What does success mean to you? What makes your life meaningful? And how do you express your deepest values in your everyday life? Ernest Hemingway teaches that growing old should never stop you from showing up through his tale, The Old Man and the Sea.
The aging author’s story focuses on the realities of growing old and the desire to remain vital and relevant. The novella also touches upon questions of success and failure and of finding meaning in living a life of integrity. With The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, Ernest Hemingway triumphed over his critics after a prolonged creative crisis.
What It’s About
The novella tells the story of an old Cuban fisherman, Santiago, who hasn’t caught anything for eighty-four days. On the eighty-fifth day, he ventures into deeper waters. Finally, he hooks a giant marlin and battles the majestic fish for three days. Santiago’s unrelenting persistence eventually pays off as he manages to kill the marlin with a harpoon. He ties his giant catch to the side of the boat and begins his journey back to the shore. On the way back, however, several groups of sharks pick the fish apart, while Santiago is unable to fight them off. When he arrives home, all that is left of his catch is the fish’s skeleton. In his heroic yet tragic fight, the old man wins and loses at the same time. Despite losing his livelihood when the sharks steal his prey, he remains the moral winner and a hero because he doesn’t give up until the end.
A man can be destroyed but not defeated.Santiago, The Old Man and the Sea
The Old Man and the Sea
Three Life Lessons
1. Never Give Up
Although Santiago is old and poor, his eyes, according to the novel, remain “the same color as the sea and are cheerful and undefeated.” The old fisherman gets up early every day, no matter what, to try to make a catch. He continues to live his life his way, and his spirit remains undefeated.
Living under the brutal conditions of a Nazi concentration camp, Viktor E. Frankl developed the profound insight that if you stop striving for something, your life will falter. And once you lose your sense of direction, you will struggle to find meaning in life. Or, as Jordan B. Peterson puts it, you cannot navigate life without something to aim at.
Relentlessness is a mindset, Tim S. Grover explains in his book of the same title. Being relentless does not require special physical traits, brilliant intellect or great talent – you already have everything you need to be relentless. Take your cue from Santiago: while out on the sea, he realizes that he has failed to bring everything he needed, but then says to himself:
Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.Santiago, The Old Man and the Sea
Life demands nonstop effort, which requires grit. As psychologist Angela Duckworth explains, you need grit to keep going; keeping going grants you more grit. And for Santiago, grit pays off: He eventually makes his big catch.
Yet, all the grit in the world won’t guarantee the outcome you desire. Santiago fails to bring his big catch home but he maintains his dignity. Santiago can rest satisfied knowing that he has done the best he could. What else can you ask for?
2. Respect Your Opponent
Despite being in a life-and-death struggle with the giant marlin, Santiago maintains respect for his opponent. He understands that by hating your enemy, you only hurt yourself. Negative emotions cloud your thinking – a key insight of emotionally intelligent people. Making good decisions requires a calm and constructive emotional state, explains Yale School of Medicine professor Marc Brackett in a compelling talk at Google. Your emotional state affects your ability to assess a situation accurately.
Eventually, the old man does not win because he is stronger than the fish. Rather, he wins by outlasting his competitor. You do that by keeping your focus on the prize. Everything else – including hating your enemy – is an unnecessary distraction.
3. Define Your Own Success
If you compare yourself to others or live according to other people’s expectations, you will inevitably fall short. You are unique, and it’s up to you to define what success and fulfillment mean to you. Santiago puts it perfectly:
There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only one you.Santiago, The Old Man and the Sea
For Santiago, a successful life means living by his personal values of hard work and integrity. You don’t need to find a grandiose purpose to live a life well lived. Author Victor Strecher suggests you find your purpose by identifying your values and by asking yourself what difference you would like to make in the lives of others. Meanwhile, make sure you don’t Bark Against the Wrong Tree: Overcome the rat race by setting your own goals and defining what you see as personal success, lifestyle expert Eric Barker advises. If you compare yourself to others, you set yourself up for stress and disappointment.
What are the motivations behind your drive for success? In Return on Ambition, Nicolai Chen Nielsen and Nicolai Tillisch help you to dig deeper and find out. The authors challenge you to consider viewing success from different perspectives, such as appreciating your successes in maintaining relationships, making peace with others, or improving yourself through exercise, volunteerism or spiritual practices.
Defining success in terms of living by your values can never lead to failure. No matter how much the world conspires against you, you’ll always win – as long as you keep on trying.