11 Lessons From The Alchemist To Help You Escape Mediocrity

Why don’t more of us lead a life of adventure—pursuing our passions and building a meaningful life?

Paulo Coelho tackles this question in The Alchemist. His conclusion? We don’t have the “courage to confront our own dream.”

Sounds harsh.

But it makes sense. He claims four obstacles stand in our way of a better life.

Obstacle #1: As we get older, we’re told it’s impossible for us to have what we truly want. So we bury our dreams deep down until we forget about them.

Obstacle #2: Love. How often do you hear people claim they’d travel or take more risks if they weren’t “tied down” with a family?

Obstacle #3: Fear of failure. Most people would rather never try than risk failure because once you try and fail, it’s hard to rationalize why you failed. If you never try, it’s easier to claim you never cared about it or that, if you really wanted it, you could do it.

So what’s worse than the fear of failure?

Obstacle #4: Fear of success. Sometimes we fear success because so many others have failed. We feel guilty and selfish for achieving success. It’s like survivor’s guilt: we survived—we succeeded—when so many others haven’t.

Why us? Why not them?

We feel like we don’t deserve to be happy, to have such a meaningful, purpose-driven life.

Coelho helps us navigate these obstacles through the story of a humble Spanish shepherd boy who dreams of visiting the Great Pyramids of Egypt. We follow him on his journey to achieve his Personal Legend as he travels through a treacherous desert, struggles with self-doubt and real-world dangers like thieves and warring desert tribes, and meets interesting people—including an alchemist who’s over 200 years old and who can turn lead into gold.

If you decide to read this book—and you should—keep this in mind: This book is written as a parable for children. Either for actual children or to your inner younger self—the person you were when the world was full of wonder and potential—before cynicism and burnout set in.

So if you’re not willing to revisit your long-buried dreams or embrace the fact you can still pursue a meaningful life—regardless of how old you are—reading this book will only remind you of how much you’ve given up and make you more bitter about it. Just look at some of the Goodreads reviews—they’re full of miserable people complaining about how the book tells you it’s possible to become self-actualized, but because they haven’t done it—it’s delusional.

Don’t be like those people. Don’t be a miserable sad-sack.

But if you’re willing to try “Round 2” to escape mediocrity and pursue a more meaningful life—or you need motivation to keep going—I’ve put together 11 lessons from The Alchemist to help you achieve your own Personal Legend—so you can escape mediocrity, pursue your passions, and build a more meaningful life.

Let’s go.

Lesson #1: Complacency Kills

In an early scene, the shepherd boy is watching his flock of sheep and observes how complacent the sheep have become:

They were content with just food and water, and, in exchange, they generously gave of their wool, their company, and—once in a while—their meat. If I became a monster today, and decided to kill them, one by one, they would become aware only after most of the flock had been slaughtered…They trust me, and they’ve forgotten how to rely on their own instincts, because I lead them to nourishment.

How have your instincts been dulled by complacency and security?

I have friends who intentionally go out into the wilderness with minimal equipment to test their survival skills. They say doing hard things keeps them sharp. One friend’s mantra is, “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”

After observing his sheep, the boy realizes he’s torn between pursuing his dream and staying in his comfort zone:

Here I am, between my flock and my treasure, the boy thought. He had to choose between something he had become accustomed to and something he wanted to have.

Complacency kills creativity and innovation. It lulls us into disengaging from our lives—we go on autopilot and coast through our day-to-day existence–slowly accepting a mediocre existence.

There’s nothing wrong with a salaried job. But that reliable paycheck can scare you away from jumping ship when the job becomes soul-sucking. By all means, work the job and save money so you have a safety net. But if you don’t want to work that job for 40+ years of your life—the healthiest years you’ll have—beware of being lulled into passivity by a steady paycheck.

I’m not saying abandon your responsibilities to join a traveling circus (although that’s a viable option). Look for ways to uphold your responsibilities and pursue a meaningful life.

At some point, we all stand on the same precipice as the boy: step back into our small lives and dream about bigger things, or step forward into the unknown to pursue a purpose-driven life at the expense of our comfort zone.

Which will you choose?

Lesson #2: Everything, and Everyone, Has a Purpose

It’s easy to complain about our lives. It’s easy to feel worthless when life doesn’t turn out how we expected. We all struggle with insecurities.

As he sets out on his journey, the boy starts to complain about having to carry his jacket in the sweltering afternoon heat, but then he reminds himself the jacket kept him warm during the frigid morning earlier that day.

We have to be prepared for change, he thought, and he was grateful for the jacket’s weight and warmth. The jacket had a purpose, and so did the boy.

But what was his purpose? His parents wanted him to become a priest, but he wanted to travel the land, not preach.

If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.

It’s easy to give in to parental and societal expectations—to “fall in line”—instead of pursuing our own desires. But trying to live up to other people’s expectations is a surefire way to misery. No one ever became self-actualized following the path someone else laid out for them. Each of us has a purpose, but it’s up to us to give ourselves permission to pursue it.

Lesson #3: Everyone Has A Personal Legend, But Most Give Up On It

The boy meets a man who claims to be the King of Salem, who offers to help him because the boy has discovered his “Personal Legend.”

What is a Personal Legend? The king explains:

“It’s what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.”

What is this “mysterious force?”

“It’s a force that appears to be negative, but actually shows you how to realize your Personal Legend. It prepares your spirit and your will, because there is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.”

In less spiritual terms, you can think of this concept as fulfilling your potential. Talk to anyone who’s successful (not just playing the part for social media) and they’ll tell you about the hardships they overcame to become successful. Not only that, but they’ll tell you about how those hardships prepared them for success.

Part of reaching your potential is learning to see obstacles as stepping-stones instead of stop signs.

The only difference between people who succeed and those who don’t is that successful people just never quit. Homelessness, bankruptcy, abuse, mental health issues, catastrophic life circumstances—you’ll find all these and more in most successful people’s autobiographies. Oprah talks about how she was so poor growing up, her family said they were “po’” because they couldn’t even afford the other letters.

But most of us delay our ideal lifestyle because we only see stop signs.

The king points to a baker standing in the shop window at a corner plaza and says:

“When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he’s an old man, he’s going to spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”

This relates to the “Slave, Save, Retire” mindset Tim Ferriss talks about in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek:

Don’t put off your goals or ideal lifestyle until you retire at 65. Take mini-vacations and dabble in your ideal lifestyle throughout life so you can fully enjoy it while you can.

You may not live to see retirement, your loved ones may not be there to spend it with, your health and other age-related issues may cause a drop in your quality of life, or any of a hundred other unforeseen issues could prevent you from enjoying the carrot on the stick you’ve chased your entire life.

Too many people give up on their goals because they think it’s “too late.” Just because you’re 25, 30, 50, 75, doesn’t mean you can’t start on the path to building a better life. What else are you going to do with the time you have left?

If you want to go to college at 55, fucking go.

“But Corey, I’m too old to do that! I’ll be 60 before long.” So? You’re going to hit 60 regardless. You might as well be pursuing something meaningful when you hit that age. I have a Fraternity Brother who, due to narcolepsy and other health issues, took over a decade to complete a 4-year degree.

Guess what? His diploma says the same thing as mine. It doesn’t say how long it took him to earn it—because that doesn’t matter.

Lesson #4: You Control Your Identity

The boy decides to sell his flock—everything he owns—and use the money to fund his trip to Egypt. Toward the beginning of his journey, he hires a guide to take him. But the guide ends up swindling him of all his money.

Understandably distraught, he realizes he has to make a choice: think of himself as a poor victim of a thief or as an adventurer on a quest for treasure.

“I’m an adventurer looking for treasure,” he said to himself.

We can’t control what happens to us. But we can control how we think about what happens to us. Our personal narrative—the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us—is within our control.

You get to choose whether you’re a victim or a survivor—or in the boy’s case, an adventurer.

Lesson #5: Some People Would Rather Dream Than Do

To earn money, the boy starts working for a crystal merchant who tells him he’d love to go to Mecca, so the boy asks him why he hasn’t yet.

The merchant responds:

“Because it’s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive. That’s what helps me face these days that are all the same…I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living.”

The merchant would rather dream about a better life than actually pursue it. He wants to live in a fantasy world—daydreaming about what could be—instead of actualizing it.

Most people do this.

Either because they’re afraid reality won’t live up to their expectations or because they’re afraid of failing. It’s easier to say, “Yeah, I could’ve done XYZ if I wanted to. I’ve always had a ton of potential,” than say, “Yeah, I tried to do XYZ and it didn’t work out.”

But here’s the thing: even if you don’t succeed on that goal, you’ll learn a lot along the way. These lessons are the raw material you can alchemically transform into something powerful: self-understanding and strategic planning moving forward.

Most people vacillate between rehashing the “good old days” with their high school buddies and dreaming about a better life. They never take action to make it a reality.

You may fail in your pursuit of a better life. But you’re guaranteed to fail if you never attempt it.

Hell, I “failed” when I didn’t get into my top grad program—after applying three years in a row. I thought it was what I wanted. But along the way, I realized what I really wanted was to help people build a better life for themselves—and there were tons of paths I could take to achieve that.

Looking back, had I gotten what I thought I wanted, my life would’ve been very different—and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. The detour I took lead me down a better path—one where I can now fully pursue what’s meaningful to me.

Other people fear success more than they fear failure. They think success will rob them of something to work toward. But once you reach the top of the mountain, you realize you’re at the beginning of the mountain range.

Stop dreaming. Start doing.

Lesson #6: You Can Handle More Than You Give Yourself Credit For, If You’re Willing To Adapt

As the boy is crossing the desert on his way to Egypt, he talks to one of the camel drivers about how he became one after a flood wiped out his farm:

The land was ruined, and I had to find some other way to earn a living. So now I’m a camel driver. But the disaster taught me to understand the word of Allah: people need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want.

Tim Ferriss, a modern Stoic and best-selling author of The 4-Hour Workweek, loves the Stoic exercise of practicing poverty described by Seneca:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”

If you know you can handle your worst-case scenario, you’ll be able to make better decisions about your life and business without letting fear influence you. You’ll know that even if you fail, you can make do—and even thrive—with next to nothing. It helps you build tolerance for the unexpected disruptions that inevitably pop up in life.

Some people fast for multiple days every month to feel real hunger. Some set a max food budget of $15 a week and live off instant coffee and oatmeal. Others camp in their back yard without modern amenities. Find exercises that work for you to build resilience.

Another strategy you can use is the Stoic practice of premeditatio malorum—premeditating on the evils and troubles that may lie ahead. It’s the exercise of imagining how things could go wrong and preparing a strategy to deal with them if they happen.

For example:

“What if I lose my job?”

Answer: “I’ll focus on saving up an emergency fund so I can survive three to six months in case I suddenly stop getting a paycheck.”

With a strategy in place, you won’t be controlled by fear. If you have the power to walk away, you won’t feel trapped to stay in a bad situation—whether it’s a soul-sucking job, relationship, or business venture.

Lesson #7: Once You Make A Decision, Commit To It

During their journey, some of the other travelers seem fearful of the dangers of the desert. One of the camel drivers, who appears calm, says:

“Once you get into the desert, there’s no going back. And when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward.”

Once you commit to a goal, the hardest part—making a decision about which path to take—is behind you. The rest of the work is just staying focused on moving forward toward your goal.

This echoes Michael Jordan’s philosophy about staying focused on moving forward throughout his career:

“Once I made a decision, I never thought about it again.”

Indecision & lack of follow-through kill more dreams than lack of money or education ever will.

Lesson #8: If You Want Peace, Focus On The Present

The boy is talking to the camel driver about the threat of tribal wars in the desert and the danger it could pose to the caravan. The driver doesn’t seem worried, so the boy asks why he isn’t more concerned.

“I’m alive. When I’m eating, that’s all I think about. If I’m on the march, I just concentrate on marching. If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other. Because I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man.”

Too many people live their lives in misery because their mind is everywhere but the present moment.

Depression lives in the past—all your past failures, “shoulda would coulda” thinking, and every wrong turn you think you took.

Anxiety lives in the future—catastrophizing, what-if scenarios, and all manner of calamities that maybe one day could happen.

But the present moment is peaceful. Why do you think Buddhists focus so much on practicing being in the present moment through mindfulness? Because it’s the only refuge we have from the stormy chaos of life.

Think of the last thing you worried about. You worked yourself up to the point your heart started racing, you started sweating, and your stomach became upset. In the end, did the thing you worried about even happen? And if it did happen, was it as bad as you made it out to be in your mind?

The next time you start to worry ask yourself how far into the potential future your thoughts have wandered. Then bring them back to the present and focus on what is within your control now. The past and the future are both outside your control—any energy you spend trying to control them is wasted and will leave you feeling hopeless or powerless.

To quote Seneca,

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

You have the power to stop suffering in imagination. Bring your thoughts back to your present reality.

Lesson #9: If You Fail, At Least Fail Daring Greatly

As the boy gets closer to achieving his goal, doubt creeps into his thoughts about whether he’ll succeed. So he reminds himself:

“When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve known that every hour was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

Here’s the thing, stepping out of your comfort zone is terrifying, and success is never guaranteed.

You could 100% fail.

But do you know the number one regret people have on their deathbed? They don’t regret the things they did. They regret the things they didn’t do.

If you found out that today was your last day alive, would you be satisfied with how you’ve spent your last week on earth? This is different than the typical, “What would you do if you had seven days left to live,” because if you have warning, you can party it up and live life to the fullest. But if you’ve already lived your last week, would you be satisfied?

If you’ve spent your last week pursuing a meaningful, purpose-driven life—what Coelho calls your Personal Legend—then your answer would be “yes.”

But if you’ve resigned yourself to a mediocre existence, coasting through life on auto-pilot and given up on reaching your potential…probably not.

The boy asks the alchemist what if he dies trying to live out his Personal Legend. The alchemist says:

“Then you’ll die in the midst of trying to realize your Personal Legend. That’s a lot better than dying like millions of other people, who never even knew what their Personal Legends were.”

Again, memento mori. You’re 100% going to die one day. It’s not if, but when. So when you die, how do you want to have spent your limited time here on earth? Pursuing a meaningful life, or having given up decades before you finally check in to the graveyard?

Lesson #10: Truth Is Earned, Not Given

At one point, the boy and the alchemist run into some armed tribesmen who search them to make sure they don’t have any weapons. One of the tribesmen finds the alchemist’s Philosopher’s Stone and vial of the Elixir of Life and asks what they are. The alchemist replies:

“That’s the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. It’s the Master Work of the alchemists. Whoever swallows that elixir will never be sick again, and a fragment from that stone turns any metal into gold.”

The Arabs laughed at him, and the alchemist laughed along. They thought his answer was amusing, and the allowed the boy and the alchemist to proceed with all of their belongings.

“Are you crazy?” the boy asked the alchemist, when they had moved on. “What did you do that for?”

“To show you one of life’s simple lessons,” the alchemist answered. “When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.”

This is one of the hardest concepts for people to accept when they hire a therapist or coach. I’ve had dozens of people come to me looking for answers on how to improve their lives.

Many people expect to be spoon-fed solutions to their problems. They get frustrated when I don’t give them what they expect. They get impatient when I try to help them process the problem and develop their own solutions. “Just tell me what to do!” they complain.

But here’s the thing, even if I did give them answers, it wouldn’t help—because they’re my answers. Just because they work for me doesn’t mean they’ll work for you. And if you don’t own your solution, you won’t be invested in it enough to carry it out.

Part of coaching is helping people develop their own solution—that way they own it. We value what we’ve earned more than what we’re given.

Your truth isn’t someone else’s. And even if you’ve discovered a universal truth, sometimes people just aren’t ready to accept it. Don’t be dismayed. Think of all the advice people gave you when you were younger that you disregarded—only to rediscover for yourself years later.

Lesson #11: If You Want To Grow, Embrace The Power Of Co-Evolution

“I have known true alchemists,” the alchemist continued. “They locked themselves in their laboratories, and tried to evolve, as gold had. And they found the Philosopher’s Stone, because they understood that when something evolves, everything around that thing evolves as well.”

Most people fall into one of two camps: those with a scarcity mindset and those with an abundance mindset.

A scarcity mindset is when you see all resources as limited—life is a zero-sum game. In order for one person to win, another must lose. The more you have, the less I will have—so I must compete with you, so I have more and you have less.

This is the basis for every war, every argument, every conflict of any magnitude throughout history: one person wants what someone else has or doesn’t want that person to have something.

An abundance mindset says a rising tide raises all ships. Meaning you succeeding helps me succeed. Mutual interdependence and cooperation. It’s the cogs in a Swiss watch intricately working in tandem to create a stunning functional work of art.

It’s also why it’s critical you cultivate your social circles.

If you’re the average of the five people you hang out with the most, what does that mean for your future? If you regularly hang out with five millionaires, how long do you think it’ll take you to become the sixth? Versus if you hang out with five people who gamble and always wind up broke a few days after payday?

Seek to evolve and seek people to evolve with.

Key Takeaways

The message echoed throughout the book is this:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Call it serendipity. Call it destiny. Call it whatever you want. But understand this: your ideal life isn’t waiting to fall into your lap.

Most people become cynical and give up on a better life because they expected it to be easy. They felt entitled to a great life, so they passively daydreamed about hitting the lottery without taking action.

Escaping mediocrity and pursuing a better life is just that—a pursuit—it’s active. As you put yourself out there, face obstacles, and learn from your setbacks—serendipity occurs.

It’s difficult—and success isn’t guaranteed. But how else do you want to spend your limited time alive? When you’re on your deathbed, how do you want to look back on your life?

The world needs more people—more Rebels—willing to pursue their Personal Legend.

You deserve a better life, and the more authentically you live, the more those around you will evolve and pursue their ideal life.

The Alchemist reminds us that each of us can make our own lives—and the world around us—better. But we have to put in the work and be willing to have the courage to confront our dreams:

“That’s what alchemists do. They show that when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”