Old Man and the Sea and the Sharks of the Startup World

I find inspiration for sales and leadership outside of most business books. Don’t get me wrong, I have an extensive list of great business books that have influenced me over the years but if you don’t balance it out with novels or biographies, you can miss a more wholistic perspective to understand business and most importantly, yourself even deeper.

My latest inspiration came from The Old Man and the Sea. I read this back in college when I was feverishly studying Hemingway’s writing style for my journalism classes at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. More specifically, how he uses few words, yet each word carries a power to make the reader complete the thought and how that same approach is game changing for journalism. After recently re-reading Old Man, it offered up an entirely new perspective on where my life is at today; specifically, how the book relates to startup businesses. There were several themes that stood out, but the ones that resonated are as follows:

Resistance to Defeat

As a fisherman who hasn’t caught anything for the last 84 days, the Old Man is fighting against defeat. He never gives in. Instead, he sails further into the ocean than ever before, hoping to land a fish. He finds the largest fish he’s ever seen, hooks the marlin and for three days / nights, despite immense physical pain and mental exhaustion, he continues to push. Then, after finally killing the marlin, the Old Man fights off the sharks even though the battle against them seems hopeless.

“But man isn’t made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

In other words, victory over the inevitable is not what defines us. Rather, it is our struggle against the inevitable, even when we know it is, that defines us. The more difficult the struggle, the more worthy the opponent, the more you can define your strength to persevere and ultimately, your identity.

Pride, Respect and Mastery

Pride is often depicted as a negative attribute that causes people to reach too far and as highlighted in another terrific book not about business Sway, can lead to people making irrational decisions to save their own pride. In Old Man and the Sea, Pride acts like a prime motivator. After killing the first shark that was eating his marlin, the Old Man wonders if the sin of pride was responsible for the shark attack because it caused him to go out further in the ocean, beyond the usual boundaries that fisherman observe. It was pride in his diminishing reputation that caused him to go alone to prove himself as a great fisherman once again.

The Old Man’s pride is portrayed as the single motivating force that spurs him to greatness. It is his pride that pushes him to survive three grueling days at sea, battling the marlin and then the sharks, and finally it’s his pride that pushes him to return alive with the carcass of the marlin intact to display his accomplishment to his peers.

When relating to the greatness his hero Joe DiMaggio show on mastering the craft of baseball, the Old Man draws parallels to his own craft of fishing and if he can be offer the same dominence to fishing as Joe D has on baseball. In addition, the Old Man relates to the pain that Joe D has with bone spurs to his ailing hands as he fights cramping from holding the line for so long.

Finally, there’s a respect the Old Man shows nature, the marlin during the 3-day fight, and the ocean itself. The old man doesn’t see the marlin as just an advisary that had the potential to outlast him but as a friend. The Old man shows a deep admiration for the marlin and hints that the law of nature is what unites us as humans.

“Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.”

When you push the boundaries, go out further than anyone else has, find your marlin and finally after a tireless battle, the sharks pick your marlin apart, only for you to outlast and defeat all of them in the process, this is the biggest parallel that I draw in building, scaling and winning as a startup. Is it crazy? Yep. Is it pride that drives us? Could be. The mantra of anything worth doing will always be difficult and as you face its challenges hold true. Because in the actual overcoming of these challenges is what truly defines us our character and continues to test our strength so that you can look back at your story and say with pride:

“I did that.”

Then you say.

“What’s next?”

“Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

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