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Hemingway Revisited and The Old Man & The Sea

Updated: Jun 8

The beauty of failure and the satisfaction that it brings.....


Every school grade kid can remember hearing of that legendary quip made by Thomas Edison regarding failure..... "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work." Well..we've all been there. In some way, shape, or form, we have all visited that hellish town named failure and, for some of us, its familiar landscape has become somewhat of an unwelcomed dreaded territory we've come to know all too well.

What was that famous line Keanu Reeves said in the movie Constantine..." When you cross over, time stops. Take it from me, two minutes in hell is a lifetime." Well...when dealing with failure quite often it feels the exact same way. Not too long ago while working on a project (trying to design and build an app) for several straight days, it only dawned on me, after a less than favorable glance of disapproval from my significant other, that my total focus and concentration had been spent working mainly in my home office. I honestly hadn't noticed that a few days had passed. So engrossed was I in my desire to successfully recover from every single failed attempt to get my frustrating app to properly work, that time literally seemed to stop. The egotistical side of me likes to think that perhaps I was experiencing what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as a "timeless" sense of flow but the reality was more akin to an exhausted novice programmer who stubbornly refuses to let go of a "somewhat" functioning mobile app that he has finally hooked. Like Santiago in Hemingway's masterpiece The Old man & The Sea, I had finally "hooked" the big fish (in my case getting the app to initially start to work), but keeping him and hoping to bring him out to the marketplace would be a struggle I hadn't been prepared for.

You see, depending on how you look at it, the predictable /highly unpredictable nature of technology (specifically when you are testing to see if your coding is in fact working in a simulated environment) is analogous to the unpredictable nature of achieving success while out fishing on an otherwise fickle Sea. Santiago knew this exact point quite well and for everything else he may not have understood about the sea, 84 days of effort with nothing to show for it but an empty fishing bucket taught him the rest. He understood this double-faced Janus-like principle inherent in all things, especially Mother Nature. She is both cruel and kind to Sinners and Saints alike. Likewise, sometimes your coding efforts are met with a modicum of success while at others, the Devils and Demons of despair take great delight in dashing your hopes of success with the fragrance of failure.

"Success is not permanent and failure is not fatal." -Mike Ditka

It is here within these precious "micro-moments" of being a hares breath away from experiencing "success or failure" that the real drama begins. It is here at this present /future moment of uncertainty in which the sweetest nectar resides. For Santiago, that mirco-moment occurred just as he readjusted the slack on the heavy fishing line and "realized" he had indeed snagged a mighty fish. The epic battle which ensued magnified this point even more within Santiago giving way to, not only a deeper sense of satisfaction for himself but also a greater humbling admiration and respect for this beautiful intelligent creature he had finally caught.


To boldly go where no man has gone before

For Santiago, the grand theatre of the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream is where this 3-day battle would play out. Few if any small skiff fisherman would dare to tread here, but for all the hardships, sufferings, and numerous tests of sheer will and strength he'd have to endure to land this whopper of a fish, in Santiago's mind, it was well worth it.

"I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends." - Santiago (The Old Man and The Sea)

His declaration, "Fish...I will stay with you until I am dead." sealed his fate and solidified his commitment to play this adventure out to the very end. Painful...yes, heart-wrenching...of course, yet nevertheless, inspiring and quite satisfying for one who had come to an existential point where time and space had ceased, and the only thing that mattered was...the moment. Even when, after finally landing the beast and having to fiercely fight sharks off of the carcass to no avail, as he made his way back home, his sense of satisfaction, though rigorously tested, had not been completely eliminated.


How does one even begin to quantify this?...... What would drive one on, continuously moving forward in the face of defeat?

"But a man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated." - Santiago (The Old Man and The Sea)

Singularly focused, process-derived satisfaction is how I'd describe it; driven by a success/failure negative feedback loop that encourages one continuously forward even when the hope of success is slim at best.


For the old man, it was about testing himself to see if he still had what it takes..... For me, even though as of yet, my arduous efforts regarding getting my app to work properly has yielded little to no fruit; it has to be said, the sheer satisfaction I have gained from failing while continuing to move forward has been, truly a satisfying test in persistence worth its weight in gold.


If you step back and think about it, Hemingway's brilliance really begins to shine through. With Old Man and The Sea, he insightfully captured the subtle blissful nuances inherent within the human condition when it comes to struggling and overcoming an ever-present obstacle. With thought-provoking literary classics like this, it's easy to understand why so many people are still so fascinated with the magnificent genius known as Ernest Hemingway.






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