Book Notes: The Alchemist

In a previous post, I wrote about how The Alchemist aligns (or doesn’t) with some of my beliefs:

It’s essentially about following your dreams and the law of attraction. However you feel about those things just about sums up whether you’ll like the book or not. Meaning I’m somewhere in the middle. Passion isn’t the end-all for picking a career, but I think affirmations work.

We should be cautious weighing passion so heavily in picking a career. Derek Sivers’s says separating your job and your art is a good solution for being happy. I often reference the hypothetical person who loves surfing. He quickly realizes teaching 7AM classes to Wall Street guys on vacation isn’t quite as fun. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport writes about a woman trading an advertising career to start a yoga practice for pregnant women and kids. It doesn’t go well.

Let’s say you have a business that is going well, you want it to grow as fast as possible right? Maybe not. The boy in The Alchemist helps a crystal merchant get more sales. The boy has a plan (sellTeaInCrystalShop-ver3.pptx) to accelerate that further.

“[…] If we serve tea in crystal, the shop is going to expand. And then I’ll have to change my way of life.”

“Well, isn’t that good?”

“I’m already used to the way things are. Before you came, I was thinking about how much time I had wasted in the same place, while my friends had moved on, and either went bankrupt or did better than they had before. It made me very depressed. Now, I can see that it hasn’t been too bad. The shop is exactly the size I always wanted it to be.

This reminds me of the Basecamp founders, David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried. They write often about the perils of growth. (Here’s DHH’s latest: Exponential growth devours and corrupts.) (Check out some notes I wrote about DHH when he was on the Tim Ferriss show.)

More and more I see why “it depends” is always the answer. Becoming a millionaire is no use if you torch all your relationships to get there. Early retirement is no use if all your joy and motivation comes from work. Generally, I’d like this blog to be bigger, but I need to spend more time thinking about why.

A handful of strangers reading my stuff? Great! Oh, blogs can have hundreds or thousands of readers? Well, that handful seems a lot smaller now. The crystal merchant has always been happy with his sales look nice until he sees that they could be doubled or tripled:

Today, I understand something I didn’t see before: every blessing ignored becomes a curse. I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.”

The first stand-up special I remember is Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain. I was at an age where I understood some jokes but missed the subtext. One joke I did understand was Chris Rock saying Bill Gates would jump out of a window if he woke up with Oprah’s money. Everything is relative.

In the past year I’ve tried practicing gratitude daily. Someone asked if being content is the same as being happy. (Or if being content is required to be happy.) You can break your brain thinking about that. You can be happy and strive for more. Though I imagine the happiest people never think about questions like this.

Oh yeah, the crystal merchant. He decides to sell tea with the boy, sales explode, and the merchant hires two more employees, and they begin importing a whole lot of tea. “You brought new feeling into my crystal shop.” he tells the boy.

Which sort of ckntraxics my points about growth being bad. Time for him to take that hockey stick chart to some VCs.

The Alchemist has a lot of other useful parables. In some ways it seems like there were some generic morals to share and the story is written around them to fit them in. That’s to say: a lot of crazy stuff happens in the book. Just like one thing after another and if nothing is happening then it’ll just skip month or even a year. 

Follow your dream and you’ll find your treasure. Sometimes I believe that completely. Sometimes I wish I believed it more. Reading The Alchemist made me believe just a smidge more. That’s enough to make is worth reading.