When Kathleen O’Grady, Founder and CEO of Raleigh Coaching, suggested that I read this book, I could tell that she was excited for me to do so…and for good reason. Coelho’s book was written 25 years ago and is just as relevant today.
The Alchemist is a story about a Spanish boy, Santiago, who loves his life as a shepherd and the time that it gives him to read books and to dream. From a young age, Santiago has wanted to travel, and shepherding takes him across the country and from village to village, selling his wool. However, he yearns for more; wanting to travel farther, to experience new things, and to "know the world."
In his pursuit, Santiago encounters many people who have a profound impact on him. For example, one day, he visits a Gypsy whom he hopes can interpret a reoccurring dream in which a child says to Santiago that he will find a hidden treasure if he travels to the Egyptian pyramids. The Gypsy has difficulty understanding his dream’s meaning but says that Santiago must travel to the Egyptian pyramids because there he will "find a treasure that will make (him) a rich man."
Skeptical of the Gypsy, Santiago carries on with his shepherding. In another encounter, an old man explains that a book Santiago is reading describes "people’s inability to choose their own Personal Legends," which, he explains, are the things that people always wanted to accomplish. Essentially, that one’s Personal Legend is their mission on earth and their only real obligation. Santiago is curious about his own Personal Legend and how near to or far from it he is.
The old man also tells Santiago of the world’s greatest lie: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and that our lives become controlled by fate. That a mysterious force exists which, over time, convinces each of us that it will be impossible to realize our own Personal Legend. The old man tells Santiago that he shouldn’t believe this lie and suggests, instead, that when a person truly wants something, the universe conspires in their favor and helps them achieve it. Santiago thinks about his many life experiences and wonders how the universe has helped him progress toward his (as yet unidentified) Personal Legend.
Another of Santiago’s encounters is with a crystal merchant who doesn’t like change, doesn’t dream, and has owned and managed the same low-performing crystal shop in the same location for 30 years. The merchant explains to Santiago that he doesn’t dream because he is afraid that if his dream is realized, he would have no reason to go on living. And that he is also afraid that actually realizing his dream would be a disappointment compared to what it imagines it would be, so he prefers merely to dream about it instead of pursuing it.
Santiago stays in that Moroccan village and works for the crystal merchant who, over time, comes to appreciate Santiago’s zest for life and his pursuit of his dreams. He also comes to believe that every blessing ignored becomes a curse and eventually sees how immense his possibilities are; and that dreams are meant to be pursued, stating "there’s just no way to hold back the river."
After 11 months of working with the crystal merchant, Santiago decides to travel to the Pyramids to see if the Gypsy was correct that he would find his treasure there. He has some doubts but understood that making a decision was only the beginning of things. And that, when you make a decision, you are "diving into a strong current that will carry (you) to places (you have) never dreamed of." As Santiago travels with a caravan across the desert toward the Pyramids, he senses that the closer one gets to his Personal Legend, the more that Personal Legend becomes his true reason for being.
He comes to view that the obstacles a person faces during their journey toward their Personal Legend are similar to the problems encountered by the caravan as it pressed on across the desert: large rocky areas, sand that was too fine for the camels’ hooves, dried up lakes, terrible sand storms, etc. But no matter how many detours and adjustments it made, the caravan continually moved toward the same destination, just as Santiago endeavored to stay focused on his Personal Legend.
During his quest, Santiago took many chances, faced dangers, and overcame numerous obstacles, but was diligent about returning to his course. He found that the threat of death makes people a lot more aware of their lives and he came to believe what Allah has said: people need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want. And he understood that once you truly commit yourself to achieving your Personal Legend, such that you can’t go back, then you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward.
Eventually, Santiago found his Personal Legend during his journey to the Pyramids, but it wasn’t what he had envisioned, such as material wealth or fame. Learning rather that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure – and to focus on being and becoming, not merely doing. He also learned that anyone who interferes with the Personal Legend of another thing never will discover his own.
He saw that people are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel they don’t deserve them or that they’ll be unable to achieve them. And that there is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure. But that the fear of suffering is often worse than the suffering itself.
A final thought from this book: The quest for one’s Personal Legend (mission on earth) may seem to be a very future-oriented endeavor. However, Santiago learned to appreciate living in the present, and the perils of living in the past or the future. "If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And, if you improve on the present, what comes later will also be better. Forget about the future, and live each day according to the teachings, confident that God loves his children. Each day, in itself, brings with it an eternity."