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

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

Photo by Banjo Emerson Mathew on Unsplash

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?

Why you need to be “The One”

Why you need to be “The One”

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

Four simple, yet profound, lessons from an ancient philosopher still ring true today.

“Of every hundred men, Ten shouldn’t even be there
Eighty are nothing but targets
Nine are real fighters…We are lucky to have them…
…They make the battle.
Ah, but the One, One of them is a Warrior…
…and He will bring the others back.”

–Heraclitus (circa 500 B.C.)

These powerful words are widely attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Nothing of what he wrote survives, so we have to rely on other philosophers who quoted him. While the “Warrior” Heraclitus refers to is presumably an armed combatant, his observations apply readily to the battlefield of the business world today.

“Of every hundred men, Ten shouldn’t even be there”

We’ve all known and worked with people like this. You wonder, “How the heck did he get this job?” or “Why is she still here?” There are many reasons but they are not worth some pre-Socratic contemplation. The incompetent have always been in the workplace— at all levels— but their days are numbered.

“Eighty are nothing but targets…”

Organizations are filled with many good people, hard working, and dutifully putting in their time. Unfortunately, they can be oblivious to changes taking places both inside and outside the company. They are often the ones trusting safety in numbers, banking on the ax falling on someone else. If you are among their ranks and tempted to keep your head down and nose clean, don’t count on this approach to keep working. Your only ally is the luck of the draw, and Lady Luck hasn’t been too kind lately.

“Nine are real fighters…We are lucky to have them……They make the battle.”

The fighter is who we want to be, perhaps who we imagine ourselves to be. These are people willing to take chances and look for new opportunities. They’re in the game, working smart and hard, and getting demonstrable results. The company can’t grow without them. But it can and does replace them, either when they fall or when their usefulness ends.

“Ah, but the One, One of them is a Warrior…and He will bring the others back.”

The One. That one. The person who doesn’t just inhabit his job but makes his role come alive. While he might be irreplaceable he knows that he can be replaced so he is constantly updating his skills, reading, keeping up with trends, always with an eye out for storms and opportunities on the horizon. He knows a moving target is tough to hit. He has an engaging, positive outlook even when the going gets tough. He helps pull others up, even as he plots his next foothold on the corporate edifice. He knows being The One is not easy, and there are never any guarantees.

Heraclitus believed change to be the sole constant of the universe. The One is always preparing and adapting to it. Perhaps it’s time to focus on becoming “The One” at whatever it is we do. Or else we might wind up as Heraclitus himself did. Angry, bitter, and wandering the rock-strewn badlands of his ancient world, eating grass.

Open mic, open mind

Open mic, open mind

rock-showIt turns out “shock rocker” Alice Cooper is not exactly what you think. But who is?

Flipping channels the other night I happened across an interview with Alice Cooper. I recognized him right away. He’s that rock star who’s  been around forever, the one with macabre stage theatrics that feature giant snakes, guillotines, electric chairs and fake blood. The songs are staples on rock radio, “Schools Out,” “Poison,” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” He had a record called, “Welcome to My Nightmare.” I figured I knew most of what there was to know about the guy, and anything left probably qualified as some variant of twisted hedonistic rock excess.

Watching the interview for two minutes though I learned that Alice Cooper isn’t his real name, he was born Vincent Damon Furnier. I also learned that the stage name, “Alice Cooper,” is also the name of the band (like Jethro Tull and Marilyn Manson). And as for the presumed wild lifestyle, well it turns out Cooper’s been sober and  married to the same woman since Ronald Reagan was president.

Apparently the guy checks the leather clothes and makeup in his dressing room and prefers watching “The Simpsons” to partying. And, to top it off, the so-called “Godfather of Shock” doesn’t practice any dark arts either, instead he’s a regular church goer.

I was never a big fan of Alice Cooper, but I thought I had him all figured out. Why complicate things by learning more? To our ancestors, making snap judgments came in handy. Determining the difference between friend and foe by someone’s war paint kept you alive a little longer.

But today, how often do we put some one in a category based on what we see or hear, especially if that’s the image they want to portray? Catching this interview with Mr. Cooper was a little reminder to me that when it when it comes to understanding our fellow humans, well, school’s never really out.

8 ways to channel your inner pirate

8 ways to channel your inner pirate

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

These days it isn’t too difficult to see what might have tempted men (and some women) of centuries past to succumb to the lure of the pirate life. Ahhh, the freedom and salty air of the open seas, the chests of gold coins and precious gems, the ruffled shirts and earrings…well you get the idea.

Who cares that buccaneers were once the scourge of the 18th century, we love pirates. We name sports teams after them; on Halloween we don patches and bandanas and stuff pistols and cutlasses in our our belts; at Disneyworld we Fastpass the legendary ride; and we look forward to the next movie with Johnny Depp. We even promote silliness such as Talk Like a Pirate Day.

As it happens, pirates of yore offer tips we can use to liven up our own day-to-day lives. Here then, are the steps you can take to add a little piracy to your own life, even at the office.

1. Dream big. Pirates were people who looked to the promise of the horizon. They defied a status quo that favored the upper class, the rich, the corrupt, and the well-connected.  As buccaneers they eschewed the hopeless lot of the masses, one that accepted a pittance in exchange for harsh working conditions at sea and brutal treatment by their superiors.

Becoming a pirate meant charting your own course and breaking free of what society said you were meant to be, and becoming something else. It meant being OK without a lifeline. Your first step as a would-be pirate is to not only desire a better life than swabbing decks—but to be willing to do something about it.

2. Let your freak flag fly. American satirist H.L. Mencken wrote, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” He meant we long for the call to adventure and nothing says that like a Jolly Roger.

You probably dutifully unfurl “Old Glory” on July 4th and Memorial Day, but what about the rest of the year? Mix it up a bit on that flagpole by getting your own pirate flag (try here or here) and let your neighbors know you are a pirate at heart all year round.

Give the flag a meaning to your friends and family, that something fun is about to happen. Plus, who knows, maybe the burglar will think twice.

3. Know your rules and live by them. From the fictional guidelines of Pirates of the Caribbean to the real-life Articles of Bartholomew Roberts pirates did indeed “keep to the code.” A successful pirate ship was a well-run operation.

They had agreed-upon codes of conduct covering everything from bedtime (The lights and candles should be put out at eight at night, and if any of the crew desire to drink after that hour they shall sit upon the open deck without lights) to the settling of disputes (None shall strike another on board the ship, but every man’s quarrel shall be ended on shore by sword or pistol).

You can draw up your own “pirate articles” for your family, club, or team at work. It sounds more fun than “rules” doesn’t it?

4. Know what motivates your crew. “Such a day, rum all out—Our company somewhat sober— A damned confusion amongst us! —Rogues a-plotting—Great talk of separation —So I looked sharp for a prize.  Such a day took one—with a great deal of liquor on board—so kept the company hot, damned hot; then all things went well again.” So wrote none other than Edward Teach a.k.a. “Blackbeard” in his journal.

Blackbeard was a giant, ruthless man. But even this fearsome pirate captain (who was known to intimidate others by lighting gunpowder fuses in his beard) knew that he had to maintain morale.  If you rely on a crew of your own, running a tight ship isn’t enough. Do you know what keeps them loyal and happy? Not knowing that can lead to a mutiny on any ship.

5. Hang around with like-minded shipmates. Life wasn’t much fun aboard a Royal Navy Man O War or merchant ship in the 1700’s. A captain’s authority was unquestioned, and the officers enforced the rules of the ship without mercy.  Sailors could be whipped or keel-hauled  for the slightest infraction.

Pirate ships were purposefully far different. Wary of the power of an unchecked boss to deliver misery, Pirates crews elected their captain and he was only vested with total authority during instances of battle. If the crews were unhappy with a captain, they could replace him with another of their number at any time by democratic vote.

Interestingly, long before affirmative action and EEOC regs, pirate ships were equal opportunity workplaces. Beneath the unfurled skull n’ crossbones one could find Europeans, West Africans, Carib Indians and Asians all as equals, united in their common pursuit of—as Roberts was fond of saying—”a merry life and a short one.” What mattered on a pirate ship was one’s ability to hoist a sail and wield a cutlass. Take a cue and try associating with other rogues not afraid of hard work and bucking the trend.

6. Stash some coins for a rainy day. Legend has it pirates buried their treasure, though historians debate the frequency of this practice. (Captain Kidd was the only pirate known to do this, and that loot has never been found.) Still, the wisdom of stashing cash for the future is a prudent one, as you always need to keep an eye on your hard-won plunder.

So whether you set up some automatic deductions from your paycheck and invest it, or get yourself a wooden chest and hide it, make it a point to have some loot to tide you over until the next prize is won.

7. Dress with a bit of flash. In Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards portrays Jack Sparrow’s dad, “Captain Teague.” This was an homage to the notion that pirates were the rock stars of their day. In those times “sumptuary laws” prohibited those of the lower classes from wearing  fine clothes and jewelry.

Pirates flouted these laws by dressing up in garish outfits and jewelry in the manner of the “free princes” they believed themselves to be. (Granted their hygiene probably had a lot to be desired but they made do with what they had.)

You don’t have to saunter into work in full Jack Sparrow regalia to show your pirate side. Why not add a splash of color with a new tie or scarf, or sport a skull ring, or accent that suit with some new crossbones cufflinks.

8. Make it happen. What if you really want to find wealth and freedom beyond your wildest dreams? What if you really want to be a pirate? I asked Richard Zacks, author of The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd and he offers the pirate recipe for success:

“A dash of insanity mixed with relentless perseverance, topped off with an ‘I’d-rather-die-than-fail’ mentality usually yields results…or death.”

Aye, are you ready to sign up?

Lessons from an audition for “The Apprentice”

Lessons from an audition for “The Apprentice”

These days we seem to be looking for our leaders on reality TV. Who are these campy characters we root for from our living rooms? I decided to find out firsthand by attending the casting call for the latest season of Donald Trump’s NBC show The Apprentice.

I awoke at 4 am, donned a suit, and took the 5:04 train to Penn Station, New York.  From there I hopped a cab to arrive at Trump Tower before 6:30. There was already a line.  A looong line. Stacks of empty pizza boxes and lawn chairs meant a number of intrepid souls had spent the night on Fifth Avenue and made a party of it.

Banishing a momentary impulse to bail, I took my place at the end of the queue. Trump had thrown down the gauntlet so as far as this motley assemblage was concerned, it was game on. I started out by making some new friends. There was the blonde twenty-something nurse and her downsized sales rep friend who had made the midnight drive from Massachusetts. There was the  determined, square-jawed buttoned-up MBA candidate.  Then the outspoken lady microbiologist from Latvia, and a working suburban mom (shaken from a fender-bender on the way in from Jersey), and a strange, self-professed computer genius who rambled on about how the FBI was after him. Just the folks you’d expect to meet in The Big Apple.

The serpentine line moved glacially slow, reminding me of Star Wars 1977, or Disney World before Fastpass. About an hour into the scene there was a mix-up in the line and 50 people wound up jumping ahead. There were mutters of displeasure as we rued our chances of getting a coveted wristband that would assure a first-round interview.

As we slowly shuffled forward we were approached by camera-toting foreign tourists asking what we were waiting for. Our reality show explanations were met with confusion but they all understood the name “Trump!”

The morning dragged on. One of the greatest tests of endurance is to stand for hours at a time with absolutely no idea of how much longer you’ll have to wait. It should be an Olympic event.

At 11:30 we finally wound our way into the lobby of Trump Tower where our applications and consent forms were double checked. Then seven of us were seated at a table and a Trump aide took our applications and shuffled through them before passing them to Donald himself. He looked through the papers then asked a single question, “Health Care Bill…for it—or against it—and why?” The Latvian microbiologist took the cue, jumped in, and she made an eloquent case in favor of it, citing Eastern European health care successes. Then the MBA candidate fired back with a powerful free market argument against the bill.

Then we all weighed in while Trump and the aid watched and after several minutes the signal indicated our time was up. If we were picked, they’d get back to us. I had a sense they knew just what they were looking for, and I figured the paranoid computer FBI fugitive was a shoo-in.

Behind us, the line of other hopefuls waited their turn. Walking out of Trump Tower we passed all the Trump souvenir baubles and shameless “You’re Fired!” t-shirts for sale. No matter how high class we might think we are, we all have to hawk something.

I came away from the experience with a respect for the perseverance of reality show candidates, even the goofy or “untalented” ones often mocked on these programs. They’re all people willing to dedicate time and effort to chase a dream against the odds. And that’s really the only way it can be done.

Edward Klink

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