When In Doubt, Read The Alchemist By Paulo Coelho
I first came across The Alchemist in fourth grade in the school library. Nestled between The Princess Diaries and All American Girl, it wasn’t something I was drawn to. I remember really wanting to read The Princess Diaries, but someone else beat me to it (and later spoiled the ending). So, I had no choice but to pick Coelho’s book.
Actually, I didn’t pick it.
I chose All American Girl, and the librarian looked at me for a long time before swapping it for The Alchemist.
At the time, I thought that she was being very judgmental. But thinking back, I think she saved me from falling down into that particular genre’s rabbit hole, which gave way to Twilight and company.
I remember hating it. The book looked boring, and Paulo Coelho’s picture at the back showed an old man. I thought I was in for a bland read. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Alchemist was great, to put it mildly, and come next week, I found myself asking the librarian for another book by the same writer.
I’ll admit that I had a phase for perhaps three weeks (because the new Harry Potter book came out after that), where I’d read three more books by Coelho. The phase ended, and I never really got back to those books again.
Until the pandemic, that is.
Rediscovering Books I’ve Read Years Ago (And Some I Never Have)
Coming home from university after three years due to COVID-19 gave me the opportunity to go back to Paulo Coelho. My younger sister has always been a big Coelho fan, collecting all of his books, but I hadn’t really gotten around to reading those books. I faintly remembered what The Alchemist was about, and that was it. But gosh, reading these books again was an eye-opener.
Turns out, there’s a massive difference in perspective when you read books in your early twenties, compared to childhood. The last time I read Paulo Coelho was when I was ten or eleven years old, and I missed a LOT of things. Now, I was able to not only see what I’d missed but also read other titles I had never read before.
The Alchemist Has A Special Place In My Heart
I think it’s pretty obvious to say that The Alchemist has a special place in my heart. I usually tend to be more reserved when it comes to the first book I read by a writer because it ends up setting the standard for what I expect from them. Of course, this has its pros and cons, so I have to be very particular about things like these. The Alchemist, though, is a magnificent exception.
Before I read this book, I had never been exposed to magical realism. As a child with a hyperactive imagination, I found it hard to articulate a lot of things. I felt like no one understood what it was like. Pakistan in the late 2000s had been exposed to Hannah Montana and this sudden eruption of Western culture. So, everyone was “too cool for school,” even though we were all a bunch of pre-teens. It didn’t help that I wasn’t allowed to watch Miley Cyprus wear a wig, so I didn’t really get the reference.
Instead, I had to rely on my imagination for entertainment. The Alchemist provided just that: the right amount of imagination as I read about Santiago. It was able to stimulate my imagination, making me dream about the book at one point.
Coming back to this book as an adult, I learned that not only did I still vividly remember the imagery in the book, but there was this lovely sense of nostalgia. There’s just something so familiar about The Alchemist.
The Alchemist Makes You Want To Dream
I think I found this book particularly fascinating because I won my first science competition around the same time I started reading it. I don’t remember the specifics anymore. But I do know that I was reading the chapter where Santiago meets the Alchemist who told him to listen to the signs of the universe.
I always knew that I was fascinated by the concept of flight. While my father’s entire career revolves around flying, my parents did not like the idea of me becoming a pilot. Or a flight engineer. Or anything that required me to travel too much, for that matter.
I’ll admit that it sounded cruel as a child, but when I read that chapter, it made me think of why my parents weren’t letting me pursue this fascinating career. I think that’s the first I really reflected and looked into myself to find answers. After a while, the reason became clear, and I thought that I was probably the Hermione Granger of my generation.
And then I won the science competition, and it was as though someone had flipped a switch: aerospace engineering. That’ll satisfy my curiosity for flight, right?
And it did.
I decided I’d become an aerospace engineer that day. But instead of it being a mere career option that I’d look into later, it became a dream—kind of like Santiago’s dream to find the treasure.
Somehow, Paulo Coelho was able to not only inspire me into making a major life decision years in advance, but he’d also managed to make me want to chase it. I’ve actively made sure that every decision I’ve ever made was somehow connected to my goal. Every competition, every society I’ve joined…everything has always come back to that dream. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to me. After all, people are motivated by a lot of things, but this dream of mine is just one step shy of obsession.
And I completely blame Paulo Coelho for that.
It Prepares You For Setbacks
The story of The Alchemist isn’t a straightforward story where the protagonist has to face challenges and overcome them after some resistance. Coelho makes the stakes high, making the reader feel the impact of the decision.
In a way, it’s like life. No matter how good you are at something, you’re going to experience some form of setback. If not today, it’s going to happen someday. You need to be prepared for it.
So, what do you do? Well, The Alchemist has a simple suggestion. Turn those setbacks into learning experiences and opportunities that you can look towards for guidance. It’s simple yet effective advice. You wouldn’t believe how often we ignore this.
My approach to setbacks comes directly from The Alchemist. I like to understand and feel the full impact of “failures” as it allows me to understand exactly what went wrong. The last thing I want is to experience something over and over again. However, The Alchemist also teaches you that if something’s worth it, you’re going to allow yourself to experience setbacks multiple times until you find an outcome you agree with.
Basically, think of it this way. Just because you’re horrible with numbers doesn’t mean that you quit math altogether. You need to try over and over again until you finally get that coveted B- in your finals- even if it means that you have to retake the course multiple times. In the end, you get the grade, and you learn from it, and that makes it worth it, doesn’t it?
The Alchemist Tells You To Manifest Your Own Destiny
Perhaps the most important lesson we learn from The Alchemist is that only you have the power to decide what you want to do. This is a particularly fascinating concept if you’ve grown up in a country like Pakistan.
Certain things are expected of us. We are expected to follow what I call the “standard model of life” wherein you need to graduate, get a job, get married, have kids, have them graduate, have them married, and then you die (and maybe see your grandkids before you do). It’s an incredibly mundane cycle that a lot of us aren’t necessarily interested in.
However, we have to come back to it at one point. You could be eighteen or twenty-eight before you do. Most often, as teenagers, we decide that we’re going to “break the cycle” and do something different. But somewhere along the way, life happens, and we fall back into the cycle. I know way too many people who’ve done this. In fact, I’m one of three or four people in my immediate high school social circle who isn’t married, engaged, or in a long-term relationship.
Does it bother me sometimes? Yes, it does.
But becoming an aerospace engineer- regardless of whether I practice it or not- is more important than any of that. My mother’s worried, of course, because it’s taking way too long and I should be married by 25 but no. I know my destiny and getting married isn’t a part of it yet.
The Alchemist taught me that it is possible to have dreams outside of what’s expected of you. More importantly, it’s given me the necessary mindset to ensure that I do whatever it takes to achieve it. Everyone has dreams but only a few people have the willpower and toolset to ensure that it comes true. That’s true about people, isn’t it?
The Alchemist has this amazing way of getting the point across no matter who’s reading it. In the end, I’m going to conclude this piece with my favorite quote from the book:
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”