Small Wins, Big Wins: Reflections on the Old Man and the Sea

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Small Business Corner newsletter!

Last week, I took part in a discussion about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It was an interesting conversation because you get exposed to different angles and perspectives of the participants

When we read literature, we often relate to and make sense of it based on our own life experiences. This was reflected in our conversation, with different people sharing their unique views on the reading.

On the surface, Hemingway’s novella is a simple story about an old man who goes out fishing in hopes of ending his many-day streak without catching a fish. This time, unexpectedly, he manages to catch a Marlin, a magnificent and awe-inspiring fish.

It was like nothing he had ever caught or even seen.

But - spoiler alert - the trip back home proves to be a challenging one as the fisherman tries to fend off various sharks who end up eating the Marlin, leaving him with only the backbone.

At a deeper level, there are many ways this seemingly simple text could be interpreted.

I won’t go over the perspectives that were shared during the discussion. But I want to leave you with a very brief reflection and a few questions that may relate to how you conduct your business or go about your daily life.

Here’s one angle: we can think about The Old Man and the Sea within the context of small and big wins in business, careers, studies, and other life choices, and the importance of diversifying our portfolios and trying out new things. Yes, with high risk comes big reward. But are you well-prepared to make it to shore with your big win against all circumstances?

Another angle: A Stoic touch. Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that focuses on self-control, resilience, and tranquility by focusing on what we control and accepting and preparing for what we cannot change or control.

At some point during his inner dialogue, the old man laments that he could have brought many things which he did not. But then he discards these thoughts and insists that the most important part is to manage through by looking at what he has and what he can do with it.

"I wish I had a stone for the knife," the old man said after he had checked the lashing on the oar butt. "I should have brought a stone." You should have brought many things, he thought. But you did not bring them, old man. Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”

In a certain sense, the old man’s attitude in this case was to not spend time stressing over what he couldn’t control right there in the moment.

He was very well-prepared, had enough tools to get him by, and given the circumstances, there was little he could do to change the fact that there were many things he could have brought with him.

Applying the above to a business context, think about all the necessary steps you take to hedge your risks, and how you tend to navigate uncertainty.

What would you do if you find yourself in a business predicament similar to that of the fisherman? What if your business livelihood depended on it? After all, this was the old man’s business, and catching fish was his main source of income.

I will leave you with one more question to reflect on: the old man seemed to be quite aware of his limitations given his old age and was constantly reflecting on his role and what he was supposed to be doing. So an important question arises: How do you know when it’s time to move on, to try something else? Are we born to do one thing?

“You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish. San Pedro was a fisherman as was the father of the great DiMaggio.”

Quote of the Week

“For your market, the two key things to understand are (a) how many potential customers are there and
(b) how much will each of them be worth to you if everything goes right.” — Mike Vernal, The Market Curve

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