I am preoccupied, right now, with the idea of success. Obviously this has a lot to with my final year of university, during which I was told – on multiple occasions – that I am never going to succeed at the thing that I want to do.
A few months ago my school ran a career day called Working with Words. It was a series of lectures with people working in publishing, journalism and radio. I went to a talk about the process of getting published. The first thing that happened was a man from a small publishing house based in the city told us that none of us would ever make a living from writing.
Believe it or not the day only got more discouraging from there.
But it’s not just the whole writing issue that has left me so preoccupied with the notion of success. It’s not just the likelihood of failure the well-meaning people in my life keep reminding me of.
What I eventually realised was happening when I would leave each career event, my heart tying itself in ever more complicated knots in my chest, was that was realising that I didn’t really have a definition in my head for what success even was.
But I was beginning to think it wasn’t the kinds of jobs I was being told it should be. It wasn’t living in London. It wasn’t throwing myself into the strong currents with the competitive people I was surrounded by who did their first internship when they were nine or whatever.
I was not interested in any of that shit.
It’s only been a couple months, but getting out of that environment has given me some much needed headspace. It’s given me the opportunity to think about what I want to do without the influence of the girl behind me in the lunch queue who just can’t wait to tell me about the job she has lined up at Penguin this summer.
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a book about success. It’s a fable about a shepherd boy called Santiago who has a prophetic dream that there is treasure buried for him at the Egyptian Pyramids.
Spoiler alert: it takes him a while to find it.
Coelho describes the process of success as a literal and spiritual journey. Each part of the literal journey contains a spiritual lesson. It’s based in religious teachings – Coelho is Catholic – but not in such a way as to be alienating to the less religious types. He describes the difficulties that must be overcome in pursuit of success. He describes unlearning your childhood lessons about the inevitability of failure and of going forward fearlessly in the face of discouragement and defeat.
All of my own thoughts on success have led me to one solid, but unfortunately cringe-worthy when articulated conclusion. Following your heart is the way forward, even when it feels like your heart has no clue what it’s doing. The lesson at the centre of The Alchemist is the same. Follow your heart at the world will do what it can to aid you.
Another feeling I took from reading this book – and one that I am self-aware enough to realise is probably unique to my current time of life – is that success doesn’t have to be a burden. There is a quote in the book where it is said that all people eventually come to believe the biggest lie of the world – that eventually everything is determined by fate. And even at my age I have believed that at times. When I’ve been stuck talking with my peers about their publishing internships and the graduate scheme they just got an interview for while nursing my wounds over a rejection from an arts administration placement I didn’t even want, I have found myself thinking that it’s already over – that I’m already this massive failure when I haven’t even started yet.
To remember that there is no fated outcome and everything is subject to change is a good attitude to take going forward, I think.
2 thoughts on “The Alchemist”
I went to a similar panel where an author shared the same line of thought around making a living out of writing. Although with the follow up that they do it for the love of it. I find it hard when my friends have a quite different idea of what success is – but I really like your reflection around how everything is subject to change and not fate. Perhaps, I’ll pick up The Alchemist someday.
Thank you! I absolutely recommend The Alchemist. It’s full of great lessons for approaching your grown up life.