On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway took a rifle to his head and blew his brains out. He was a few weeks short of his 62nd birthday.
He was a Pulitzer Prize winner. He was awarded the Nobel prize. He was a tour de force in literature.
And still a relatively young man, he took his life on a quiet summer day in Ketchum, Idaho.
Why he resorted to suicide is the subject of considerable debate, but I have always belived he acted because he could no longer be Ernest Hemingway.
This was a creative powerhouse. This was a life force. This was a man who lived so large, who thrived on bullfights and Cuban fishing and Austrian skiiing and beautiful women and bottles of rum chased down by bottles of Vodka. As his health deteriorated due to accidents and illnesses and alcohol, his creativity and his mobility suffered. He could no longer play out his one-man opera on the world stage.
Worst of all, he could no longer create with the grace and ease of his youth. He could be Ernest Hemingway in name and legend alone. That was not acceptable to the lion the world called Papa.
When I was a a young man headed off to Paris to find my voice, to fall in love, a relative gave me a copy of one of Hemingway’s last works: A Moveable Feast. To Hemingway, living in Paris in your youth was a moveable feast, because the experience stays with you for life.
It did for me. I knew exactly what he meant.
I have never been a student of Hemingway and in fact, A Moveable Feast is the only one of his books I have ever really enjoyed. But Papa the man, that’s a different story. To me, Hemingway has been a lifelong figure of inspiration. Of the drive to break through the ordinary ways of doing your work and to enter new dimensions of insight and excellence. Never to give up. Never to accept mediocrity. And when you can’t do it at that level any longer, throw in the towel and walk away…..or find a way to reinvent yourself again.
I gave the commencement address at a local college last week and it was exhilerating. I advised the bright eyes before me not to be ordinary. Not to accept the rules of others. To take risks. To break through. To make a difference.
If you are living to occupy space, to get your job done and spend your money on things–if you have ended the pursuit of exceptionalism–you have accepted mediocrity. What a terrible compromise.
I live in a business of strategy and creativity. But so does every businessperson who wants to do more than be sure of having a paycheck and a place to hang their hat. We want to move the needle. We want to raise the bar.
As long as we can do that, we are blessed. Once we cannot–I should say if we cannot– we are terribly compromised.
Ernest knew that.