start, he didn't tell them right away because they needed to strengthen their spirits first through their travels.
- In Negima! Magister Negi Magi, 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.
- The entire premise of Oddman 11 is basically gender-flipped Scott Pilgrim: The sole male Oddman, Itami, has 9 ex-girlfriends are also Oddmen, and his Oddman sister is in a relationship with him. When protagonist Setsu finds this out, she's convinced by her friends to defeat Itami's exes in order to become his girlfriend "just like in that movie", despite Itami's insistence that it's completely unnecessary. Indeed, the entire battle hasn't really brought Setsu and Itami any closer together, but the ongoing battle has resulted in her amassing an Accidental Harem of the Oddmen she's defeated, and over time she seems more interested in expanding her Oddmen harem than going after Itami specifically.
- One Piece:
- Luffy absolutely refuses to listen to any information about the titular treasure he's heading toward when the opportunity arises, or else he will quit being a pirate — because he does not want to have a boring adventure.
- In a more meta example, fans have asked Oda, the author, if One Piece is an actual thing, or if One Piece itself is this very trope. Oda has always answered that One Piece is in fact an actual treasure, and not the friends we made along the way.
- Saitama in One-Punch Man comes at this realization backwards. He starts out wanting to become a hero that can defeat any enemy in one punch, and by the time the series starts he's already reached his goal, only to find that A) Victory Is Boring and B) there's more to being a respected hero than just punching out bad guys.
- In Pokémon: The Series Ash Ketchum's life goal is To Be a Master, but nobody knows how one actually goes about doing this and even after becoming the very best, like no one ever was, he's at a loss at what to do next and starts aimlessly Walking the Earth. After reuniting with old friends and making new ones in Pokémon The Series: Aim To Be A Pokémon Master, he comes to the conclusion that being a Pokémon Master means seeing the world and meeting all the Pokémon in it rather than being the World's Best Warrior.
- 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.
- Sabagebu!: Parodied. Momoka leads the Survival Game Club on a quest to her old home in search of a "treasure" her younger self buried. When she gets there, she digs it up, only to find a note from her younger, more innocent self telling her it's the journey that matters, not material things like money. Momoka — being Momoka — is infuriated that there's no money.
- 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 Tintin: Red Rackham's Treasure, Captain Haddock leads a treasure hunting expedition to find a pirate treasure around a deserted island. While they do not find the treasure itself, they do find numerous artifacts including a strongbox containing various documents. Furthermore, they make a new friend, Professor Calculus, who was allowed to test his shark submarine prototype on the expedition. With that done, Calculus examines the documents and finds that Haddock is the heir to a palatial family estate and uses the money he earned selling his sub design to purchase it for the captain. When Tintin and Haddock explore the mansion, they find the treasure was there all along and that discovery would not have been possible without the expedition and having Professor Calculus accompany them.
- 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.
- In BIONICLE: Mask of Light, Takua could have put on the mask at any time to become the Toa Takanuva. He had to take the mask around the island, learn to stop running from danger and face his responsibilities to be worthy of possessing Toa power. His village elder Turaga Vakama explains as much when Takanuva muses over all the losses it took to find himself.
- In The Brave Little Toaster, had the appliances all stayed at the summer cottage like Kirby had initially suggested, the Master would have come back for them to take them with him to college, but they never would have gone through all the experiences that turned them from barely being able to get along and constantly bickering into Fire-Forged Friends.
- Kung Fu Panda has the Dragon Scroll: after much build-up, the scroll turns out to be blank, shiny paper. Later, Po, the eponymous hero, realizes it's a mirror, and learns the lesson. In a twist on the usual trope, Master Shifu, who gave Po permission to take the scroll, had no idea it was blank, because his master, Oogway, never told him what was on the scroll, either. This realization is entirely lost on the main villain, Tai Lung, who had spent years violently trying to obtain the scroll, believing it to be an Upgrade Artifact, and is immediately enraged when it turns out to be blank. When Po tries to explain the scroll's true meaning to him, Tai Lung cannot accept it and his fighting suffers, leading to his defeat. Tai Lung was so focused on the prize that he couldn't handle the realization that there wasn't one, despite how great of a martial artist he became in his journey to get it.
- In The Polar Express, as the Hero Boy arrives Home, the Conductor tells him that the thing about trains is; "It doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on".
- Treasure Planet—one of the biggest deviations from the original book (aside from the movie being a Steampunk Space Opera with aliens, 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.
- Up: While Ellie did want Carl to take her to Paradise Falls when she was a kid, as an adult she came to appreciate that her life with Carl was a wonderful adventure in itself. She filled her adventure book with photos of their married life together. While Carl does make it to Paradise Falls to honor her wishes, and the house lands exactly where she would have wanted it, he ultimately builds a new life being a father figure to Russell, seeing the new adventure just as she wanted.
- 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.
- A very strong implication of the ending of the original Game of Death. Bruce decides to not go up to the highest floor, instead choosing to descend the stairs and not retrieve the treasure. 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.
- 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 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.
- The Mummy (1999) ends with the protagonists heading home, Evie and Rick having found love with each other and Jonathan 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Discussed Trope and paraphrased in Pirates of the Caribbean.
- A deconstructed example comes from Vacation (the 2015 sequel to the first Vacation) when Rusty plans to fly home to Chicago after suffering, much to Clark's befuddlement.
Rusty: I mean, they always say "it's not the destination, it's the journey", right?
Clark: The journey sucks. That's what makes you appreciate the destination. You had a dream to take your family to Walley World. Never let that go. I know I didn't.
- 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 Alchemist, Santiago goes through the whole book just to find out that the treasure he spent the whole book looking for was buried right under his location from page 1.
- In Around the World in 80 Days, Phileas Fogg spends 19,000 pounds to win a 20,000 pound bet. When someone comments on how little profit he made on his three month journey, he counters that the experience more than made up for it.
- For most of Book of Brownies, the adventure is dedicated to the bumbling titular brownie trio in their attempts at rescuing a kidnapped princess, but as their quest goes on, it becomes clear that the whole story is about the brownies redeeming their mischievous selves by doing good deeds, by rescuing a mermaid imprisoned by an evil goblin, helping a young girl flee from her abusive homeland, and later saving the Saucepan Man by banishing an evil dwarf. By the time the brownies reached the princess, they have more or less proven themselves to be good, and their exile from fairyland is no longer in effect.
- 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's 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.
- The Stormlight Archive:
- The Knights Radiant swear oaths called Ideals in order to join and advance through their specific order. The First Ideal, which is the only one that is shared by all ten orders, is "Life before death, strength before weakness, journey before destination". Their philosophy is that the importance of the Journey applies to one's entire life, and it's how you got to the end that matters.
- The first book in the series, The Way Of Kings shares its name with an in-universe book by an ancient king who decided to make a long journey alone on foot. The book is a set of parables describing the dilemmas he faces on the way and the value of the Journey as an experience on its own. It's implied that this text influenced the Knights Radiant Ideals mentioned above, although the Radiants' powers existed before the Book, so it's not entirely clear what the exact relationship between the two was.
- 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 Jerkass 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 Severian's journey were being orchestrated by beings who knew far more of Severian's significance than he ever realized.
- Discussed Trope in The Great Divorce: the (apostate) bishop believes that "to travel hopefully is better than to arrive," 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, they had to become worthy of it first.
- The Doctor Who Past Doctor Adventures novel The Ultimate Treasure plays this one incredibly-to-the-point-of-eyerolling straight; the titular "ultimate treasure" that the Fifth Doctor and Peri get roped into searching for turns out to be, naturally, exploring the wonders of the universe and making friends along the way. There are two other possible doors that the characters can choose from, one filled with material wealth and the other that fulfils their greatest dreams, but the former turns out to be full of gas that suffocates anyone who enters it and the latter hooks up those who enter to a Lotus-Eater Machine that allows them to live out the rest of their lives in a simulation where their greatest dreams come true.
- Older Than Print 'The Conference of the Birds' Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr a Persian poem by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, 1177. In the poem, the birds of the world gather to decide who is to be their sovereign, as they have none. The hoopoe, the wisest of them all, suggests that they should find the legendary Simorgh. Most of the birds perish on the journey, but the birds make it to the abode of Simorgh learn that they themselves are the Simorgh.
- All Tomorrows follows the evolution of mankind over the course of a billion years, from a civil war between Earth and Mars, to their war with the Qu, to the hundreds of post-human species that emerged as a result. While they eventually become a multi-galaxy society, the author reveals at the end that posthumanity ultimately disappeared from the universe millions of years ago. Whether they died out or Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence, the author concludes that it doesn't matter. What matters, where the very essence of humanity existed and still exists, are in the lives they lived.
- 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.
- Better Call Saul is a show-wide case of this. Since it's a prequel to Breaking Bad, we know the eventual fates of Saul Goodman, Mike Ehrmantraut, and Gus Fring. But the show is about the journeys these three characters took that molded them into the personas they have in Breaking Bad.
- Doctor Who. In "Revolution of the Daleks", Yasmin Khan expresses anger over how the Doctor introduced her to the wonders of the universe, then suddenly disappeared from her life without any indication if she was alive or dead. Jack Harkness, who has been through this himself—but for centuries instead of the ten months that the Doctor was apart from Yaz—urges her to just enjoy her time with the Doctor while it lasts.
- 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."'
- 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.
- Legends of Tomorrow: Played for Laughs in season 4, when the Legends finally become official freelancers working for the Time Bureau. Except they're still not getting paid.
Nate: Being a Legend is all about the memories you make along the way. Unfortunately, you can't use those to buy an apartment.
- 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.)
- Aerosmith's "Amazing":
Life's a journey, not a destination,
And I just can't tell just what tomorrow brings.
- "Ain't about how fast I get there/Ain't about what's waitin' on the other side/It's The Climb."
- 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.
- Marillion's Happiness is the Road, in this case crossing with Survival Mantra:
Happiness ain't at the end of the road,
Happiness IS the road.
- "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."
- 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.
- This is the chief dogma of Fharlanghn, the god of travel, in Dungeons & Dragons. He teaches that the only real way to know the world is to roam it, seeking new horizons. Cleric initiates are taken on an extremely long journey; if they ever ask when it will be over, they fail.
- 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 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.
- 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 out how lame of an ending that is. Thankfully, after the credits you get to loot Captain Blade's treasure room for real.
- In Castle, Forest, Island, Sea you are on the titular island for a reason, which you get to pick. But it changes nothing about the gameplay, and you finish the game by leaving the island.
- 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.
- Five Nights At Freddys VR Help Wanted: Played for Laughs by the Pirate Ride minigame in the Curse of Dreadbear DLC, which places the player in a cheesy, pirate-themed, on-rails Shooting Gallery ride. Said ride's storyline (told in cardboard cutouts) begins with Foxy the pirate fox sailing off on an adventure before being attacked and dragged underwater by a Kraken, followed by the scenery transitioning to an underwater environment with treasure, mermaids, and ghost pirates (whose roles are filled by mascot characters from the series's in-universe Suck E. Cheese's). After this point, the ride is abruptly cut short by this trope in an in-universe Ass Pull, ending anti-climactically with an aesop about friendship being the greatest treasure of all.
- Journey (2012), as implied by the title itself, has this as its major theme. Especially apparent in the ending.
- 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.
- 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.
- Minotaur Hotel: Storm comforts P by telling him that even if they don't find the hotel, he still managed to give him another chance at life, along with whatever they did during the week (give peace to the dead souls that were in Nini's dream, remove the curse of the Hinterlands, etc.).
- 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 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 treasurenote . ...Also, the single coin has just about the highest selling price of any item in the game.
- 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."
- 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.
- In WarioWare: Get It Together!, after defeating the True Final Boss, Wario asks where the treasure is. He's horrified when told there's no monetary reward of any kind at the end. Master Mantis suggests this trope was the real treasure... which doesn't comfort Wario at all. The player gets a reward at least, because said boss joins them as the last playable character to be unlocked.
- 8-Bit Theater mentions this trope. Then, of course, it mocks it as meaningless.
- In El Goonish Shive, Pandora met her husband-to-be on a quest, and offered all sorts of advice. He waved her off, despite her insistent warnings that he really needed the information: namely, that there was no actual treasure, and a ferocious monster guarded the cave. He didn't mind, though, as the adventure and the joys of exploration and discovery were the entire point.
- Darkly invoked in this Mr. Lovenstein guest comic, which captures just how someone would feel to actually end their quest this way.
- Oglaf parodies this trope in "Delivery" (NSFW), as shown in the page image - he was the Princess all along!
- Paranatural: Parodied.
Max: Are we at least paid for this ghost-busting business?
Spender: The real reward is the adventures you'll have! ...and the only reward. We are not paid.
- Penny Arcade played with this trope here.
- 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 real [goal main character has set for themselves] is the friends we made along the way?"
Maybe the real rations were the friends we made along the way.
- Parodied by one group that has a lizardman in it when looking for food.
- Tales of Alethrion: It's right there in the theme song: "The reward is the journey of a lifetime." This is basically what "The Reward", its flagship short, is all about — two adventurers team up to find a treasure, only to find a large mirror where the treasure was supposed to be. After a bit of literal self-reflection, the pair realizes the experience getting to it was what really mattered, and go on to encourage the same revelation in others by leaving their map where people can find it. Subverted when a post-credits scene shows that behind the mirror the duo saw is a vast room filled with gold, but once the series shows how it got there through Alethrion's arc, we can see why it'd be left to its own devices. Especially when it's shown what's still waiting among the treasure.
- 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.
- DuckTales (2017) has the episode "Treasure of the Found Lamp". In it, a man named Djinn quests to obtain a lost family heirloom. The main characters and even the villains don't realize this at first, believing this sacred lamp that Djinn is talking about to house an actual genie with wishes (which is partly due to Djinn using phrases like it being "devastating" if it "fell into the wrong hands", by which he means that it would be personally devastating). When Ma Beagle tries to summon the genie, nothing happens and Djinn starts laughing. Ma Beagle and the main cast are rather angry to realize the treasure is basically worthless only for Djinn to explain that the treasure is a part of his family history and holds sentimental value while recounting the story of his ancestors' love. Having reclaimed the lamp, he explains the point of his journey was simply closure to his family's legacy and to return an heirloom, and that the treasure itself is less important than the journey it represents. This inspires Scrooge to open a museum where he can show off all the treasures he's collected and explain why they're so significant, and the adventure that went with each one.
- 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.
- 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.
- The 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...
- The Christmas Special Nick & Noël 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."