I recently read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and quite enjoyed it. In case you haven’t read it, it’s about an old man in Cuba during the 50s or so whose wife has died, he apparently has no children, and he has a small boat in which he fishes. He’s had a string of bad luck and hasn’t caught a fish for almost three months, whereas other fishermen are catching almost every day.
Everyone says the old man has bad luck, but he maintains a positive attitude. He goes out fishing one day and hooks the largest marlin he’s ever seen, and the book goes into great detail about how it takes him two days to bring him in, and after he catches him the fish is too big to put in the boat, so he straps it to the side and heads back for land, but on the way sharks follow the scent of the dead fish and start eating it, and despite the old man’s best efforts the fish is entirely gone by the time he gets back to land.
The experience almost kills the old man by the time he gets back home to land, and that’s pretty much where the book ends, but even after this horrible experience of going with no luck for 85 days, catching the biggest fish ever, and then losing it, the man still seems to have a positive attitude. He doesn’t quit, he doesn’t give up, he’s going to keep on fishing.
As I read the book I felt like I could relate, even though I’ve never fished in the ocean, nor am I old. But I have been through plenty of experiences wherein I had a string of “bad luck” followed by “catching the big fish” only to have it taken from me by “sharks”.
Sometimes the bad luck, in retrospect, has been my lack of experience or simply not having the information I needed to make good decisions. Sometimes the bad luck was apparently circumstantial and out of my control.
The “sharks” are also more bad luck in the same way. Sometimes it’s my choices, sometimes it’s circumstantial or things outside my control, sometimes it’s ignorance, sometimes it’s other people.
But my question is whether the man is a failure or not. If you define failure by whether he caught a lot of fish or not, then yes, he was a failure. But it’s hard to maintain such a superficial perspective. In the book, the old man works harder than any of the other fisherman, but despite the hard work, he just doesn’t catch fish. He works harder than any other fisherman would have to catch this giant marlin, and any other fisherman would have given up. But even though he works harder than anyone else, even though he actually catches the big fish, he ends up with nothing at the end. Can we say that the other fisherman, who catch the fish while the old man doesn’t, are successful and the old man is a failure? Only economically, but there’s more to life than money.
I think part of the point Hemingway makes is that there are things in life beyond our control. You can fish in the right place, you can use the right bait, you can have the right technique, and yet sometimes things don’t work out for you while they work out for the guy fishing a hundred yards from you who’s doing all the same things.
To me, failure is not something that happens to us, it’s something we choose. Failure is giving up, losing heart, and becoming bitter. Success is sticking with it, having a positive attitude, keeping hope alive, and being happy or at peace with yourself.
Now there’s giving up and there’s giving up. Sometimes giving up is what needs to happen. If I, as a business owner, am losing money, going into more and more debt, and things in general are getting worse and worse with no hope for a turnaround, then maybe I should be looking into doing something else. There is such a thing as hopelessly optimistic, or looking for a miracle when there is no such chance. On the other hand, there are plenty of stories about businesses that absolutely “failed” for ten years or more, and then became market leaders.
But other times giving up is not the best option. In my case, there are times when emotionally I’m ready to throw in the towel. You get tired of dealing with so many clients, the long hours, the lack of pay, the debt, etc. But then I look at the numbers, and I think “Ok, our second year in business we grew revenue about 100% over the first year, and so far this year we’re doing better than the last. Why would I think of quitting if we’re making that much progress?” Not only are the financial numbers showing a distinct positive trend, but I don’t work the long hours I used to (I rarely work past 7pm anymore, compared to the back-to-back nights sleeping on the floor of my office a few years ago), I rarely have to work much on weekends, and things are generally nicer. My experience and logic tell me that if I stick with it, things will continue to improve as they always have over the past five years. In five years I’ve never had a year where we pulled in less revenue than the year before (except when I sold my company and started over from scratch).
Hope must be grounded in some sense of reality. The old man had fished long enough to know that bad luck, or circumstances, are temporary. He was successful before, and he knew that if he kept doing what he had done all his life, he would be successful again. I’ve been in this industry long enough and I’ve experimented with different tactics and strategies enough to know what works and what doesn’t. Not to say there isn’t a lot more to learn, or that I don’t learn something important every week. It’s been that way for five years and I expect five years from now I’ll still be learning new things every week that seem important.
But I know that if I stick with it, things will continue to head in the right direction as they always have. If I’ve made mistakes (and mistakes are too often identified by short-term results without thought for the long-term), the mistakes I’ve made have stemmed from being too hopeful, from trying to jump ahead before things were ready. But I’ve learned and I’m always trying new things to see what works and what doesn’t. I find I learn a lot more from experiences where things don’t work out than when things do work out.
Most importantly, like the old man, I’m at peace with myself despite the ongoing uncertainty, risks, and heartaches of running a business. I’m happy because I enjoy what I’m doing. Even when something comes along and I think “Oh man, this is going to put us out of business…” I almost immediately think “This is going to be kind of fun to try and work through this.” And I’ve been working through things for five years and I’m still in business and doing better than ever by just about every standard you can use to measure.
Ultimately, failure isn’t something that happens to us, it’s a choice. If I were to give up now, that would be failure, but I choose not to fail. That’s all.