Self-Acceptance: Are You An “Alchemist” Or A “Leopard”?

As a student of human nature, one of my favorite exercises is to try to divide people into two camps. For instance, I’ve managed to identify splits like abstainers vs. moderators and under-buyers vs. over-buyers.

Walking to the gym today, I found myself thinking about a passage written by critic John Ruskin:

The little pig was so comforting to me because he was wholly content to be a little pig; and Mr. Leslie Stephen is in a certain degree exemplary and comforting to me, because he is wholly content to be Mr. Leslie Stephen; while I am miserable because I am always wanting to be something else than I am.

This passage made me reflect about a way that my sister and I differ, and I think I identified a new set of oppositions: alchemists vs. leopards. Ruskin and I are alchemists. My sister is a leopard.

Alchemists seek ways to change or re-direct our fundamental natures; we’re dissatisfied with ourselves; we’re often tempted to behave, and make choices, that don’t comport with who we really are.

Leopards don’t try to change their spots. They know who they are, and they don’t worry about everything they aren’t.

The first and most important of my Twelve Personal Commandments is to Be Gretchen. This commandment is important for everyone—though people should substitute their own names!— but I suspect alchemists have a much tougher time keeping the commandment than leopards do. (I wish I could think of a tidier pair of symbols, but I haven’t come up with anything better. Ideas?)

I wish I could be more like my sister. Look, there I go again! Wishing I could change my nature.

* Speaking of siblings, check out 2 Peas and a Pot, where my brother-in-law writes a blog. It’s fun to read even if you’re not a serious foodie. Inveterate alchemist though I am, I have admitted that I’m not, and never will be, a serious foodie.

* My next book, Happier at Home, is inching its way toward completion. The cover is just about finished, which is an enormous step. If you’d like to be notified when the book is available, sign up here or email me at

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  • Renee

    What about leopards and chameleons? I like the distinction you have drawn though. Thanks for the great blog 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      To me, a chameleon stands for the idea of changing your APPEARANCE, not your actual nature. And alchemists struggle to change their fundamental natures.

  • Great post!! I’m definitely an alchemist but I want to be more Jessica. 🙂

  • Do you know that Sir Leslie Stephen, referenced by Ruskin in the quotation above, was the father of Virginia Woolf? If you know about her miserable home life, where she was imposed upon sexually by stepbrothers and her father (after the death of her mother), you would not think that Sir Leslie being content with himself was such a good thing. From all accounts, he was a bully, a manipulator, and a blustering, pessimistic, emotionally dishonest man.
    I love your website, but just felt I needed to explain about this supposedly admirable Victorian man.

  • Melina Smith

    What if your nature is to be an alchemist?

  • Pingback: Are You More Drawn to Simplicity or to Abundance? « Positively Positive()

  • marienkafer

    What about chameleon or chimera instead of alchemist? That keeps things in the animal kingdom. I think chameleon works pretty well.

  • Kira M. Newman

    How about naturals vs. unnaturals? The expression “she’s a natural” means someone has an easy way of doing something, like playing an instrument. Maybe some of us are “naturals” at being ourselves, and some of us (me included) aren’t – and, as you mention, try to do things against our nature (“unnatural”).

  • fred

    cinderellas and stepsisters?

  • Cathy Glen

    I love the names ‘Alchemist’ or ‘Leopard’. So romantic and medieval.