Gone Fishing with Einstein: lessons in entrepreneurship

The fifth BBC series of Gone Fishing, with Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, is with us, episode two on Friday saw them fishing for grayling on the River Dee in north Wales. Two of my comedy icons from the 1990s, they made me laugh out loud then, and again on this programme. They chat about their health and try to fish – a simple premise but, one that’s utterly charming. Thirty minutes of Paul and Bob always leaves me feeling refreshed.

Paul Whitehouse was part of the team behind The Fast Show, inspired to have a go at comedy when working as a plasterer in the house where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were living. Characters of Ron Manager, Ken, one of the ‘Suit You Sir’ tailors and Ted were his forte.

Bob Mortimer is best known for working with Vic Reeves on Vic and Bob, developing a nightclub variety show format in Vic Reeves Big Night Out, and Shooting Stars, a comedy panel quiz show which ran from 1993 to 2011. Both were truly trailblazing – and utterly chaotic.

They have both suffered complex heart trauma – Paul had three stents, Bob a triple bypass – the more senior operation he says. This is the back-story of the series, a poignant reminder of the passage of time and how priorities change from a pair who in their prime, shaped the British comedy landscape.

Their friendship stretches back decades. Whitehouse reached out after learning Mortimer was in the doldrums following heart surgery, thinking a tour of the country’s finest fishing spots might help Bob’s recovery, relax them both and along the way maybe they would learn something new about each other.

In this funny and poignant programme, we eavesdrop as they share their personal experiences. They also fish and talk nonsense. A lot. On soggy riverbanks, they candidly discuss everything you can imagine, while trying to catch fish with the excitement of schoolboys.  One fish for every 10,000 casts, said Paul, ballooning their hopes. But then Bob had a bite. Paul leapt into action, but it was not to be, and in the middle of the melee, Bob fell over. The mood turned sombre. Silence reigned. Then both burst into laughter. You had to laugh too.

It’s Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse fishing. That’s it. There is some narrative: Bob can’t fish, whereas Paul can identify a trout at 100 yards just by a fin flapping out of the water; Bob makes them some simple riverside grub of sardines on toast perched on a camping stove. They criss-cross along the UK, dipping into and out of various rivers, then decamp to a pub or rented cottage for a glass of white wine (Paul) and a lager (Bob).

Basically, though, it’s all the same: two men in their early 60s, both recuperating from major heart conditions, burbling away in the background, casting lines, sometimes catching a fish if they are lucky. There is so little planning, so little structure, so little actual action, that it’s almost anti-TV: ambient comedy, with the same resting heart rate as a good nap.

Come the end of the half hour mix of silliness and gentle rumination, Paul had made peace with their failed quest. That’s fishing, Bob. We came so close and yet so far. He promised Bob they would try again one day, somewhere else (the fish counter at Asda, maybe?). I like the way they fish, light, mobile and having fun. Their fish care is genuine, when they release a caught fish, Bob’s phrase and away is spoken from the heart as Paul holds the fish for the camera. 

Men, broadly, are spectacularly bad at talking about or thinking about their health or taking their health in any way seriously, but here are two of them chatting with naked candour about the number of tablets they take every day, the various life-altering surgeries they’ve had, their new post-health-scare diets and their lifelong recovery, and I think that’s an important conversation to be having. They’ve just stealthed it into the consciousness via an unthreatening show about fishing.

Friendship is the cornerstone and the surroundings are core as they get back to nature with all the spiritual succour that brings. Sheer enjoyment permeates every second of screen time, unless they’re discussing their health when they both become serious, and reflective. They are just two men in a boat, not three, and one of them stands more chance of catching a bus than a salmon, Bob’s childish enthusiasm, offset by Paul the fishing veteran, with his finite tolerance for Bob’s incompetence, is the core script and appeal.

Of course, it’s not really about fishing, but about friendship, getting older and reminiscing, nostalgia for their youth, joking about mortality and life, it is a joy to witness friendship taken back to basics, banter without much actually happening, ambling around sharing experiences, while a group of meandering cows trudge past to the opposite bank.

Mortality and emotion hang over this programme – as Whitehouse says at the start of every episode: Good to be alive, innit Bob? As outsiders we are observers over a very private relationship, wherever it travels, but these two are making the most of it. It’s just a couple of blokes mucking about, filmed in glistening light, often with drone HD footage, at Britain’s most sumptuous fishing spots. They enjoy some serendipitous moments as they move through the countryside, which they agree has a Swallows and Amazons feel to it. 

Notwithstanding this wistful vestige of an existential neverland of fishing, we need time and space to think and get stuff out of our heads, a place to look at the horizon and keep us fresh. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Fishing strikes me as the perfect place to think and reflect about your startup challenges, the stuff you’ve got going on, and trying to make sense of it in order to learn something from it. But I’d only go if I had a fishing partner to chat too and share some thinking. For me, Albert Einstein would be the ideal partner to whilst away those hours on the fishing bank.

Just imagine you had the opportunity to share an intimate conversation over several hours with Albert to shape your entrepreneurial thinking. Just chatting, on a river, catching the odd fish. The moments to share, reflect, listen and learn would be the ultimate mentoring experience. Keep an eye out on Amazon for Fishing with Einstein, I’ll have it written by Christmas

Sat on the peaceful riverbank, you’d get an insight of what made Einstein tick – intuition, unconventional thinking, love of the unknown for sure – but one of the main things was Einstein’s imagination, and his approach to visualise the issues before him – ‘thought problems,’ where he would paint a picture of the problem he was trying to sort out. His thought processes were very much about coming up with odd questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability and courage to ask questions were just as revolutionary as his answers.

If we could capture Einstein’s approach to seeing things others don’t, and crafting breakthrough ideas into our own startup growth processes, crafting new products and services to out think our competition would abound. Here’s my Einstein disruptive thinking tool kit for entrepreneurs in his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. What makes entrepreneurs special is that they imagined – what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then they created it.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference. He created the first mind-map, and painted the big picture.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One of the most important questions an entrepreneur can ask is How can I make it better? Whether you offer a product or a service, improving it is the only way to attract new clients and retain existing ones. A good example of this are windshield wipers that speed up as it rains harder.

Same problems, new ways of thinking We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein’s thinking resembles the counter-intuitive Blue Ocean Strategy model – avoid the crowds, make your own market. Think Different said Steve Jobs. Don’t follow the crowd, make your own waves with your own thinking.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward on anything. Trusting one’s gut has led to many of the C20th greatest advances. For example, in 1971, Gillette introduced the twin blade shaving system, with two blades instead of one. Twin blades give a closer shave because each blade performs a different function. The first blade pulls up the hair so that it is unable to retract into the skin before the second blade, set at a slightly different angle, cuts it off. The twin blades set off a still-ongoing competitive frenzy of multiplication in the shaving industry.

Strong, positive attitude Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Einstein believed it took him ten years of thinking and effort to get to a point where he was satisfied with his final theory. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX, Kindle Touch, Kindle Fire, Kindle Paperwhite and the Oasis reflects this focus of continued reinvention, keep pushing the boundaries to keep ahead of the game.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein believed that to gain knowledge about the form of a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

Prepare yourself for chance I never think of the future, it comes soon enough Einstein had an acute intuition that guided him to the ideas and revealing experimental results he achieved. He had a characteristic tolerance and even delight in contradiction. He didn’t question willy-nilly, he simply refused to accept theories that weren’t borne out by work he had done himself.

Gone Fishing is soothing and poignant, it has a curious alchemy. It shows the benefits of talking and doing very little with another human being, the power of conversation and reflection that would undoubtedly benefit all startup founders. Like most startup ventures, It’s more ambling and shambling.

As Paul often shows Bob when he hooks his first fish in the episode, the key is knowing when to let the line run, and when to reel, and it’s more art than science. It’s a good metaphor for your startup venture.

We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, so get yourself fishing, and see where it takes you and your entrepreneurial thinking. As Paul Whitehouse said, last year I went fishing with Salvador Dali. He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish.

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