I first read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in 2017.
I read it again in 2019.
And then again in 2021.
Every time I have returned to the pages of The Alchemist, I have found something new to learn, a new perspective to take on or another reason to return to it again a few years later.
The novel follows a young shepherd boy by the name of Santiago on his quest across the desert in order to find the treasure and live out his Personal Legend. But the heart of the story lies in Santiago living and experiencing his Personal Legend, not just in his achieving of it.
The term Personal Legend was coined by The Alchemist’s author Paulo Coelho. When asked in an interview with Oprah Winfrey “What is a Personal Legend”, Coelho responded “It is the reason you are here. It’s as simple as that. You are here to honour the miracle of life.”
At its most simple, Coelho is saying that a Personal Legend is the reason you were put on this earth. For those of us that are more spiritual, this definition can fill us with enthusiasm and give us faith that the Divine are walking our path with us.
But you don’t have to be spiritual or religious to learn from the idea of a Personal Legend and apply it to your own life. As someone who doesn’t necessarily believe in a divine purpose or fated paths, what I take away from the idea of a Personal Legend has more to do with the choices we get to make that align with our authenticity and respect for ourselves. To me, the personal legend poses the question: how can I live my life the most authentically to who I am?
But how do we find out what our Personal Legend is?
Unlike Santiago, we aren’t going to have a mystical king visit us and deliver our life’s purpose into the palm of our hands.
We’re going to have to work this out for ourselves.
Throughout The Alchemist, Santiago listens and follows the “signs of the universe” to help him along his journey. The “signs of the universe” can mean many different things to each and every one of us. The importance of this message is about our ability to find meaning in the world around us. Whether we believe in manifestation and synchronicity or we are simply grateful for a smile sent our way on a bad day, the external world is there for us to interact with, learn from and give to. No matter how we choose to live or who we create ourselves to be, we will always have the rest of the world around us and we need to be able to find healthy ways to interact with our environment.
Santiago has a knack for listening to the “signs of the universe”. He is a natural observer and many of the people he crosses paths with are astonished at the wisdom he possesses.
I don’t have the natural calm and observing nature that Santiago possesses. Like so many others, I am an anxious, perfectionist who over-analyses and over-thinks just about everything. For me, it’s hard to listen deeply to the world and reserve any judgement. But just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just like any skill, it requires practice, patience and commitment.
I have found listening to the “signs of the universe” a little easier when I am first able to listen to myself. To identify my own wants and needs and see how they fit into the greater picture. I was able to cultivate a sense of self-awareness and find ways where I was able to exist peacefully with the external world instead of always being at odds with it.
However, of course, this isn’t always easy either. Santiago ponders this throughout the story with his travelling companion during his trek across the desert.
“Why do we have to listen to our hearts?” the boy (Santiago) asked, when they had made camp that day.
“Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure.”
“But my heart is agitated,” the boy said. “It has its dreams, it gets emotional, and it’s become passionate over a woman of the desert. It asks things of me, and it keeps me from sleeping many nights, when I’m thinking about her.”
“Well, that’s good. Your heart is alive. Keep listening to what it has to say.”
Even though it’s hard to swallow, the simple truth is that if we want to learn to live authentically then we must find a way to listen to our hearts. That doesn’t mean we always get to do whatever we desire or never use our rational thinking skills again. But it does mean that we should try to be aware of what we truly desire, of our passions, and our emotions.
It is only through this awareness coupled with our ability to reason that we can understand what signs we should be looking out for as we journey through life.
So much of our early adulthood is spent trying to work out what we like, what we care about or who we are. This is your reminder that only through exploration can you really know the answers to these questions. Often, we are in such a rush to figure these things out that we can miss certain cues, settle for the wrong people, give into our egos and let fear push us far away from what we really want.
Give yourself permission to explore, to be a beginner again. Try new things even if you’re a bit unsure about them. Trying and failing, no matter how uncomfortable it can be at times is ultimately how we learn.
It may sound cliché, but I have learnt more from my mistakes and failures than I have from any of my successes. Exploration has become my compass. It is the method I use to figure out which direction I should be heading. Only through trying and failing do I know not to go south when I need to go north.
It would be remiss of me to not mention our little friend “fear”. Fear is bound to rear its head when we try and push ourselves to be brave and go on our quest to find out who we might like to be in this life. In times like these, it is important to not treat fear as a brick wall that keeps out all the good or bad.
On the very first leg of Santiago’s journey, he is robbed and left penniless in a foreign country. He could have very easily let fear take control and return to being a Shepard in Spain. But instead, he trusted the process and continued. He was cautious and he learned from his mistakes, but he continued, nonetheless.
Fear and failure do not have to stop you, they may slow you down, and they may ask you to pause and reflect but they do not have to impend upon your goals. They do not have to stop you from living authentically.
The World’s Greatest Lie
A core message of The Alchemist is a simple truth.
“At a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
Humans are always evolving but a trap we may easily fall into, as the author Coelho condemns as “the world’s greatest lie” is that at some point we have gone too far and are unable to fix or tweak who or what our life has become.
This is not true.
Change is at the heart of being alive. Listening deeply and exploring always leads to new ideas, a change of mind or better yet, a change of heart. As I grow, I develop new beliefs, new dreams, and new desires. It would be unfair to believe there will ever be a single, fixed version of myself.
So, we must always remember that change is possible at any point in time. In fact, it is encouraged. Your purpose is something you choose and therefore it is something that you can change over and over again.
Even if you experience setbacks, delays or life-shattering alternations, there is always the possibility to reassess, to make a new decision, to try something new, to take one tiny step in a new direction that may set you on a larger and more beautiful journey. Perhaps better than ever you imagined it could be.
“And what went wrong when other alchemists tried to make gold and were unable to do so?”
“They were looking only for gold,” his companion answered. “They were seeking the treasure of their Personal Legend, without wanting actually to live out the Personal Legend.”Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist