7 Secret Lessons of “The Old Man and the Sea”

Sure it’s a classic work of literature, but “The Old Man and the Sea” really shines as a handy guide to success.

In school many of us read—or were supposed to read—Hemingway’s novella, The Old Man and the Sea. The story is a classic and it earned Hemingway a Pulitzer in 1953 and a Nobel Prize in 1954.

There are plenty of places to go to discuss the book’s literary merits and debate the symbolism and allegory.  Hemingway himself said, “No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in… I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”

Well here are some meanings they might not talk about in AP English. Allow me to do you a favor and take my trusty fillet knife to this 100 page novella and carve out some real-world useful tips you can put to use no matter what you’re fishing for.

Make your own break. In the opening line of the book we are told the old man Santiago has “gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Santiago has become a pariah in his little Cuban fishing village. Fishermen are a superstitious lot, and the parents of the old man’s trusty mate, Manolin, forbid the boy from fishing with him. The notion of bad luck is alive and well around us today. An MBA will “knock on wood” discussing a business venture. A pro ballplayer (and legions of fans from all walks of life) will blame poor performance on a slump or a curse.  Ruminating on the debilitating effects of “bad luck” Santiago says, “To hell with luck. I’ll bring the luck with me.” So should you.

You can get old and still put up a fight. “Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.” Although the protagonist, Santiago, is fictional the character is based on real people, from Hemingway’s angling buddy Gregorio Fuentes, to the mysterious fisherman and a boy they once observed in a tiny boat far out in the Gulf Stream. Santiago is an “old man” driven by sheer will to survive. He’s an heroic archetype, who keeps on pressing forward despite having lost everything. Through him we learn age doesn’t matter, it’s the will that counts.

Too often we start using the “I’m too old for this,” mantra decades before it applies. Somehow we go from being too young to do things to being too old to do them, and the things never get done. Are you using age as an excuse?

Always have a hero. Santiago is motivated by thoughts of his hero, Joe DiMaggio. Santiago isn’t a famous baseball player, but fishing far out in the Gulf Stream with a handline for marlin that can reach over 1,500 lbs is major league. He reminds himself that to succeed he must adopt the same traits that are true of all of those bringing their “A” game. “But I must have the confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.” Who inspires you? If they watched you today what would they think of your efforts?

You have to do it alone. Once Santiago has hooked the fish they begin a long, agonizing struggle and both of their lives are on the line.  Santiago knows that is it his his own battle and to win it is up to him. “My choice was to go there and find him beyond all people in the world. Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either of us.” Whatever you have to do, banish the thoughts of blame, and what-ifs and focus on doing what only you can do to get it done.

Don’t quit. Most of the time spent fishing involves trying different bait and lures, and experimenting with different depths and locations. Fishing is synonymous with patience. A good angler thinks in terms of options rather than obstacles. “But a man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Persistence gets the fish.

Re-think the definition of work. Hemingway’s vivid prose really puts the reader in the midst of the action. You can feel the hot sun on Santiago’s brow, sense the unforgiving ocean beneath the boat, and experience the line biting painfully into aged hands as the heavy fish runs deep. It’s a stark reminder of the nature of hard work. There are people around the world who do more before 9 AM than some of us do all day. Hemingway knows you’ve got more inside, so reach down and pull it out. Today is the only sure thing you’ve got. So own it and wring it for what it’s worth.

Define winning. At the end of the book the old man’s giant fish is devoured by sharks and he returns to his village, exhausted and battered, dreams of a big payout at the fish market shattered. But the villagers come out to marvel at the unprecedented size of the skeletal remains lashed to his tiny skiff. “I think the great DiMaggio would be proud of me today,” Santiago muses before he collapses into sleep.

The old fisherman has earned the villagers lasting respect; next time he won’t fish alone. And his job is not yet finished—there are other fish out there, waiting.

As Hemingway said, “Any man’s life, told truly, is a novel.”  So what’s the next chapter in yours?

Perspective from 13,000 feet: Q&A with marketing expert Chris Worth

Chris Worth is a London-based entrepreneur, marketing pro, Warwick MBA, and intrepid skydiver. From the boardroom to the back country, Chris sees life—and business—as a bold adventure. We tracked Chris down and threw him some questions about  marketing, B-school, books, and what he’s doing to keep the spirit of adventure alive in our kids (all while keeping his lively British spelling intact).

Offbeat Leader: Chris, your self-titled blog was mentioned in that popular “Cluetrain Manifesto” book a decade ago and you’ve since pounded out a thousand or so posts for over a million pairs of eyeballs. So what are the elements of a good blog?

Chris Worth: A million? Wow, yes it must be—it hit 60,000 page views a month in its prime. The reason I started it (back in 1997) was perhaps due to one of those elements: I was living in Asia and having an interesting time both inside and outside work, so I just wrote about the parts of those cultures that inspired me. The streets, the bars, even the local noodle shop. That’d be my reason 1: be interesting.

Second, remember Strunk & White. Write in proper sentences with concrete nouns and active verbs; use punctuation properly. A blog in Swedish Chef dialect may be amusing the first time you read it, but the English language coalesced into its current grammar and vocab precisely because that was what most people understood. I’m still working on this: just yesterday I was criticised for referring to a woman as “my gf”, which is txt-speak a man approaching 40 probably shouldn’t affect.

OL: Well, we live and learn. What else do you like in a blog?

CW: True, Ed. Let’s see, a third good element? I like to be episodic. Even a business blog—driven by advice rather than personality—should still be bylined, written by a recognisable person in a narrative context. If you learned something today, write about it today. If next week you learn something that adds to it (or contradicts it completely), write about that and refer back to the previous blog.

One of my most-read posts was about something very down-to-earth: studying for the GMAT exam to enter business school. It was a simple day-by-day account of doing practice tests and the questions I had trouble with, yet I still get emails about once a week thanking me for it.

OL: After years in the working world you recently went back and earned an MBA from Warwick, a top-ranked business school. What’s a great nugget of advice you learned  in the program?

CW: People do MBAs far too young, and end up treating a legitimate qualification as some sort of “badge of rank”, rather than for what it is—a toolbox. The biggest thing I learned is that these techniques –everything from strategic analysis to financial modeling—are only useful if you actually put them into practice, and keep practicing, every day. The last two years have been the most rewarding of my life, and I still go back to Warwick and talk to current students as often as I can. I’m still in the Skydiving Club there, after all [laughs].

OL: You’ve also done a lot of world traveling, much of it with a backpack. What’s the best business lesson you learned out on the road?

CW: From a little shopkeeper in Tokyo: just remember who your customers are. He was an amateur cartoonist, and behind the counter he had little pictures of all his regular customers, to which he’d add little notes over time!  (“You liked this beer last week, you’ll like this beer tonight…”) That’s an example of perfect CRM:  remember their names, note their behaviour, and treat them in a way that maximises the value of their interaction with you—on both sides. I probably spent Y2000 more each visit than in an average corner shop, and walked away with better wine and more interesting snacks.

OL: What are some of your favorite books these days?

CW: The “100 Bullets” graphic novel series by Azzarello and Risso. The way these guys develop narrative—over what, for them, was an eight-year writing project—is astounding: characters speak to each other as real people, not actors there for your entertainment, and few concessions are made to the reader. I think Garth Ennis described it thus: “If a character doesn’t know what’s going on, he’s doomed.” And the last panel of the last issue is one of those that genuinely, completely, explain everything.

OL: That’s true, especially since we’re all characters in a story. What about marketing and business?

CW: I still love “Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne (and I loved it before one of their associated businesses became my client in Paris). Why? Because an innovative business premise is strongly supported by the hardscrabble work of research and “doing the numbers.”  I use the method with my clients a LOT.

Also, “Molecular Biology of the Cell” by Alperts et al. It’s everything a textbook should be: clear, concise, and brilliantly written and illustrated, a perfect piece of information design. Read it as a copywriter and you’ll swoon with delight.

OL: Three to take to the beach! As a marketing director, what are the biggest mistakes you see in campaigns? What’s the biggest misconception people have about marketing?

CW: Oddly, I’ve just written a couple of campaigns again after three years as a “pure marketer” not getting involved in the creative aspect, and quite enjoyed it. The mistakes I see in campaigns today are the same as when I started in 1993!

First off, arrogance.  “Our product’s the best”, “run don’t walk”, “you’d be a fool not to.”  Nothing turns real people off faster than being talked down to. The great creative director John Hegarty once summed up a great ad in one word:  “Irreverence.”  So the biggest misconception in marketing is that we’re actively trying to treat you, the consumer, as a fool. And far too often, that “misconception” is correct.

I have the luxury of being able to pick my clients these days—after all, there are perhaps 150,000 businesses that could use me, and I have a capacity of about 3! The ones I work with are those who genuinely care about changing the world and have great, innovative ideas for doing it.

OL: What’s your favorite all-time marketing campaign and why?

CW: A single roadside print ad many years ago for a British beer brand, John Smith’s. On a billboard, they’d made it look as if there was a previous poster beneath the half-pasted John Smith’s one, for something very feminine (the John Smith’s brand is very working-class and masculine).

So in flowing feminised script were the words, “Make it a night to remember with…” and then (apparently on the half-pasted poster over it) “JOHN SMITH’s!”

Then below, “Just watch her face when she finds out…” “THE LADS ARE COMING ‘ROUND!” It had everything: irreverence, laugh-out-loud funny, and credited the consumer with intelligence.

OL: I like it, Chris. The big thing now of course is social media. How do you believe social media is affecting marketing for the long term?

CW: What interests me is just how quickly social media becomes anti-social once you bring money into it. Like pyramid selling or multi-level marketing, the whole basis of trusted connections gets frayed the moment financial incentives are slanted towards one party. Social media is a great method of communication, but it’s the communication of a rock concert (you’re there because a lot of people whose opinions you share are there) rather than the sales seminar (you’re there because you believe you’ll gain financially from it). I think this is positive: a LOT more reasons to keep your marketing true to itself, believable AND authentic.

OL: Who is one of your biggest inspirations?

CW: I’ve always felt close to the musician David Bowie, for the way he’s reinvented himself not once but a dozen times. Imagine it’s 1971, you’re just starting to make money, and everyone around you – your manager, your agent, your bank – is screaming at you to carry on doing more of the same. Then one night in Hammersmith you sack your band live on stage and change what you’re doing completely. And take that risk every couple of years as if it’s the normal thing to do, even coming up with non-musical innovations like selling bonds backed by your future output.  It probably gets easier when you’ve trousered $60m.

OL: You like to jump out of planes…so would you put an ad on your parachute? Is there any place marketing shouldn’t be?

CW: Well, as you become a better parachutist you use smaller canopies and come down faster, so the advertising real estate shrinks in two dimensions as you improve, not a great marketing strategy! [laughs] Yes, I think marketing should stay out of anywhere it’s not pulling its weight by contributing cash or content.

A case in point is Britain’s BBC—it doesn’t carry advertising, but instead levies a £120 tax on every household. One of those crazy things I ought to vehemently oppose, but I don’t. Like a lot of things in Britain—with its unelected upper house, its combined legislative and executive branches of government, its extraordinary police-state powers but whose cops don’t carry guns—it works in practice but not in theory.

I spent a month Stateside recently and I’m always shocked by the sheer volume of ads crammed into each TV hour. Great marketing doesn’t need to be everywhere;  it just needs to be effective. I love Tabasco, but I wouldn’t chug a bottle.

OL: Speaking of extreme, on June 12th you are going to abseil—or rappel—off a tower in London for a cause, to “put the adventure back in.” How important is it that people—especially youth—experience adventure? How sedate and comfortable have we become?

CW: Britain’s recently-departed Labour government introduced, largely by stealth, some of the most liberty-unfriendly legislation ever known—some of it destroying centuries-old freedoms enshrined in the Magna Carta—along with a library’s worth of new laws designed to trammel and control the population. For example, the UK has the highest penetration of CCTV cameras and the largest DNA database in the world.

OL: I saw “V for Vendetta.”

CW: Yes, and all this has had a corrosive effect:  young people are growing up with a sense that their safety and liberty are… in the hands of the government. That they don’t have to do anything for themselves, which prevents them developing a proper perspective on risk. So yes, I think we are moving towards a “comfortably numb” society, where risk and adventure are frowned upon rather than celebrated. And that’s bad. Especially in a country that spawned some of the world’s greatest explorers and adventurers.

The British Schools Exploration Society, which puts underprivileged youths in adventure training situations in the world’s wilder places, attempts to change that perspective. As part of their fundraising efforts, I’m abseiling down the outside of 322ft London building! My sponsorship page is here and all donations will be warmly acknowledged.

OL: Sounds dangerous, but that’s our kind of cause! We encourage readers to support your efforts, Chris. Thanks for standing still long enough to share your insights with us.

For more info check out Chris Worth at RedPump and on Twitter.

7 Ways You’re Living a Private Eye Novel

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Mystery fans read their exploits for the thrills, puzzles, and escapism that only a well-written page-turner can provide. But when it comes down to it, we’re all the protagonists in our own mystery stories. Consider this:

1. You’re a loner. Sure, you have buddies, business contacts, and maybe some followers on Twitter, but living your life is really all up to you. You have to get to work each day, figure out your own dinner, and pay your bills. At the end of the day it’s sink or swim, pal.

2. You’ve got a problem. You’ve got something you gotta fix. And when you fix it, you get another problem. It’s why there are sequels. No matter what your line of work, somebody’s trouble is your business.

3. You need money. Some of us need more than others but lurking in the back of everyone’s head is a financial worry. You need to find a way to afford something, pay something off, or save for something. It’s why you hang out your shingle. And when you have plenty of dough you get a new problem—making sure it ain’t lost or swiped.

4. You’ve got a nemesis. It could be a co-worker, boss, or competitor. Maybe it’s an in-law, landlord, or a ruthless ex-somebody. Without naming names, there’s an antagonist in your life you need to contend with and they might want to see you out of business—sometimes in more ways than one.

5. You’ve got a vice. Giggle juice, a honey on the side, the blackjack table. You’ve got flaws, just like every other Dame and Jasper in town. Maybe they’re manageable, maybe not. Abraham Lincoln famously said he didn’t trust a person who had no vices. But whatever it is, it’s trouble if it’s hanging over you and threatens to bring down the whole racket.

6. Somebody vexes you. You’ve got someone in your life you don’t quite understand, and who doesn’t understand you. Your interactions might not have the crackling dialogue of a Bogart-Bacall flick, but the relationship challenges are the same. You both want something.

7. You don’t know what’s coming. It’s called suspense. You can make plans, work the angles, and try and guess what’s around the next corner. But facts are facts, and just like a dime novel protag you just don’t know how your book is going to end.

Next post, Solve Your Problems Like a Sleuth.