image by michael seljos, flickr artist

two years ago when i was laid off, a good friend of mine visited and gave me a book to read. that book was paulo coelho’s the alchemist. it’s a great tale about a shepherd who gives up the life he knows in search of a lost treasure.

at that time in my life, it was a story that i needed to hear. now, two years later, i find myself re-reading it to remember the book’s lessons, and hopefully to learn a few new ones along the way. while it’s easy to be wrapped up in the story of the main character and his journey, the secondary characters hold lessons just as important, like the lessons learned from the crystal merchant.

in the alchemist, santiago takes up a job with a merchant, cleaning the crystal in his shop. with his help, the merchant—who had run his shop in the same exact spot for 30 years—begins to earn more business. it’s when santiago begins to propose some changes to the shop to help increase business even more that we gain a better understanding of the merchant.

the merchant explains to santiago the 5 obligations of every muslim, the last of which is to make a pilgrimage to mecca. he explains that that is the reason he started his crystal shop years ago, but that when he began to make money enough to take his pilgrimage, “i could never bring myself to leave someone in charge of the shop; crystals are delicate things.”

later, the merchant also mentions that another of santiago’s ideas will cause the shop to expand, “and then i’ll have to change my way of life […] i’m already used to the way things are.”

these are two very important stories. the first relates to delegating responsibility—something i’ve written about before. sometimes, in order to accomplish what we want to, we have to let go of the reins and put someone else in charge. people seem to be fearful of this—just as the crystal merchant—because what they have to delegate control over are “delicate things.” a large contract with an important client, their old role in the organization, or a highly profitable project. but the key to business is to focus on what only you can do; if someone else could be doing what you are, then they should. learn what is important in reaching your goals, focus on that, and delegate the rest.

the second story is one about change. we love stability (and by “we,” i mean “the stock market”). if an organization can go on posting solid sales figures each quarter, produce billions in revenue, and stay away from the ire of the consumer public—they’re a solid investment. they’ll keep trading at a constant level and produce dividends for its investors. but what makes organizations great—what vaults the apples and zappos of the world into folk hero status—are the changes which they create, either through their products or through their practices. you can’t be afraid to make a change because you’ve always done business a certain way before, especially if you know that change is going to be a good one for you and your organization.

somewhat of a spoiler:

in each case, when presented with a means to improve his business, the crystal merchant did, in the end, give in to the requests of the young man he found to be such a good omen. because of those changes, the merchant saw business better than he had ever seen before. he was not only very profitable, but he even added two more employees to help in running his shop to keep up with the pace of business.

just as the crystal merchant learned lessons from santiago, we have to be open and receptive to the lessons that our own employees can teach us.