5 Life Lessons Driven Home by Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’

By Laurie Leinwand, MA, LPC

One of my favorite books is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. It’s a story about a shepherd boy who journeys in search of a treasure about which he has dreamed. What I love about the story is that there are so many life lessons embedded in it. Where you are in your life determines what the salient messages are for you. I will do my best to impart some of the lessons that ring true for me without giving away too much of the story.

1. We must be able to make choices about how to move forward, and perhaps the best way to seek an answer from ourselves is to ask specific questions that require a yes-or-no answer.

There’s a point in The Alchemist when the shepherd receives two stones, one black and one white, signifying “yes” and “no.” The purpose of the stones is to help the boy “read the omens,” or understand the signs the universe is giving him as well as what his intuition is telling him. He is instructed to make his own decisions but is told to ask the stones a clear, objective question, if he struggles, and then go with the answer (black or white stone) he pulls from the bag.
Find a Therapist
Advanced Search

People who have trouble making decisions sometimes put them off indefinitely, leaving themselves feeling stuck. There are often “signs” that signal us which way to go, but if we are stumped and don’t really know how to proceed, it’s still best that we make a choice. Soon enough, we will know if we are on the right track, and if we aren’t, we can course-correct. The point is to move forward. If we don’t choose, we are electing to stay still and let things remain the same. Not choosing is often the equivalent of not taking action.

When you ask questions of yourself regarding what to do, ask specific ones that reflect what you really want so that the concrete answers you generate propel you forward rather than mire you in further confusion.

2. How we perceive our circumstances has everything to do with motivation, perseverance, and psychological well-being.

There are several examples of this in the story. As the shepherd encounters an unfamiliar place, he originally labels it as “strange” only to subtly change its description to “new” upon further consideration.

If we learn to strategically put our fears aside, and really consider the possibilities that are available to us, we can continue to take steps toward our goals.

The protagonist also shifts his view of himself from “victim” to “adventurer.” And when he takes stock of the fact he has chosen to remain in one spot for a long time on his journey, instead of bemoaning it, he recognizes “he was actually two hours closer to his treasure … the fact that the two hours had stretched into an entire year didn’t matter.” He took note of the progress rather than dwelling on the length of the journey ahead or how long he remained in one particular spot.

Shifting his perception toward the positive and that which was encouraging energized him and enabled him to recommit to his goal of reaching his treasure, rather than retreating to what was safe and already known.

3. Our beliefs about ourselves are incredibly powerful and can enhance or inhibit what we ultimately accomplish.

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” —Henry Ford

The boy in The Alchemist is tested time and again on his journey. Each time, he is forced to determine just how important his goal is and whether the love he feels and how attuned he is to his inner voice outweighs fear and the discouragement or challenges he receives from others. It is because he so clearly believes in the possibility of his treasure that he is able to persevere in search of it.

4. Fear is what keeps us stuck.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” —The Alchemist

Coelho illustrates how we hold ourselves back with fear, surrendering to thoughts that tell us we can’t or we aren’t worthy or we might suffer in the process of trying to attain that which we seek. He addresses the fear of failure as well as the fear of success. Coelho points out that “the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.” The fear of suffering is often what results in anxiety. It’s being paralyzed by the thought, “What if the worst happens?”

If we learn to strategically put our fears aside, and really consider the possibilities that are available to us, we can continue to take steps toward our goals.

5. Awareness is key. Be able to recognize opportunity.

The Alchemist makes many references to omens, encouraging its protagonist to pay close attention to the here and now, implying that if he is alert he will become more aware of what action to take next. The story explores the concept of the universe offering us clues to see us through to our goals. It suggests if we lose the capacity to pay attention to those clues (by becoming cynical, focused on the negative, or close-minded), they become more scarce, “abandoning” us.

If we approach life’s choices with a sense of clarity and purpose and are aware of the gentle nudges we receive along the way (our intuition and the messages the “universe” seems to send us), if we can separate that from fear and negative beliefs we have about ourselves and the world, then we can carve a path to the things that are important to us, the treasure reserved for each one of us.

What can YOU take away from reading The Alchemist? (If you haven’t read it, I urge you to.)