Lessons learned from Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Russ Jamieson Books, Personal Development

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is a short story that seems simple enough, but there are many life lessons interwoven throughout.  At the heart of the story is an old Cuban fisherman who never gives up.  The old man lives a tough life of unending struggle with fate and chance.  His life is hard, but he works hard, maintains his integrity and inner dignity, doesn’t complain, doesn’t make excuses, doesn’t boast, and he never surrenders. These are qualities that we all need to be successful in life.

Summary: Santiago is an old and experienced fisherman who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. But he doesn’t give up. On the 85th day he goes further out into the sea in his small boat and hooks a giant marlin. He battles the majestic fish for 3 days and never gives in. After three days of unrelenting persistence, determination, and grit, he pulls the fish close to the boat and kills it with a harpoon. The fish is too big to fit in his boat, so he ties it to the side and heads back home. On the way back, his marlin is picked apart by successive groups of sharks until the magnificent fish is eventually nothing but bones.

Lessons learned

It’s such a short and simple story, yet it’s chock full of complex concepts like failure vs success, man’s relationship with nature, heroism, nobility of character, understanding and respecting nature, fate and chance, pride, and what it means to be a man.

1 – Never give up

“A man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

This is the underlying theme of the book. Live your life to your fullest potential, never give in, never surrender. Our lives might end (a man can be destroyed), but the impressions we have made will go on. Our legacy is what remains after we are destroyed. What’s your legacy? Santiago had nothing but an old broken boat and an old broken body. Although he is old and doesn’t have much to show materialistically, his eyes remain “the same color as the sea and are cheerful and undefeated.” His spirit cannot be defeated. He hasn’t given up and continues to live his life his way. To him, a man’s legacy comes from maintaining their integrity. He’s gone out to sea 84 days in a row without a catch, but he keeps trying. He knows if he keeps trying, he will eventually succeed. And he does (although he lost it, he did catch the biggest fish anyone has seen). In life, you have to try your best no matter what comes your way. Obstacles will arise and they will challenge you, but they will also shape you and help you grow.

“Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty. He seemed to hang in the air above the old man in the skiff. Then he fell into the water with a crash that sent spray over the old man and over all of the skiff.”

The fish is like Santiago in a way. Right before the fish died, it came alive for one final surge, just like the old man is at the end of his life and is giving one final surge at life. He returns without his reward (his fish) but he does return with his reputation revitalized. According to Hemingway, man was most alive when facing death. How someone reacts to such a situation says a lot about their character. It’s in these struggles where individuals achieve glory.

Old Man and the Sea - hemingway-sharks

Image credits – Kay Smith

“I am too old to club sharks to death. But I will try as long as I have the oars and the short club and the tiller… I’ll fight them until I die.”

As Santiago heads home with the marlin, he realizes sharks will come to pick at the fish. At first he thinks he is too old to defend the prize, but when they come, he puts up a very good fight, even killing a few of the sharks. You’re never too old to put up a good fight.

2 – Understand and respect nature

“the fish is my friend too…I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars. Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away… Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him… There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity. I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.”

In this quote, he is contemplating his place in the world and the nature of everything else in the universe. He has some inner conflicts about killing such a strange and beautiful creature, but he has to in order to survive. He respects the marlin and relates to the fish in a way. He doesn’t quite understand why things are the way they are, but understands that it just the natural order of the world. Santiago states that it doesn’t matter whom kills whom, but he will not stop until one of them is dead. He reflects on his actions towards nature and sees the constructive and destructive aspects of it all. We should all take time to reflect on the nature of the universe and our place in it. We should also always respect nature because we are part of it.

He also shows respect and compassion for his enemy (fish) when he states, “fish… I love and respect you.”

“He remembered the time he had hooked one of a pair of marlin. The male fish always let the female fish feed first and the hooked fish, the female, made a wild, panic-stricken, despairing fight that soon exhausted her, and all the time the male had stayed with her, crossing the line and circling with her on the surface. He had stayed so close that the old man was afraid he would cut the line with his tail which was sharp as a scythe and almost of that size and shape. When the old man had gaffed her and clubbed her, holding the rapier bill with its sandpaper edge and clubbing her across the top of her head until her colour turned to a colour almost like the backing of mirrors, and then, with the boy’s aid, hoisted her aboard, the male fish had stayed by the side of the boat. Then, while the old man was clearing the lines and preparing the harpoon, the male fish jumped high into the air beside the boat to see where the female was and then went down deep, his lavender wings, that were his pectoral fins, spread wide and all his wide lavender stripes showing. He was beautiful, the old man remembered, and he had stayed.”

A very sad passage in the book about a pair of marlins. This makes Santiago think about why nature is the way it is. We should all reflect on nature, and our own nature.

3 – Success is how you define it

Hemingway makes us think about what success really means in this book. Is success attaining a certain status level? Having a lot of money? Santiago was at the lowest end of the social ladder, had little money, but he lived by a different philosophy of what success means. Success to him meant living by his values. He preferred to live by qualities such as integrity and hard work. He didn’t wait for success to come to him, he tried to seek it out. He battles a huge fish, survives by his pure grit and determination, killed a couple sharks in defending his catch, but eventually failed. Although he failed at being a fisherman that day (in a way), he succeeded at being a noble man. Isn’t that more important than catching a fish? It’s the way you react in difficult circumstances that shows your true character.

Santiago recognizes his failures and acknowledges them. He knew he went too far out into the Gulf, and he he fought the sharks off even though he knew it was useless. He is willing to admit when he makes mistakes. It takes a strong person to be able to admit your mistakes. We all do it, but we are not all so willing to say so.

hemingway-fish2

4 – Be grateful for what you have

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with that there is.”

Be grateful for what you have and use what you have to the best of your ability. We all need to be grateful. Be gratitude for what you have in this day and age. Santiago’s world is extremely tough. They survive day to day on what they can catch in the sea. He has little food and his friend Manolin sometimes brings him sustenance.

5 – Be your own man and stop caring what others think or say

As Santiago spits blood into the ocean after a long battle with the sharks he says, “eat that galanos.  And make a dream you’ve killed a man.”

In the end, the marlin is reduced to bones, but although his prize is gone and ruined, Santiago is not defeated. He never stopped fighting. The marlin was a piece of beautiful art and the sharks were its critics. Hemingway may have been trying to tell us something here (he received a lot of criticism around his book ‘Across the River and into the Trees’ in 1950 (he was 51). He wrote Old Man and the Sea after that). In life you will achieve things and make works of art, but there will always be critics out there to tear it down. Don’t let that stop you. Do what’s in your heart and don’t worry about what people think about it. If they tear It down they are either envious or they don’t understand it.

“If the others heard me talking out loud they would think that I am crazy. But since I am not, I do not care.”

Again, Santiago really doesn’t give a crap about what people think. I think that is something that comes naturally with age. For us men reading this, we’ve all been in a men’s locker room and it’s plain to see that old guys don’t really care what you are thinking about them (they walk around naked). Don’t let it take until you’re 70 to have that mentality. Stop caring right now.

The younger fishermen laugh at Santiago and the older ones look at him and feel sad, but he does not mind.

“he knew he had attained humility and he knew it was not disgraceful and that it carried no loss of true pride.”

What makes a hero? Santiago is undefeated, undeterred, and unaffected by the pity or contempt of others. To me that is more courageous and admirable than someone with money who had to lose their integrity along the way (don’t get me wrong, money isn’t evil and many people have both wealth and integrity). He was a humble man, and we need more of those.

6 – Work hard, persist, and do not depend on luck

“To hell with luck. I’ll bring the luck with me.”

“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.”

Santiago doesn’t rely on luck. He defies luck by working hard and being ready for when opportunity comes. Make your own luck. After 84 days without a fish, he continues to work hard and keep trying. He’s been unfortunate lately, but he knows if he keeps persisting, his hard work will pay off. Anyone can have luck of course, but not everyone one can have determination, skill, and perseverance. Santiago knows this and therefore believes in his ability rather than chance. He doesn’t take short cuts, he just works hard! I’ll add to this, don’t just work harder, but also work smarter.

Hemingway - Old Man and the Sea

Image credits – Kay Smith

7 – Do not complain

“Pain means nothing to a man.”

“He was shivering with the morning cold. But he knew he would shiver himself warm and that soon he would be rowing.”

Santiago endures pain and hardship, but he presses on. Even when cold, hungry, thirsty, and facing death, he simply did what needed to be done. He didn’t complain, he didn’t pity himself, he just took action. His hand was cut badly from the fishing line but that did not stop him and it didn’t cause him to whine. He just pressed on.

8 – Do not brag

Manolin asks, “Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?”
“I think they are equal.”
“And the best fisherman is you.”
“No. I know others better.”
“Que va,” the boy says, “There are many good fishermen and some great ones, but there is only you.”
“Thank you. You make me happy. I hope no fish will come along so great that he will prove us wrong.”

Let your actions speak for you. When you brag, you’re just showing your insecurities. Be humble.

9 – Set an example for the youth

Santiago is kind of a sage to the boy (Manolin). He shares his experiences and knowledge with the young boy. He teaches him qualities a man should possess and he respects the boy. You must respect everyone in life.

10 – Be determined in what you aim to do

“I may not be as strong as I think, but I know many tricks and I have resolution.”

Santiago realizes he may not be as strong as he thinks and he may not be the best fisherman, but he has determination on his side and that is why he will win. You don’t have to be the best at something, you just have to keep at it, unremittingly.

11 – There is only one you

 “There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only one you.”

Don’t compare yourself to anyone else… Ever.  You are unique.  Do what makes you happy, fulfill your purpose, and don’t worry about others expectations, opinions, etc.  You are here for a purpose, so find it.  When you do find it, work hard and don’t let anyone hold you back.

Russ JamiesonLessons learned from Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway