White whales

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

– Mahatma Gandhi

In the book “Delivering Happiness” Tony Hsieh opens with a story of his first childhood enterprise as a worm farmer and imagines how if Gandhi had stopped by his house, he would have told him that quote after hearing his idea.

When his worm farm inevitably failed he imagined Thomas Edison dropping by and telling him his perspective on failure:

I’ve failed my way to success.

He then continues with this phrase that is what caught my attention:

He [Edison] was probably too busy working on other stuff though, because like Gandhi, he never did stop by my house. Maybe they were too busy hanging out with each other.

I just love his attitude (which probably helped him become a successful entrepreneur): you just don’t stop doing your thing just because others aren’t paying attention.

This reminded me immediately of a recent episode of Analog(ue) 1 in which Myke and Casey discussed getting people they admire to pay attention to them as “catching their white whales”2.

Casey (and Myke agreed) highlighted another very important attitude to have, in his words:

I haven’t really come up with who my next white whale is. Because I feel it’s kind of healthy to have someone that you aspire to impress.

Contrary to actual whale hunting, we don’t have harpoons to force people to pay attention3. We just have to keep on doing our thing like the book implied, until our white whales notice and come willingly.

I really don’t have much to add on this subject, but I wanted to point out these warnings to keep in mind when using white whales as a motivation:

  1. You may never gain the attention of your white whale.
    You could end up feeling frustrated and give up on doing what you do.

  2. You want your white whale to come to you.
    Do something because you believe in it, don’t do it just to impress someone. You may end up in a place you never planned to be in4.

  3. You may gain some unwanted attention
    There will be people that won’t receive your thing the way you want it. This is the Internet after all.

    There’s not much to do about it but heed Tony Hsieh: keep on doing what you do because at the end of the day this should be a virtuous cycle, your work will be what brings that person to your sphere of influence. Hopefully allowing you to gain the attention of bigger whales while ignoring the remoras and sharks.

The perils of hunting whales on the modern seas.


  1. The term comes from the novel “Moby-dick; or the Whale” where captain Ahab obsessed on catching the white whale that had severed his leg.

  2. It’s actually frowned upon.

  3. Like selling whale bait instead of high end fishing vessels.