Paulo Coelho in the introduction of The Alchemist discusses four ways that people “fail to confront their dreams” (or one’s personal calling). The first way is that people are told from childhood that what they are seeking to do is impossible for them. People often do not try because there is a voice in their head that says, “you can’t do it.” It may be an echo from childhood, or the way they speak to themselves where they say, “stupid, ugly, fat, and who do you think you are?”
The second reason is love; we have those in our lives that are resistant to us leaving them behind in order to pursue the dream. Coelho says, “We do not realize that those that genuinely wish us well, want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey.” There will be times when a person may want to grow and those around them are not ready for them to change. They fear that they won’t be loved anymore, or that when they depart for this new journey that they will not return (either in the physical or in the way we grow as people).
There may also be financial obligations where support for a family or spouse and this commitment may outweigh one’s personal desire for exploration. It may just have to wait to a more opportune time.
Third is the fear of defeat. We cease trying to fight for our dream and stop reaching for it because we believe that we will fail. Similar to number one but different in that we may set out on this new journey but are willing to take set backs as a way to quit. We say to ourselves, “well, I tried.” If you don’t really try, then you don’t really fail.
Then the fourth way that we fail to confront our dreams is that we fear that we will actually achieve it. Coelho quotes Oscar Wilde where he said, “Each man kills the thing he loves.” We ask ourselves, “what if I am actually successful.” There is a scene in the book where the protagonist is working for a merchant who sells crystal. In their discussions it is discovered that the boy is on a journey toward his life’s calling and the merchant has always wanted to go to Mecca as an act of worship.
The protagonist, by working for the merchant, has brought renewed business and success to the shop owner. Before this newfound success the storeowner has always been able to say that he could not afford to travel, or could not leave the shop, etc. But now he has the ability to go to Mecca but has come to realize that he really doesn’t want to have the success.
The boy didn’t know what to say. The old man continued, “You have been a real blessing to me. 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 see them, and now that I see how immense the possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse that I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.”
Fear of Success
“I have known a lot of people who, when their personal calling was within their grasp, went on to commit a series of stupid mistakes and never reached their goal, when it was only a step away.”
— The Alchemist
There are things that I have seen leaders do, and I myself have done, that when “success” is within grasp or is appearing on the horizon have done things or made decisions that have sabotaged that success (consciously or subconsciously).
Why would a person do things that would sabotage their own success?
- Fear of Leadership. They don’t like the idea of moving from the crowd to standing alone as the leader. It may mean having more resources, money, power, etc. than those around them, so they take actions that will keep them on the same level as their friends, workmates, family members, etc.
The idea of leaving home or moving away from loved ones in order to make our next career move may seem scary so they are unwilling to take the steps required to move forward.
- Not Feeling Worthy of Success. Some struggle with the idea of seeing themselves as successful. They may say they want this, but just can’t see it in their mind’s eye because their self-image won’t let them. It may be a form of self-punishment where they keep themselves from success in order to punish themselves because of previous sins.
- Fear of Change. Success brings changes in life. But you can never predict how these changes will affect your life, so you decide that it is better to stay with what you know instead of advancing toward what you don’t .
- Fear of Embarrassment. If you never try to climb the mountain, then you will never have to deal with the embarrassment of only getting half-way up the mountain. If you don’t try, then you won’t fail. There are many very talented people who because they fear they will be embarrassed never step on the stage and try.
- Feeling Trapped. There are those in positions of responsibility that feel trapped and because of emotional immaturity don’t know how to get out. They don’t want others to look to them as a leader. They do not want to carry the weight of leadership, so they sabotage their position so they can just “be normal.”
Often times these individuals don’t know how to get out from under this weight in a healthy manner so they do something destructive (an affair, embezzlement, hurt themselves, etc.) in an effort to cut themselves off from this feeling of being suffocated.
- Loving the Journey. If you actually achieve the goal, cross the finish line, make the sell, etc. (choose your best metaphor) then the journey is over, you are now successful in your life. As long as you were seeking the goal then you know where the path leads and what is involved on the journey. There are some people who become bored once they have what they want.
There must always be a mountain to climb. As long as they are preparing to climb, or are on the side of the mountain then they are happy. They love the journey, and may even sabotage the achievement (or at least delay it) because, for them, the climb is why they are doing it; the end result is really not important to them.
Whatever the reason may be for intentionally or unintentionally wrecking one’s career, it is worth the time to sit down and ask “where am I going?” “What are my immediate life goals?” (And) “Am I doing something consciously or subconsciously to keep those goals from happening?”
 Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist (New York, New York; Harper Collins, 1993) v-vi.
 Ibid. 58.
 Seth Godin and his discussion of the Lizard Brain. We sabotage our success because of our survival instincts drive us to be safe (start at 9:19).