Gone Fishing – with Elon Musk

The second BBC series of Gone Fishing, with Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, two of my comedy icons from the 1990s, finished its six-part run on Friday. They made me laugh out loud then, and again on this programme.

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 as 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.

But Whitehouse and Mortimer have more in common than their love of laughter. They have both suffered complex heart diseases – Paul had three stents, Bob a triple bypass. That was the back-story of the first series, and the second series was poignant reminder of the passage of time and how priorities change from a pair who in their prime, shaped the British comedy landscape.

The pair’s 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 series, we eavesdrop as they reconnect and 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 two schoolboys.

The second series delivered more of the comforting same as the first, as the pair went fishing in their laid-back, uncomplicated way. My favourite episode was number three, which saw the boys guided by Calum, a ghillie, in Scotland’s River Tay, in the hope of realising Bob’s dream of catching a salmon.

One fish for every 10,000 casts, said Calum, 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 all three burst into laughter. You had to laugh.

Come the end of the half hour mix of silliness and gentle rumination, Paul had made peace with their failed quest. That’s salmon 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?.

Episode four saw them embarking to the open sea – Bob caught an awesome sea bass. A five-pound smasher, the sight of Bob grinning at the fish close up provided the deepest TV joy of the week.

They are just two men in a boat, not three, and one of them stands more chance of catching a bus than a salmon, but it’s sheer unadulterated TV pleasure. 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 was 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 hangs over this surreptitiously emotive series, 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. The cool splendour of the British countryside provides a splendid backdrop.

You can sense that there are genuine psychological benefits of fishing that can help you feel better on an emotional and mental level. You don’t catch a fish every five minutes, but the calming water helps you relax as you unplug and connect with nature, enjoying a peaceful and quiet environment.

No one is around, there’s nothing to bother you, it’s just you, open water, the fish and fresh air. Above all, the openness gives you some perspective on what is really important, and on what makes you happy.

Notwithstanding this wistful vestige of an existential neverland of fishing, as entrepreneurs 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.

So fishing strikes me as the perfect place to think and reflect about your business 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, Elon Musk would be the ideal partner to whilst away those hours on the fishing bank.

Whether Elon would find the time to relax in the silence I doubt, he’s an entrepreneurial powerhouse whose leadership philosophies and daring risks have transformed many sectors, I suspect he’s not one for sitting still, as his focus, openness to criticism and ever evolving mindset has catapulted him to become one of the foremost tech thought leaders.

Professor Melissa Schilling, from New York University’s Stern School of Business, has been watching Musk’s escapades and recorded her thoughts about him in Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.

Musk is one of eight innovators whose traits, foibles and genius she focused on – together with Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Dean Kamen, Nicola Tesla, Marie Curie, and Steve Jobs. What made these folk so spectacularly inventive? Schilling illustrates the following traits these innovators:

Grit They all had grit. Their successes seem to have been attained through sheer force of will, investing remarkable effort and persistence in executing their ideas, often in the face of failure and opposition. Every breakthrough innovator demonstrates extraordinary unrelenting effort and persistence.

Work ethic They pursue their projects with remarkable zeal, often working extremely long hours, sleep less and at great personal cost – Musk has been divorced three times. Most of them worked tirelessly because they found work extremely rewarding and experience the pleasure of ‘flow’ from working incredibly hard (i.e. work was autotelic, rewarding for its own sake).

Self-efficacy The eight studied all exhibited extreme faith in their ability to overcome obstacles from an early age. Steve Jobs had a ‘reality distortion field’, such great faith in his own capacity for reasoning and insight that he felt free to disregard the ‘rules’ that constrained others.

This faith in themselves enabled them to think big, fearlessly tackling projects that seemed impossible to others, believing in their ability to overcome obstacles. Almost all of these innovators exhibit have been considered hubris, except that once they deliver on something, it’s not considered hubris anymore, it’s considered self-efficacy.

Self-reinforcing effect Perseverance and self-efficacy can be self-reinforcing: those who persevere at tasks are more likely to accomplish them, reinforcing their confidence in their ability to achieve what they set out to do. Numerous studies have shown that self-efficacy can lead to greater risk-taking and entrepreneurship.

Idealist All are driven by passionate idealism, a consuming goal that was more important than their own comfort or reputation. Idealism helps focus innovators by making their long-term purpose very clear, helping them to make choices among the competing demands of their attention. It also pushes them to work with intensity even in the face of criticism or failure.

Ego defence Idealism provides a level of ego defence. It helps the innovator to persevere in the face of harsh criticism that many people would find decimating. Idealistic innovators believe that the goals they are pursuing are extremely important and intrinsically honourable and valuable, so they are better able to disregard harsh judgment or failure as merely transitory burdens to be endured.

Having the mentality of a survivor, not a victim, when dealing with any potential crisis, is essential. Avoid thinking like a victim of circumstance and instead look for ways to resolve the problem. While the situation may be unavoidable, you can still stay focused on a positive outcome. Musk is notorious for his ability to press on with ideas despite what other people tell him. Naysayers abound when innovators want to try things nobody has ever done.

Be a constant learner Musk reads the way most people watch TV. Musk is the definition of a bookworm. An avid reader from a young age, when he was in grade school he was reading ten hours a day. All those studied by Schilling’s were fuelled by intrinsic motivation, a true love of learning and invested heavily in self-education, avid and omnivorous readers.

Self-education Following on from the above, all were avid consumers of knowledge, but they followed their own rhythms rather than structured teaching. A surprisingly large portion of breakthrough innovators are autodidacts and excelled more outside the classroom than inside. That is because they do not accept the norms. Norms of consensus are dangerous to innovation and reveal the advantages of helping people to embrace their weird sides.

High level of social detachment Many exhibit a marked sense of ‘separateness’, perceiving themselves as different or disconnected from the crowd. By not belonging, they were buffered from the norms that help to bring groups of people to consensus, and thus are less exposed to conventional wisdom, and their ideas can develop less influenced by those shared by the crowd. When an individual is not well integrated into the social fabric, there is less to lose by being unconventional.

So, please make yourself uncomfortable. Becoming a successful entrepreneur is never a straight line. There are lots of ups and downs and zigzags along the way. Ever silver lining has a cloud, but as Musk says, when something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour. But is that a reason to not do something? Life is also not a contest of ‘my problems are worse than yours’. If it’s attention that you want, get a dog.

So, Elon as your fishing companion, taking the time to reflect, thinking differently and not just sitting there and daydreaming. It’s about picturing the alternatives and working out possibilities of new realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the entrepreneurial revolution before it finds you.

Gone Fishing is a reminder that there’s nothing better to spend your time on than with friends, sharing and creating memories and moments of throwaway pleasure. It’s a restorative vicarious getaway even if it comes with the same sort of sweet sadness you get halfway through the best holiday of your life, when you realise it’ll all too soon be over. As Whitehouse says at the start of every episode: “Good to be alive, innit Bob?”

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

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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