The Alchemy of Complaining

The Alchemy of Complaining

Complainers get a bad wrap. But complaining is one of the most underrated and overlooked traits of successful people. In fact, some of the most elite performers in the world are also the most notorious complainers. 

I remember my dad telling me stories of being a Marine in Vietnam. He was in a machine gun unit that would routinely go out on patrol & ambush missions in the jungle. His platoon would spend their days climbing hills in 95 degrees and 85% humidity with 100 pounds of gear on their backs, and then spend their nights sleeping in the rice paddies. 

The grit and commitment of Marines is legendary. So I was surprised when my dad told me, “Marines are also some of the biggest complainers on the planet”. They would complain the whole way up those hills, and yet always stayed faithful to their mission. 

The Marine Corps credo is “Semper Fidelis”, latin for “Always Faithful”.

So what is the relationship between commitment, grit, and complaining? We complain about what we care about. Marines complain because they are fully committed to something. 

Commitments express themselves as concerns. 

The things that concern us are the things that we care about. More precisely, complaints are directed towards the obstacles that keep us from what we are committed to. For instance; if I complain about dishonesty, then it implies that I value honesty. 

A Brief Word About Alchemy

Alchemy was thought to be about transmuting one physical element into another. Turning lead into gold. A deeper insight reveals that this was all code for personal psychological and spiritual processes.

Unearthing Your Gold

You will never get to the gold if you don’t get in the dirt and start digging. You want to allow your complaints to be heard (by you). Your complaints are the lead that is found underground. It’s dirty and it’s dark but the lead found there can be converted into gold. 

Complaint to Commitment

In order to make the shift from complaint to commitment, we have to get this simple truth: Your commitment is the opposite of your complaint. For example, if I complain about others being unkind, it means that I am committed to kindness. 

This is the alchemy of transmuting your lead into gold. This is the alchemy of taking what angers or saddens you and transmuting it into something meaningful. It’s meaningful because the commitment is an expression of what you are. 

The “lead into gold” motif is found again and again in myths. The common quest of the hero illustrates this dynamic perfectly. 

The would-be hero journeys into the darkness to face a monster of the underworld. During the confrontation with the monster the hero realizes that they have a lot in common with the monster in the darkness. 

By wrestling with the monster long enough, the hero discovers their own complaints and thus, their own deepest commitments. This is the gold the dragon guards. This is the commitment your complaint is hiding. 

“Be the change you wish to see in the world”

It’s not enough for the hero to know the gold is in the cave. The gold must be taken out of the dark and into society.


It’s not enough to just value something without acting on it. We’ve all become very good at paying lip service to our values with virtue signaling. Until your values are lived as commitments, there will be no fulfillment.  

Fulfillment in 4 Easy Steps

  1. Notice when you are feeling angry, sad, afraid, or ashamed.
  2. Name the complaint giving rise to those emotions.
  3. What is the underlying commitment that is giving rise to the complaint?
  4. Perform one small action that is resonant with that commitment. 

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