The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
A fable on self-transformation
This is a book I read years ago and has always stuck with me. It was so impactful, I recently bought five copies of it so that my whole family could read it together. I wanted to return to it to see what insights it could shed on my current life. I was also hoping that the kids would get a few things out of it which that may later recall on their own life journeys. It turns out that my middle school and high school kids were capable of understanding some of the key points of the book (the 9 year old, not so much). I hope it’s a book that they all will be able to return to in the future.
What It’s About. It’s a fable about a shepherd boy in Spain who goes on a journey towards Egypt in search of his Personal Legend (i.e. life purpose). It takes place likely in the 15th century because of the many references to the former Muslim rule in Andalusia where the boy starts his journey. At 180 pages, the book is a fast read. The story is simply written, so it’s easy to understand what is going on, but it’s not written like a dramatic novel. It uses the story to teach rather than to entertain.
Without giving important parts of the story away, I would like to offer three take-aways from the book.
- Transformation is about becoming a better version of yourself. Alchemy is a study aimed at transforming something from a base version of itself to a more precious one. This concept has traditionally been applied to metals, as alchemists have tried to transform lead into gold. However, alchemists can also apply this process to other formats including people. The boy’s pursuit of his Personal Legend is his pursuit of his greater self. His journey then is an alchemical process of transformation. There is an urge within all of us to become our greater selves. Therefore, we are all capable of alchemy if we follow that urge to transform.
- We have choices which results in stagnation or growth. In many parts of the story the boy is presented with choices. The choices mainly boil down to staying in his current situation which seems safer or to leave his current situation to pursue his Personal Legend. Leaving a currently satisfactory situation is always hard because the alternative contains the unknown and risk. However, it is going into the unknown that one faces challenges and grows. Many people face a certain unease and dissatisfaction in their life. This is because they have chosen to remain in a safe but stagnating circumstance over choosing to face uncertainly and grow from it.
- You need to leave in order to return. The boy in the story makes the long journey to Egypt from Spain. Once he reached Egypt, his stay is short and he returns to Spain. However, he does not return to Spain the same boy that started the journey. He has been shaped and transformed by the experiences of the journey. Have you ever gone to another country and that perspective of being in another country has given you greater appreciation for your home country? Likewise, we don’t know ourselves until we see ourselves from another perspective. We must then go “out there” and experience things beyond our current self perspective. As we see differences, that contrast allows us to know ourselves in greater clarity. The goal isn’t to stay “out there”, but to be able to return to ourselves and to know ourselves.
We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. ~ T.S. Eliot
Who Might Benefit From Reading? The journey of the boy is set up to correspond to key events that may be a part of anyone’s life: leaving home, finding a job, courting a lover, negotiating conflict, learning from a mentor, developing one’s faith. I was pleasantly surprised that my kids were able to grasp key lessons from the book. Of course, they are early in their life and can understand it as mostly a moral tale. Whereas for my wife and I, some parts of the story are directly relevant to the life situations that we are working through. For people who are going through transitions and are thinking more deeply about life direction, I think the lessons of this book can help with that.