Adapted from my book, Tribal Alchemy: Turning What You Have Into What You Need. (2016) A Tribal Alchemy Resource. You can get a copy of the book here.


In the movie Pleasantville, two teenagers from the 1990s are transported through their television back to the 1950s. What David and his sister Jennifer discover (in this made-up TV land) is a Leave It to Beaver–like world where everyone and everything is perfect. Troubles don’t exist. Life is easy and simple and always goes to plan. Basketballs always find the basket. Geography lessons are simple because the size of the town and the size of the world are one and the same. The roads lead residents back to where they started. It’s all very pleasant. But something is wrong.


As David and Jennifer get to know the townspeople, a painful fact emerges. Though everyone in Pleasantville is pleasant indeed, this quality makes them, and the town itself, boring and bland. There is no advancement of anything. The pleasant life is void of texture, meaning, and purpose. In fact, everyone and everything—the entire world of Pleasantville—shows up in black and white. There is no color. Why? Color, as the residents of Pleasantville come to understand, is the result of creativity, ingenuity, passion, and risk. As David and his sister introduce these and other qualities to townspeople, they take on color; they take on life. Because of this, a division evolves for the first time in the town’s pleasant history. The townspeople split; some choose to embrace challenge, and some hold on to predictability.


Pleasantville reminds us that life gets better as it gets harder. We need life to be hard. Challenges make alchemy possible. These barriers to advancement inspire us to overcome through ingenuity. We know that evenour brains need challenge in order to thrive. The late Lawrence Katz, a neurobiologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, conducted research on the brain. He determined that the brain needs exercise in a similar way as the rest of our body. He was instrumental in the creation of neurobics—everyday ways you can exercise your brain.


Since Katz wrote his book in 1999, a mountain of research confirms the need to challenge the brain through a variety of training and exercise methodologies. It seems that our brains thrive on challenges because challenges require the brain to work hard for specific rewards. Tribal (collective) brains are the same. Challenges must be overcome, and that requires alchemy. Tribes that push deep into these challenges, even when those challenges are hard, are the ones that work and live in color.


  • No challenges, no new ideas
  • No challenges, no change in action or condition
  • No challenges, no meaning


As much as we thrive on challenges, we often complain about the very dynamic (challenge) that enables advancement. I find this an interesting characteristic of our biology and social interactions. We seem to dislike the challenges necessary for advancement. Even though we know that advancement comes through challenge, we still fight it. We resist that which moves us forward.


What alchemy could be hiding on the other side of your challenge?