Alchemy, broadly defined, was an ancient branch of philosophy that attempted to unlock the building blocks of the universe so that one day those who possessed the secret knowledge would be able to transform objects into any material they desired.

Whereas modern science has rendered many of these attempts absurd (like trying to turn lead into gold, for instance), the desire to take something seemingly worthless and convert it to something of great value has remained a uniquely human goal — a narrative we are all drawn to as it relates to our own attempts to integrate negative past experiences into our present lives in a healthy way.

Alex Nichols’s journey, which has led him to become an integral part of the Guardian community, contains such a story. To understand the alchemy of his life experience, we have to go back in time roughly eight years to a judo sparring session with a black belt in England, the result of which would change him forever.

“It was one of these ego matches,” Alex says with a palpable sigh. “I was giving the black belt a hard time, and he didn’t like it, so he threw me in a way where the intention was to get the throw and not care at all about the way I landed. He knocked me out and broke my clavicle. It was pointed straight down toward my lung and I was rushed to the emergency room for surgery.”

Afterwards, the doctor’s prognosis confirmed the fear that had started to creep into his mind during the ambulance ride, one of the last worries he’d had before going under for the operation.

“They basically told me you’re never going to do martial arts again,” Alex says. “I was really depressed. It was terrible.”

To fully appreciate the path he would take from here, we have to first delve even deeper in the past  —

to Alex the teenager, age thirteen — when he was dealing with a different sort of adversity. Not the pain that comes from having your passion ripped away, but the angst that stems from having no passion at all. The malaise of the cynic; in other words, the curse of not giving a damn.

Back then, Alex (in his own words) was “a total fuck off” who was barely hanging on in school. His parents, desperate for him to get on the right track, reached out to a tutor to help him with his studies, a mentor that wound up playing a hugely important role in Alex’s life.

“He was the first person I ever met who was willing to just sit down and listen to what I was going through, and why I thought I couldn’t learn,” he says.

Prior to that, Alex had been searching for a teacher, a coach — anyone at all, really — who could demonstrate true leadership and convince him that they were genuinely invested in his development. Once he finally established that bond with his tutor, Alex started to thrive. His mentor had, in his words, succeeded in teaching him the “art of learning.”

“To feel like I was finally learning something meant the world to me,” Alex says. “After that, I went on a tear. Once that spark was lit, I got my hands on all the books I could.”

With this experience in mind, it isn’t nearly as surprising to see what Alex did after receiving his prognosis following surgery in England — and how he transformed the depression threatening to consume him into a future reality far more positive than what the doctors had predicted.  

“I started reading everything I could in terms of strength training, mobility training, flexibility training, what physical therapy was and what they actually do,” Alex says.

From there, he began experimenting on himself based on his research. There were inevitable setbacks along the way, but the more he stuck with the process, and the more he learned, the more he felt like he might be onto something extremely valuable.

In the end, the results were undeniable.

“I wound up rehabbing my broken clavicle very quickly,” Alex says. “It blew the doctors and the surgeons away. They were like, your body shouldn’t be responding like this. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The process wound up saving his martial arts career, as well as also planting the seeds for his future profession. In the years to come, Alex would start his own business, The Art of Strong, a company centered on helping educate people healing from injuries, engineering durability and improving physical performance.

“To this day, that experience with my shoulder is probably the reason why I’m so passionate about performance training and rehab,” he says.

Very few things in life are simple enough to boil down to a direct cause and effect. Nevertheless, it’s probably safe to say that the relationship Alex had with his tutor as a teenager helped lay the foundation for his ability to deal with adversity later in life. The resiliency and independence that comes from embracing a mindset of lifelong learning has the potential to empower anyone to transform a negative experience into mental gold - it holds, in effect, the power of psychological alchemy.

That’s one reason why Alex is so conscious of his role as a mentor to the kids at Guardian now, and why he strives to properly demonstrate the characteristics of leadership and community responsibility to others whenever he can.

“It’s all about that ripple effect,” he says. “The smallest things that you do can have a massive effect on other people. Maybe in another life, if all I’d ever heard was the wrong advice, I would have quit martial arts.”

To Alex, his attempt to make a positive impact isn’t part of some grandiose mission. It’s actually quite simple.

“Honestly,” he says. “It just feels like I’m returning something that was done for me. I truly believe that if we all tend to the garden we can touch, we can create some pretty powerful communities.”