Paulo Coelho and Living Your Personal Legend

"Legend" is an interesting word. Most commonly, it's used to refer to a story told again and again to share an important lesson. It's also the word that spies use to refer to their cover identities.

But we also have a legend we tell ourselves, one about what we could be and what our lives would be like if we could reach our potential. Not "if all of our dreams come true"—winning the lottery isn't in this fairy tale. But if you succeed at doing everything you suspect you're capable of. If you became your fullest, most blossomed self. That is your legend.

It's really the reverse of a cover identity; it's a revealed identity.

I first came across the idea of personal legends a few months ago through the writer Paulo Coelho, who mentioned "living your personal legend" in an interview I was listening to. Since then, I've been thinking about my personal legend, and what stands between my present self and that self.

In his words:

Whenever a man does that which gives him enthusiasm, he is following his Legend. However, not everyone has the courage to face up to his own dreams.

It's an embarrassing business, admitting your dreams. Fear of embarrassment is debilitating, and living your personal legend is all about breaking down limitations. Or so I would assume, because I'm definitely not living mine yet.

When I first started pondering my personal legend, I didn't know that Coelho had written about the topic in any depth. So when I found this blog post he wrote in 2008, I was surprised by how closely it aligned with my experience.

In explanation of why we have so much trouble facing our dreams, he writes:

There are four obstacles. The first: he has heard, right from childhood, that everything he wishes to live is impossible. He grows up with this idea, and as he acquires age, he also accumulates layers of prejudices, fears, guilt. There comes a time when his Personal Legend is so deeply buried within his soul, he can no longer see it. But it is still there.

In my case, no one told me it was impossible be successful as a writer; it was my juvenile logic that led me to tell myself that. I loved books and revered my favorite authors so much that, from about age 7, it seemed inconceivable that I could ever join those people. Thus, impossible. Right?

And then, as Coelho points out, we accumulate layers of fear and guilt. My maturing mind realized that sure, technically it's possible. But what if I can't do it? And then guilty for thinking even for an instant that I could be capable of that form of greatness. For years (more than 20 years, in fact) my secret shame/dream was buried so deeply that I barely admitted it to myself, let alone anyone else.

So what comes next, Paulo?

If he has the courage to unearth his dreams, he then faces a second obstacle: love. He now knows what he desires to do, but he thinks he will harm those around him, if he gives everything up to follow his dreams... He does not understand that those who truly wish him well are longing for his happiness, and are ready to accompany him on this adventure.

Prescient yet again, at least with the first half. I do think that he's oversimplifying the second half, though. My partner may truly love me and long for my happiness, yet also be concerned about our mortgage payments. That's reasonable.

After accepting love as a stimulus, a man faces the third obstacle: the fear of the defeats he will encounter along the way. A man who fights for his dream suffers far more when something doesn't go well, because he cannot use the famous excuse: 'oh, well in fact that wasn't exactly what I wanted anyway...' He does want it, and knows he is putting everything into it, and also that the Personal Legend is just as difficult as any other path—the difference being that your heart is present on this journey.

Whew. As my old philosophy professors would say, there's a lot to unpack there. But simply: yes, it's so much more scary to fail at something you care passionately about than something you're just doing to earn taco money (I calculate my income in tacos per pay period).

My heart is present on this journey, but I'm lucky that, as a writer and general creative type, my heart isthe journey. You could make the case that this is true for any calling, but surely it's especially true for creative work, where the quality of the product depends on the emotional resonance. Coelho also promises that the universe is conspiring in my favor, which is an excellent turn of phrase that I just can't accept. Moving on.

If I'm going to suffer just as much, why should I strive to live my personal legend? Why not just be a bartender who gets to talk to strangers every night?

Because after having overcome the defeats—and we always overcome them—we feel much more euphoria and confidence. In the silence of our hearts, we know we are worthy of the miracle of life.Each day, each hour, is part of the Good Combat. We begin to live with enthusiasm and pleasure. Very intense and unexpected suffering begins passing faster than apparently tolerable suffering: that drags on for years, eroding our soul without us noticing what is happening—until one day we can no longer free ourselves of the bitterness, and it accompanies us for the rest of our lives.

Here, he's describing why it hurts so much to live with a dream you're not chasing. It makes you question whether you're worthy of the miracle of life. Perhaps much of the existential malaise in the world isn't truly "life isn't worth living," but "I'm not worthy of living life." It's out there, but I'm not living it, and (because of fear and guilt) there's nothing I can do about that.

While the unexamined life may not be worth living, it's misery to have examined your life and feel unable to right the wrongs you find.

And what is the fourth obstacle? After unearthing your dream, using the power of love for support, spending many years with the scars, a man realizes—from one day to the next—that everything he always wanted is right there, waiting for him, perhaps the very next day. Then comes the fourth obstacle: the fear of realizing the dream he has fought for all his life. The simple possibility of achieving that which we desire causes the soul of the common man to be filled with guilt. He looks around, and sees many others who have not succeeded, and so he thinks he does not deserve it. He forgets everything he overcame, all he suffered, everything he had to renounce in order to come this far.

This sounds an awful lot like the "impostor syndrome" we've been hearing so much about, though I don't believe that's exclusive to fully-realized dreams.

However, there's a dark side to it as well. We're all familiar with the murder-by-romantic-partner scenario of "If I can't have you, no one can!" Well, you can do the same thing to a dream you love passionately. If I (fear) can't have them, I can at least kill my hopes myself in one final bid for control before they're taken away from me. When we're afraid, we try to exert control. It always works out really well (HA).

Don't give in. Learning to live with your dreams is learning to live with your self. Go stand in front of a mirror and look yourself hard in the eye. As crazy as it sounds, embarrassment is a common response. If you want to look away, think about why.

Who is it that you're seeing?

And why don't you want to see yourself?

What are you afraid you don't deserve?

Hey, maybe you look in the mirror and think, "Hello, gorgeous. Today's the day the Nobel committee finally wises up!" In which case, go live your baller life, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

(I'm a fan)

Here's the thing—there is no deserve. There is only what a person can do, and what a person can't do. And the more you embrace your personal legend not as a dream, but as a set of goals, the greater your capacity to actually get there.

It's difficult to believe that. I still find it difficult to believe in myself. But Coelho is right—"In the silence of our hearts, we know we are worthy of the miracle of life."

You know you are. I know I am. So let's do this.