Living for Now Without Losing Your North Star
An analysis of Self-Worth, Success, and Purpose through The Alchemist
During these times, I’ve done a lot of self-reflection and one thing I became aware of is that most of my anxieties are attached to my desire to be successful. From digging a level deeper, these anxieties are attached to my desire to be worthy and special. The underlying reason I get so worried about the outcomes of my startup or my career is that I’m worried that if they fail or are mediocre, then that is a reflection of me. And if my achievements aren’t special, am I? Am I not leaving a dent in the world? These questions got me contemplating what the rational way to think about this is.
I’m going to use the story of The Alchemist to make my point about what I think is a smart approach because I think it is so relevant and has so many beautiful lessons. The Alchemist tells the tale of an Andalusian shepherd boy who desires to travel the world. He chooses to let go of his current life and sell his sheep so that he can pursue what he comes to believe is his Personal Legend — to reach the Egyptian Pyramids and find his treasure.
On the way, the boy works in a crystal shop, where he is told the story of a boy that goes to a wise man in search for the secret of happiness. The man instructs him to hold a teaspoon of oil and to not let it spill while he explores his home. In the boy’s first attempt, the oil doesn’t spill but he fails to notice the impressive garden or any of the Persian tapestries. In his second attempt, he takes in all of his surroundings but spills his oil, and the wise man tells makes his point:
“The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”
The way I interpret this is as the oil on the spoon representing our dreams, goals, and desires. The oil on the spoon is precious and requires decisive movement to preserve. But, if we are too micro-focused on keeping that oil intact, we aren’t able to show up in the present moment and appreciate the daily wonders of our journey. So we need to find a way to keep the dreams alive without missing the daily wonders, but what does that look like in practice? Can we really have both? Here are some of my thoughts:
First off, I think it’s essential that you work to figure out an idea of what your purpose is. In the book, the boy is told his Personal Legend by a king, but in the real world, it’s not that straightforward. If you would like to hear my thoughts and suggestions on that topic specifically, check out this article on finding and bringing purpose into your life. The point is that it’s really hard to be productive if you don’t have at least a general sense of where you want to head. Now, while it’s important to have these Legends, we can’t be attached to what they look like when we get there:
Boy: “Why are you called the alchemist?”
Alchemist: “Because that’s what I am”
Boy: “And what went wrong when other alchemists tried to make gold and were unable to do so?”
Alchemist: “They were only looking for gold. They were seeking the treasure of their Personal Legend, without wanting actually to live out the Personal Legend”
It’s all about this idea of living out the Personal Legend and taking treasure in that rather than an ultimate reward (see my article on Loving the Process). This is definitely the type of mindset that makes sense in intuition but is a lot harder in practice. It’s about working hard on the quest for something but not depending on reaching the finish line to realize your self-worth. Others’ perception of your achievements or where you are at on your journey shouldn’t matter as much; it is self-worth, remember. Again, easier to agree with than to actually embody; it’s natural to care about how others see you and it’s not a wholly negative thing, but there’s a lot of self-confidence to be gained when you declare your legend/purpose/dharma without being attached to the ultimate treasure.
It’s about every day showing up to pursue the legend for the joy of pursuing it, and because it’s what we’ve decided our best efforts should go toward. And of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t work hard or push toward your goals because that is critical. It just means you’re not trying to control the outcome and are not relying on that stress for motivation. You are confident that you are heading in that direction and can draw motivation from that: placing your focus on your intention, on your process, and your effort. It’s a shift from how I want things to be in the future to how I want to show up right now; what I want to bring to the task rather than get out of it.
I made this diagram of the different types of perspectives you can have about reaching your Personal Legend to illustrate a little further what I mean by this. One mindset can be that the journey to your Personal Legend is one long effort and another can be that the journey to your Personal Legend is through the repetition of habitual efforts. While they are both aiming for the same place, the person with the habitual effort mindset is able to feel happier on a moment-to-moment basis. They let themselves come up for air rather than live in a constant state of unwholeness until they eventually are able to reach their Personal Legend. With a mindset like this, you are able to live your Personal Legend just by working toward it as opposed to having to reach it. If your legend is to be an author, you start embodying that the day you start writing, not the day your book gets published.
This also doesn’t say that aspiring to get somewhere is a bad thing. For me, to aspire to be successful in my entrepreneurial endeavors is not inherently harmful to my moment-to-moment happiness; but to grasp and cling to exactly what that has to look like is. The goal itself helps to provide a focus and source of motivation, but trying too hard to hold on to a specific path or vision is trying to control things that can’t be fully controlled. If you are aspiring authentically, a slight change in direction should not inhibit your ability to enjoy where you are currently at on your journey. It’s a really hard balance between being clear about what you want and how you are going to try to get there but also giving yourself permission to enjoy the process of getting there and to not cling to the outcome you’re hoping to get. Not so easy.
One way I think to make this easier is to find a way to take your self out of this. Perform your daily duty and put in your effort in the path to your Personal Legend, not just for your own benefit, but for the service this can provide. Removing your own self-importance is a powerful way to maintain that same energy to work hard toward your goal, but also to take some of the pressure off. Of course, you shouldn’t put other people’s needs before yourself, but it gets a lot easier to enjoy the process when there’s a bigger meaning to it than just your own interests.
Boy: “I’m not afraid of failing. It’s just that I don’t know how to turn myself into the wind.”
Alchemist: “Well, you’ll have to learn; your life depends on it.”
Boy: “But what if I can’t?”
Alchemist: “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.”
Tying this back to my dilemma from the beginning, I really don’t need to attach my success and achievements to my self-worth. I am worthy for the sole reason that I am pursuing my Personal Legend, and even if I fail to get there, I can feel confident in my direction and can embody that every day. But going further, the actions I take on a daily basis shouldn’t simply be directed by what makes me the worthiest. If I focus on how my actions contribute to the wellbeing of others rather than just their implications on my own importance, I can become even more deeply engaged in the present moment, which can make all the difference.
Similar to a lot of what I write about, I’m applying these concepts as I put together my thoughts, so I definitely can’t say I’ve mastered this mindset yet. If you’re interested in keeping up with everything I’m learning and thinking about + my recommendations for tools, books, articles, and videos related to personal development, feel free to check out my newsletter here.
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