Stories & Reflections
Before I came across Paulo Coelho’s works, I assumed reading novels was a waste of time.
And as the biased human that I am, I look for evidence to support my naive assumptions. “My grades are heading rapidly down the pit.” “I don’t have enough money to buy the things I want.” “There’s a high rate of unemployment, how am I going to get a good enough job?” These are real problems, and the last thing I need to waste my time on is a figment of someone’s imagination. Or so I thought.
But as anyone who understands and loves to read great novels can tell, these are all flimsy excuses. In fact, the remarkableness of novels is in the ability of the writers to use their own experiences; moments of pain, joy, regret, ecstasy, to create a world in which we all can relate.
They bring all of us into their story, so we can see that, though we are all different physically, our wants, fears, struggles are similar. We read our stories even as we read theirs. The clarity and instructive nature of Coelho’s writings have made him win his place as one of the best novelists. I’ve learned a great deal from him, both from his personal life and his books, as both are usually intertwined. Here are five remarkable lessons I’ve learned from Paulo Coelho.
“‘So you’re going to give me electric shock treatment,’ I said to Dr. Benjamin Gasper Gomes…The next moment a curtain seemed to fall over my eyes; my vision quickly narrowed to a single point, and then everything went dark.”
This is an excerpt from Coelho’s diary which he wrote during his second stay in a mental hospital in 1966. As he revealed on the inspiration behind his book, Veronika Decides to Die, by the time he was 16, he had already been committed to a mental institution twice. Why? He just wanted to be a writer.
Apparently, in Brazil at that time, the word “Artist” was synonymous with homosexual, drug addict, communist, and layabout. It wasn’t cool. So when his parent’s attempt to suppress his devotion to literature failed, they took his rebelliousness as a sign of mental illness.
Coelho’s time in the mental institution was one of his worst points, but there were others. Before going on a pilgrimage to Santiago, he also went into the “hippie life,” doing drugs and living aimlessly. He was jailed three times for his political activism and subjected to torture in prison. The story about his early days wasn’t pretty.
Interviews are great to watch. Fame is very attractive. These things stimulate us to want to succeed. But the mere fact that only a few still succeed shows how we don’t realize success isn’t as attractive as it appears after it’s achieved. When we imagine being a bestseller, we don’t imagine being treated with an electric shock or being jailed three times. We see a fancy office and the signing of autographs.
This realization, no doubt, might strip away some of the mystique of the things you already love. But maybe if we focused more on what the “behind the scenes” looks like, we’ll have more patience, hope, tenacity, and the path to success will be more accessible.
A major concept in Coelho’s novels is how his characters (like Santiago in The Alchemist and Maria in Eleven Minutes) have a strong sense of what they want but yet have no idea how they would get it.
The same can be said for Coelho, wanting to be a writer but having no idea what to write about. It’s a common theme in the life of everyone. We all feel we need to do something, make a contribution in some way, but often, we either don’t know which step to take or are too apprehensive about what the future holds.
What we should do (what Coelho tries to demonstrate with his characters) is to pay attention and take whatever step appears to be right today. As Arthur Schopenhauer said,
“Our life is like a journey on which, as we advance, the landscape takes a different view from that which is presented at first, and changes again, as we come nearer.”
There’s no way we can really comprehend what the future holds, or how much change we are going to undergo in the next few years or even weeks. Before Coelho went on his pilgrimage, he still was yet to decide what he wanted to write about. He just wrote lyrics for musicians. It was after his journey he wrote The Pilgrimage, building a unique style, using his own personal experiences to instruct through his characters.
As much as it can be impulsive to worry about the future, it’s only through paying attention that we can know the appropriate steps to take as our preferences and view of life changes.
Though Santiago’s aim, in the novel The Alchemist, was to discover his treasure in the Egyptian pyramids, the real treasure was the process he had to go through first. In his quest to search for his treasure, he ended up working for a crystal merchant for years. He met an Englishman (who became his traveling companion), The Alchemist, and also fell in love with a woman to whom he proposed marriage.
Do not be in a hurry to get to the finish line. Do not let your need to quickly “make it big” make you miss the wonderful lessons and people that life will bring your way. When we become too fixated on only the end result, everything in between usually becomes drudgery; just a means to an end.
Therefore, cultivate your mind to see your daily rewards. Be grateful for that new connection. Be happy about the new lesson you learned from meeting one of your mentors. What about the person you’re becoming because of the struggles and challenges you’ve overcome so far? Let that mean something to you.
If Santiago never discovered his treasure, it probably wouldn’t have mattered that much to him. Why? The reward he got from the process, pales in comparison to whatever treasure that was in the Egyptian pyramids.
In his collection of thoughts and experiences which he published in the book Like the Flowing River, Coelho tells of an experience he had with a pilgrim, Begoña. After giving a talk on The Road to Santiago, Begoña walked to him saying there was something he didn’t mention. Intrigued to know what this could be, Coelho invited her for a cup of coffee. She said,
“At the start of my pilgrimage, I tried to keep up with my group, but I got tired. I was demanding too much of myself. I was tense all the time and ended up straining the tendons on my left foot. I couldn’t work for two days after that, and I realized that I would only reach Santiago if I obeyed my own rhythm.”
Sometimes we may want to go through life quickly, not because we are in a hurry, but because we want to impress. Even though we feel stressed and overworked and the tendons on our left foot are burning, we smile and keep up. The result? A high rate of stress and mental, emotional imbalance. As Goethe said,
“It is only men of practical ability, knowing their powers and using them with moderation and prudence, who will be successful in worldly affairs.”
Forget about keeping up and understand your own rhythm. Follow it and be content at your own pace. It took Begoña longer to reach Santiago. Sometimes she had to walk alone for long stretches. But it was only by respecting her own rhythm that she managed to complete her journey.
“If someone isn’t what others want them to be,” Coelho wrote, “the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about theirs.”
Indeed, Coelho’s life is a manifestation of this remark. Being completely misunderstood and thought to be insane by his parents who, assuming they knew what was best for him, were only bent on making him into what they wanted.
Anyone who is driven to achieve anything will face the risk of being misunderstood, or even worse, being seen as a threat. When Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, launched his first start-up Viaweb, many thought it a stupid idea because they didn’t fully understand how it worked. As he revealed in one of his 2008 essays, Six Principles for Making New Things,
“When we launched Viaweb, it seemed laughable to VCs and e-commerce ‘experts’… Since Viaweb was the first web-based app they’d seen, it seemed to be nothing more than a website… It sounded serious and difficult.”
But yet, Viaweb ended up crushing all its competitors. “Any great idea,” Goethe said, “is a tyrant when it first appears.” But not just great ideas. People will always push against anything they don’t understand.
This, however, doesn’t mean you’ll have huge success whenever you go against what’s conventional. But it means you’ll learn a priceless skill of referring less to others when you want to decide what’s best for you. It means you’ll be decisive; you’ll own your decisions, making you learn from them even when things don’t work out.
“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
All the lessons I’ve learned from Paulo Coelho couldn’t possibly be compressed into an article. But I hope these five will be helpful to you as you continue to live your own personal legend.
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