Reflections on The Alchemist

Coming of age with a young shepherd

Julia Wu
Julia Wu
Feb 2, 2019 · 5 min read

The Alchemist is among the most notable novels originally written in Portuguese by a Brazilian author. It's a shame I didn't get to it until recently.

After more than a year away from the restless, lively and discernible metropolis that is São Paulo, I boarded the first flight of my homecoming expedition from the San Francisco International Airport. Tens of thousands of feet above the ground, I was reminded of the immensity of our world — the multitudes it contains and the variability of its simultaneous events.

In 2018, I observed Brazil from the other side of the Pacific ocean. I was startled by the economic paralysis caused by a diesel crisis. I watched every one of our world cup matches and felt the euphoric rush of each golaço. The highs were offset by an arresting sense of sorrow after our disqualifying game on that July afternoon. I saw some of Nassim Taleb's theses manifest themselves during a polarizing election.

On this flight back to one of the largest cities in the southern hemisphere, I was traveling with Santiago — a young shepherd in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist.

The richness in this tale’s symbolism and style triggered some flashbacks to my high school IB Literature seminars with Ms. Pfeiffer. Santiago’s decision to ponder his recurring dreams was analogous to the kind of innocent belief that Gatsby had “in the green light”; in the elusive and orgastic future; in his fantasy for Daisy’s love.


Starry eyes, humility, and an insatiable thirst for exploration

I believe that a significant facet of the meaning of life is the pursuit of meaning itself.

Santiago has recurring dreams about a treasure, so he speaks to a fortune teller in hopes of interpreting these dreams. The fortune teller insists that Santiago should go to the Egyptian Pyramids in search of his treasure. In addition to the fortune teller who conjures a call to adventure, Santiago meets a wise old man who claims to be a king and encourages Santiago to fulfill his personal legend. A puzzled and conflicted Santiago realizes that he should take this leap of faith, leave the comfort of his home, sell some sheep and set sail for Africa. Santiago knows he can always go back to being a shepherd because he’s an expert with sheep. Sheep are simple; they’re obedient and complacent. They have no curiosity or rebellious instinct.

Santiago's simplicity and audacity convey a high degree of faith and self-belief. This could be related to naiveté — both a virtue and a vice — which can keep a person away from the grounded skepticism that comes with age.

Certain undertakings, such as giving your personal legend a shot, can be time-sensitive. There is a period in life in which it is much easier to take risks, and we ought to seize it.

Navigating unpathed waters, overcoming deception and defeat

In one of Santiago's stops, he is in foreign territory and doesn't speak the language. He thinks he found a friend, but the other young man ended up running away with some of his money. Santiago cries and feels sorry for himself, only to realize that he has a choice between self pity and taking control.

The obstacle is the way

There are people who let life carry them, and there are people who grab life by the horns like they own it. They apply reality distortion fields on themselves and those around them, until they reach desirable circumstances.

Santiago earns back some of his lost money by demonstrating the skills he could offer at a crystal merchant's shop.

The crystal merchant had a dream that went awry. When he was young, his mission was to work hard and save money to make his pilgrimage to Mecca. Santiago asks the merchant why he hasn't gone to Mecca yet. The response was that the idea and prospect of going to Mecca became his motivation for life, so reaching that final destination might render his life devoid of meaning.

“I’m afraid of realizing my dreams and no longer having a reason to live.”


“Por que Meca é o que me mantém vivo. É o que me faz aguentar todos esses dias iguais, esses vasos calados nas prateleiras, o almoço e o jantar naquele restaurante horrível. Tenho medo de realizar meu sonho e depois não ter mais motivo pra continuar vivo.”

To me, this is one of the most depressing moments in the book. You could be the one who talks yourself into living a limited life. You set your own boundaries out of fear.

Willingness to let go of the good in pursuit of the epic

Santiago established a bond with the crystal merchant during his time as an assistant shopkeeper. His creativity, energy and genuine tenacity helped the business thrive and become a landmark for passersby on their journey to Mecca.

The young boy was debating whether to stay at the shop instead of resuming his journey down this unknown path, in pursuit of a dubious "treasure" that may or may not turn out to be bullshit.

"Perhaps it is better to be like the crystal merchant, never go to Mecca but just live out of the fantasy and desire of reaching it. But I can always go back to being a shepherd. I'll never forget how to take care of sheep. But I might not have another opportunity to reach the Pyramids of Egypt."


“Quem sabe é melhor ser como o Mercador de Cristais: nunca ir a Meca e viver da vontade de conhecê-la. […] Sempre poderei voltar a ser pastor. Aprendi a cuidar das ovelhas e nunca mais me esquecerei de como elas são. Mas talvez não tenha outra oportunidade de chegar até as Pirâmides do Egito.”

Eventually, we learn that it's not just a friend and vocation that Santiago has to leave behind. Down the road, he also meets a girl in the desert with whom he falls madly in love. Experiencing the fire of attraction for the first time, Santiago is devastated about continuing his journey without her. She, like the fortune teller and wise man, encourage Santiago to move on. Because apparently, when you want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you achieve it.

I won't spoil the rest of the story.

Most of the books I read tend to be more applicable and oriented towards understanding and definition (science, economics, philosophy, society). When a book is not related to some aspect of applied/social sciences, it's sci-fi. I haven't picked up the likes of Coelho and Saint-Exupéry in a while, but there's something uniquely pure and fantastic about this category. Reading this timeless novel reminds me about the importance of imagining yourself as the hero protagonist in the movie or novel that is your reality.

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting”


“É justamente a possibilidade de realizar um sonho que torna a vida interessante”

Julia Wu

Written by

Julia Wu

Engineer thinking about fintech, AI, China, and our civilization | @Apple, @Microsoft, @BrownUniversity

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