Ernest Hemingway remains one of the most iconic and influential American authors of the 20th century. His spare and economical prose style has long been held in high esteem by marketing and advertising experts. Copywriting books and articles often dole out advice that might be summed up in one sentence: Write like Ernest Hemingway; don’t write like William Faulkner.
Often dismissive of unsolicited advice himself, Hemingway nevertheless held strong convictions about writing, and he never shied away from speaking his mind. He once remarked, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector,” emphasizing the importance of personal integrity and honesty in one’s work.
Hemingway’s writing advice has proven useful to thousands of would-be scribes over the last century. Unfortunately, one of his most popular quotes is often misinterpreted by copywriters who melodramatically portray the creative aspects of their role: There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. While writing can be a deeply personal endeavor, no bleeding is necessary for a press release, landing page, or sales email. For the record, he was referring to his novels and short stories, not his journalism or non-literary work.
In this, the month of NaNoWriMo, writers will encounter the quote in plenty of memes and articles, but scholars are not completely certain that he ever made such a statement. Of course, the validity of statements attributed to historic figures is often questioned. Time has a way of bending and distorting what was said or how it’s remembered. One of the quotes below is similar to something Ben Franklin purportedly said, too. Over the course of his life, Hemingway offered plenty of poster-worthy quotes, some of which can guide your life or business. (Side note: Why has no publisher has ever assembled them in a small, attractive hardcover? It would be a ready-made graduation gift for the roughly 400,000 undergraduates who complete a business major each year.)
Without further adieu, here are nine pieces of advice from Ernest Hemingway to help a small business improve and grow.
I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.
By actively listening to colleagues, clients, and partners, you can gain valuable insights, build stronger relationships, and make more informed decisions. Listening fosters trust and empathy. People need to feel heard and respected, which enhances collaboration and the ability to solve problems. Ultimately, being a good listener is the key to staying agile and adaptive.
The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.
Without trust, it’s challenging to build lasting relationships with customers, employees, and stakeholders. Trust engenders confidence, reliability, and credibility, and it also speeds up the decision-making process. In fact, most problems in the workplace today—such as the hand-wringing about the role of remote work—at least partly stem from a lack of trust. Operating from an assumption that direct reports cannot be trusted undercuts any efforts within an organization to improve leadership.
Never mistake motion for action.
Perpetual activity does not necessarily equal meaningful progress or effective leadership. Mistaking motion for action can lead to inefficiency, wasted resources, and missed opportunities. True leadership involves making purposeful, well-informed decisions and taking deliberate actions that align with a clear strategy and vision. It’s about setting priorities, managing time and resources effectively, and ensuring that every effort contributes to the achievement of meaningful goals.
The shortest answer is doing the thing.
Lengthy deliberations and over-analysis can lead to missed opportunities, delayed decision-making, and a lack of agility. Taking swift, well-informed action encourages innovation and allows companies to proactively respond to challenges and opportunities. Rather than getting bogged down in endless discussions, focus on execution and results, which ultimately builds a more efficient and effective operation.
The first draft of anything is shit.
A culture of iteration, continuous improvement, and learning from mistakes makes employees feel comfortable taking risks, proposing new ideas, and making initial attempts without the fear of harsh judgment. No first effort is perfect, but you have to start somewhere. If you seek innovation, first establish a structured organization where refining and revising ideas is encouraged.
The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.
Setbacks and challenges are inevitable, but how you respond to these difficulties will determine if your business can endure and use its struggles and failures to improve. Can you adapt, grow stronger in the process, and emerge better equipped to navigate adversity, make informed decisions, and inspire your team? Why not embrace adversity as a chance to develop your skills and improve your organization? Experienced leaders often point to resilience as the most important quality in a fledgling business. They also cite numerous failures that ultimately paved the way to success.
The man who has begun to live more seriously within begins to live more simply without.
When a company begins to focus on its core values and prioritizes what truly matters, leaders can emphasize essential competencies and eliminate unnecessary complexity. By living—and leading—with a sense of purpose, business leaders can foster a more focused, efficient, and purpose-driven environment.
Cowardice…is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.
Don’t let your fears and anxieties run wild. Excessive worrying about negative outcomes hinders decision-making. Over time, operating within static fear breeds a culture of pessimism that inhibits collaboration and creativity. Your people should not be reluctant to voice new ideas or dissent from the status quo because they fear criticism. Effective leaders and organizations must balance imagination and creativity with a healthy dose of courage to overcome challenges.
The writer’s job is not to judge, but to seek to understand.
Creativity and productivity can thrive in a workplace that encourages empathy, open communication, and collaboration. Employees and leaders should listen actively to one another, suspend judgment, and work to genuinely understand each other’s perspectives, ideas, and concerns. Want to improve both your team and their work? Strengthening the relationships on your team engenders a culture of inclusivity where diverse viewpoints are welcomed.