Why Attitude is the Greatest Alchemy of Life

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” ~ Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)

One of my favourite books is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Its prose is poetic and its theme, wise. In a nut shell, the ancient art of alchemy is the coveted ability to turn lead or mercury into gold. Imagine what a valuable skill that would be…

The Alchemist by David Teniers the Younger

The Alchemist by David Teniers the Younger

Everything you touched transformed literally into gold…  But in a broader sense we are all alchemists. You see, attitude is the raw material of personal alchemy.

By harnessing our most helpful and positive thought processes we can turn any perceived negative situation to our advantage, thus transforming undesirable substances into the elixir of happiness.

alchemy - Jabir_ibn_Hayyan

I love the saying, when life gives you lemons make lemonade. We’ve all known people who can step into a pile of steaming dung and seemingly come out smelling of roses. And there are others who appear to have it all: beauty, talent, fame, money, and on the surface they seem to be highly successful. But if you were a fly on the wall you might understand that issues can plague them just as much as the rest of us. Illness, heartache, family strife, or any kind of situation could be causing them misery, sadness and anxiety.

We all have our ‘stuff’ to deal with. Not least of which is that annoying little voice that likes to chirp up at the most inconvenient moment to tell us that we’re not good enough.

Or is that just me?

No matter what is going on around us, if we stop comparing ourselves to others and just focus on being the best person we can be, we can handle these sticky situations and mutate them into the precious metals of our lives…

The Alchemist by Joseph Wright

The Alchemist by Joseph Wright

When I look back on my saddest moments and greatest life challenges, I know that’s when I grew the most. When the chips are down you learn more about yourself than you do when it’s all plain sailing. My inner strength was forged in the fire of suffering. But it’s like Jesus said, “This too shall pass.” With the benefit of hindsight I’ve been able to get some perspective and see how my attitude either helped or hindered me in those times.

When I was faced with the ultimate choice to either change or die, I think you can guess when I finally created my gold.

Attitude is a very fluid thing, it can change according to our mood and circumstances, but the trick is to be aware of our thoughts and our self-talk, and when it dips be able to alter it accordingly. I know that I’m normally quite a ‘high’ sort of person but I can sometimes get pulled into a ‘low’ when things don’t go my way, which tends to happen fairly frequently.

Attitude - Charles Swindoll

I try to be a constant practitioner of gratitude, because unless you’re dead, things can always be worse. There have been days when, as Zig Ziglar so aptly put it, I needed a ‘check-up from the neck up’.

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” ~ Zig Ziglar

Speaking of Mr Ziglar, here’s the man himself. Attitude Makes All The Difference:

Gratitude lets you see the beauty of your life which opens you to possibilities and better, more positive outcomes. We can’t second guess the universe, we can only play the current hand that we’re dealt with and try to make the best of it. Sometimes a duff hand is the most amazing blessing in disguise, even though in our despair we may ask, “Why is this happening to me?” The answer may not always become clear until after the event.

attitude - gratitude

Wounded souls have undergone healing, and are capable of deep compassion, empathy, strength and love.  The desire to serve and make things better for others often comes from experiencing a hardship that we want to spare our fellow man. Pain, whether it be emotional or physical is the main ingredient in our noble quest for transformation. Heartache is metallurgy for the soul.

It’s not our intelligence that will make the difference.  We could be the brainiest person in the world, but if our thoughts about us and others were negative, a high IQ wouldn’t count for much. If we have the attitude to know that we don’t know everything we can always learn from someone who has gone before us.

Our attitude is the thing that makes the biggest difference. If we evaluate where we’re at and adjust our settings accordingly we won’t get thrown too far off our course. It’s the only true thing we have complete control over.

attitude - living-success

After conducting countless experiments Thomas Edison might have rightly announced he was never going to invent the electric light bulb, but after being questioned about his apparent lack of results Edison was quick to respond:

“Results!  Why, man, I have gotten lots of results!  I know several thousand things that won’t work!”

So our thoughts and beliefs either elevate our attitude or they drag it into the gutter.

The sheer exuberance, innocence and enthusiasm for life that my children regularly demonstrate shows me how important that sense of wonderment really is. Magic is real to children.

Succumbing to wallowing in our weaknesses and problems is probably the biggest roadblock to leading the life of our dreams. When we have a purpose and passion in our lives it provides motivation to ditch these badly formed, ill-informed thoughts for ones that will better serve our inspiration. Brendon Burchard nails it in this clip where he talks about shifting our dominant frame:

People with charisma and warm, uplifting auras are a pleasure to be around, we are drawn to them like metal filings to a magnet. On the other hand, the moaning minnies of this world tend to repel both people and happy circumstances. They are caught in a perverse cycle of victimhood which makes it harder to manifest the life they want.

It’s like the crab that’s  trying to clamber out of the bucket, but is caught in the pincers of another crab who wants to hold him back and prevent him from escaping. The remaining crabs pull him back in, sealing their collective their fate. Only this time, the pincers pulling us downward are our mind, and sometimes other people. Great explanation of the crabs-in-a-bucket theory.

Helpful tips

  • Sometimes it can be useful to imagine we are shape-shifters, and metaphorically use the qualities of the creature best placed to deal with our current situation so that we can run with the challenge.
  • Learn to reinvent ourselves.
  • Balance our time between the external, fast paced world we live in and our precious inner world. Meditation is a great way to do this, as is playing a musical instrument, getting immersed in a hobby or time out in nature.
  • To live by our values and protect what we hold sacred, even in the face of troubles.
  • To be creative, go with the flow and have fun always lightens one’s burdens.
  • If we see ourselves and others with a sense of humour it balances our seriousness.
  • Live with humility in the present moment and be grateful for our blessings, for life is a privilege.
  • Learn to balance patience with action and always be bold and courageous to know that we can achieve whatever we set our minds on.

Rather than understanding the ancient philosophy and practice of alchemy and the nature of matter, we can be masters of the chemical impulses in our own brains. When we change our attitude we change ourselves, and it can happen for better or worse in an instant.

I thought I’d share Der Alchemist by Carl Spitzweg  complete with atmospheric chamber music that totally fits the painting and the ethos!

It’s how we handle our base emotions and thoughts that determine how much ‘gold’ we will convert. We can decide how we’re going to lead our lives, what legacy we’re going to leave the world, and if that isn’t true alchemy – I don’t know what is.

How Should we Perceive Failure and Success?

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” ~ Truman Capote

None of us are immune to vicious slurs or criticism. Nicknames and labels such as ‘loser’ and ‘washout’ and other derogatory terms only serve to further stigmatise the social perception of failure. Or, if I can put it another way, the fear of being called, labelled or thought of as a failure is a fate worse than death for most of us (me included).

parentingI have a  sweet memory of my dad from when I was about six years old, and I was upset after I had been bullied in the local park. He told me a rhyme. Most likely many parents have used it themselves, and I certainly have with my kids. “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

However, I’ve often found verbal violence more insidious than physical violence. It can be harder to brush off.  Somehow emotional wounds seem to last longer and cut you to the core. What if they have a point?

If you look closely at someone’s motivations for dissing you or your work, you may see that jealousy, and their own feeling of inadequacy or lack of understanding to be on their emotional agenda. There’s a big difference between constructively helping someone improve and handing out a character assassination or cruel taunts.

Marianne Williamson asserts that it’s not our failures we are most afraid of, but our successes. Fear in any form is worth remembering as False Evidence Appearing Real.

Let’s face it – none of us would do anything if we constantly worried about the outcome. We just have to do our best and be okay with the consequences. Once those negative thoughts take over it’s very difficult to motivate yourself for future projects and work.

success-is-the-ability-to-go-from-failure-to-failure-without-losing-your-enthusiasm-failure-quoteI remember reading the story of Rachmaninoff’s first symphony, which had a disastrous premiere in 1897, and on top of that the work was given disparaging comments from music critics. Rachmaninoff was left feeling depressed and didn’t compose any major works for quite some time.  Luckily for us he bounced back and produced his much loved legacy of orchestral and piano music, including his immortal piano concerto number 2, which is universally adored. What if he had given up when the going got tough? The same can be said of Beethoven, and many other artists and composers.

Walt Disney approached many banks to get his theme park off the ground. Michael Jordan missed a lot of shots.  The best of us have failed, and failed spectacularly.  Edison ‘failed his way to success’.

It takes courage to express yourself authentically in your work and your life. Opinion is a fickle commodity, and should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Everything in literature, art and music is highly subjective, and will be approached by people from their own unique filter and experiences. The main opinion that matters about you and your life is yours. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to please, but we shouldn’t let other people’s opinions rule us. It’s good to take counsel, have constructive feedback, but ultimately the decisions we make should come from our own heart.

That said, it can be tricky to maintain a positive attitude when you are pursuing a dream, but others looking in don’t quite see it that way and are enthusiastic about telling you!

Theodore Roosevelt ~ The Man in the Arena:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I think that Rudyard Kipling also summed up the attitude of resilience beautifully in his poem IF:

I have listed a few personal thoughts on the subject I hope you will find helpful in dealing with the fickle beasts of ‘success and failure’. Let’s learn to treat those two impostors just the same!

5 Tips for keeping Mentally Strong

  1. It helps not to think of things in terms of success and failure. Very often a situation or result that could traditionally be deemed as a ‘failure’ will later manifest as a success down the road, in ways that you can never comprehend at the time.
  2. It’s up to you to decide what means the most to you. What is it that will give you satisfaction and fulfilment regardless of the outcome? Your friends and family and wider social circle aren’t the ones walking in your shoes.
  3. a-woman-is-like-a-tea-bag-you-cant-tell-how-strong-she-is-until-you-put-her-in-hot-water-quote-1Many of the experiences that I considered as the lowest points in my life have served to strengthen me and give me the courage to know that if I overcame that then I can overcome this… What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  4. Persistence is more important than talent. You can learn what you need to know, try and fall short, try again, change and learn from what you are doing, (except perhaps how to be an astronaut or a brain surgeon!). With each draft of my novel I learnt more, and I’m still a beginner on my writing journey. Very often we learn best kinesthetically, by actually doing something. Our brains develop plasticity and memory to enable us to improve at an activity. Toddlers don’t say, ‘right, that’s it mummy and daddy, you’re going to have to carry me around for the rest of my life, I can’t walk!’ No, they can see everyone else walking and they are going to do it come hell or high water.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up if something doesn’t go according to plan. I have been the worst when it comes to mental self-flagellation, but it only serves to bring you down even more. Very often, the works that humanity consider to be of the highest pinnacle of achievement underwent many years of blood, sweat and tears, were revised and criticised, and perhaps weren’t appreciated fully at the time they were created. No experience is ever wasted. Encourage others, and soon that ethos will extend to your own life.

Don't Quit

Lastly, remember that any perceived ‘failure’ is only temporary unless you give up or don’t use the experience constructively.  Although we all feel better about having a measure of ‘success’ it’s nearly always our failures that we learn the most from, and without which we could not be successful in any definition of the word.

No one is perfect, so we should cut each other some slack. If you can love yourself, the well-meaning opinions and labels of others won’t be the crushing blow that defines who you are.

I don’t believe it’s right to judge how successful a person is purely by their bank account. Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi would not have qualified for a life of inspiration or global icon status if their personal wealth was the only measure of their worth…

Einstein suggested that rather than striving to be a success, one should try to be a person of value. Wise words indeed.

In answer to the question posed by my title, we should not perceive success and failure as the be all and end all of everything. Perhaps we should just take the view that its all valuable life experience there to teach us something. And that’s the bottom line.

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” ~ Zig Ziglar