“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
Paulo Coelho The Alchemist
I read The Alchemist for the first time only a couple weeks ago. The premise of this novel, originally published in 1988, is astounding and has one of those perpetually relevant themes about pursuing dreams (or treasures, depending on your interpretation). I’ll try to briefly describe plot without either giving anything away or failing to do it justice.
Santiago, the protagonist, attended seminary as a boy but chose instead to become a shepherd so that he could travel. One night he has a dream about seeking treasure and it initiates his journey to the Egyptian pyramids in search of this treasure. He demonstrates a healthy balance of curiosity and caution, but soon realizes that caution is a bigger threat to his happiness than taking a risk.
The quote above is spoken to Santiago by a man whom we only know as the Alchemist. In the situation where it is spoken, the Alchemist has promised to the leader of a war tribe that in three days’ time, Santiago will transform himself into the wind. If he fails to do so, they will give up their lives to the tribe. Bold, young Santiago is angered by this because the Alchemist has put him into an impossible situation. But the Alchemist says to Santiago: “If a person is living out his Personal Legend, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
Many times, in the course of pursuing our dreams, we are met with a series of unrelated, seemingly insurmountable tasks. On his journey to find treasure, Santiago meets many people who all have an opinion of his daunting task, but it isn’t until he learns about the Alchemist that his perception of seeking treasure transforms into seeking his destiny. The Alchemist, because of his position and experience and knowledge, has the unique ability to challenge Santiago in ways that he’s never been challenged before. Is this not so indicative of real life? When we’re not just challenged by our circumstances, but challenged by our mentors and peers?
I’m glad Brian chose to talk about fear in this episode of Profitcast, if it’s only for my own sake! It’s healthy for me to think about fears, call them by name, and address their often crippling nature because I’ve seen it derail me in the past. When a fear is known only by me, its secret—or the shame of its existence—can be extraordinarily harmful and discouraging.
Luckily, I’ve had a couple people like the Alchemist in my life who have put me into situations where I must face something that has no business ruling my life. I’ve never been asked to transform myself into the wind, but sometimes it’s sure felt like that was what was being asked of me!
I can’t remember where I first saw this, but there is a popular acronym for FEAR:
By defining a fear, I’ve been able to separate what I know to be a lie from what I know to be true. And breaking down fear has allowed me to take decisive action. Brian talks about the differences between he and I when it comes to public speaking, and I think he absolutely nails it. As I’ve come to define what my fears actually are, and not just cower to their lordship over me, I can distinguish between something that makes me a little nervous and something I know myself to be incapable of.
“Incapable?” you ask. “That’s harsh.” Perhaps. Perhaps it’s like saying never. But just as Brian says, there are things I can do very well, and there are things that I cannot do well at all. I can build a website from scratch. I can cook a meal. I can play the guitar. But I cannot speak in front of a big group of people. When the focus and attention is on me, I cannot retain my thoughts well enough to speak coherently. This isn’t about letting fear consume me, it’s about understanding what being in that situation does to my physiology and choosing, instead, to make the most of a situation without having to perform an act that makes me physically distressed.
Somehow I’ve learned to love life without having to do any public speaking whatsoever. (That was sarcasm, by the way.)
Taking incremental steps to confront the fears that are holding me back from my life goals has enabled me to overcome some serious roadblocks preventing me from taking the next step. I believe that is a very important step toward maturity and to maintain one’s sanity! But part of that discovery process is also not being afraid to state what you want, and then see, within that context, what is holding you back and what you want to overcome.
One of the most popular lines from The Alchemist is this: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Sometimes you might think that the exact opposite is true, but even when the odds are stacked against us, it is shaping us into becoming the owner of our dreams. The important thing isn’t to let that fear hold you back, but to inspire you to know more. And in the amazing words of one Dr. Seuss: “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you will go.”
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