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7 secret lessons of “The Old Man and the Sea”

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?