Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: Success Lies Beneath the Water

Have you ever noticed how mainstream Hollywood movies explain every part of the plot in painful detail? Sometimes they go so far as to have the lead character recount what’s just happened! Contrast this with eastern movies where less is more. Subtle facial expressions and cinematography are used to convey the deeper story.

Ernest Hemingway wrote his masterpieces the same way. He coined the ‘iceberg theory’, which is a minimalistic writing style. He used the tip of the iceberg to convey the bulk of the story – the mass that’s underwater.

Hemingway felt that if the author truly knows his characters, the knowledge is conveyed through surface elements. The details about the characters that are left out strengthen the story and give it weight. They don't need to be explicitly written. Instead, they are woven deeply into the structure. Less is more as Hemingway explained:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

We Don't See the Foundation of Success

Hemingway’s iceberg theory has been applied to many different fields. But I think it’s used most powerfully to explain success.


When we think of successful people, it’s easy to look at their highlight reels and romanticise their achievements. With the rise of social media, this has become much worse. Every day we’re bombarded with stories of rags to riches or extreme body transformations that seemingly occurred overnight. Amongst the endless pictures of cats and selfies in our feeds are glossy images of ‘perfect’ people living ‘perfect’ lives. This stuff sells like crazy. But distorts the reality of success.

We see the viral music video. Not the struggling artists living in their van for five years.

We read the New York Times best seller. We don’t read the 900 rejection letters the author had to push through to make it happen.

We watch the Kobe Bryants and Usain Bolts make sporting history. We don’t see the hours of heartbreaking, hard, deliberate practice. Or the years of injuries and sacrifices.

We’ve all heard about successful people failing: Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Einstein didn’t read until he was seven. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple – the company he founded. These stories are supposed to motivate us to push on to our own victories. But they gloss over the details. They're reduced to neat soundbites perfectly fit for social media sized attention spans.

Behind every great man and women are years of hard work, passion, good habits, dedication, persistence, courage, and A LOT of failures. This is the bulk of the iceberg you don't see below the water. It’s the most important part of the story. But it’s also the part we skim over. It’s the story that we need to read over and over again to remind ourselves of what it takes to do great work.

So how do we do this? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can offer you some approaches I’m trying to use in my own life.

Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Everyone wants success, but not many people want to hear about what it really takes to get there. The bottom of the iceberg is ugly. It’s a cold and lonely no man’s land. As Seth Godin points out:

People always look for excuses. My favorite one is, “Well that’s easy for you because you have a really popular blog.” As if my really popular blog was something I won in the lottery. I had a really unpopular blog for three years in a row where 10 or 20 people were reading it. When I got started in the book business, I received 900 rejection letters. So you don’t look at the end result – at the Richard Bransons and Maria Popovas – and say, “Well they have that thing that I don’t.” They got that thing by showing up . . .

Take learning guitar for example. When you start out, you’re given basic chord shapes like A, C, D, E and so on. You haven’t learned chord transitions yet, so you focus on one chord at a time. Simple up and down strums. It’s painful in the beginning as you build calluses up, and the chords sound terrible. The only way to progress is the put in a lot of hours of practice feeling uncomfortable in the beginner phase. We tend to avoid this phase in life, as it’s physically and mentally tough. The warm embrace of sticking to what we know in the ‘safe comfort zone’ is much easier. But icebergs don’t form there – the weather’s too warm and we’re distracted by shiny objects like those bloody cat and selfie pictures on Facebook!  

What really separates successful people is how often they expose themselves to failure and doubt. I believe failure is such an important part of success, that we should seek it out and use it to grow. This is not to say that it will ever feel good, but we need to change the way we look at it. And it turns out that you already know how to do this.

We All Start Out as Failures: Stop Failing and You Stop Growth

We start out in life with the right idea. When you learn to walk it’s messy. You get up on your shaky little baby legs and try to take a step. You fall on your ass over and over again. It takes hundreds of failed attempts. There are tears. And a lot of trial and error before you successfully put one foot in front of the other. But you never stop to think, ‘I suck at walking, maybe it isn’t for me’. You just keep facing your challenge over and over again. You learn from the pain of each fall. Failing is good when you learn from it. It leads to growth.

Somewhere along the line in life, we get the basics down and forget that being uncomfortable and failing is where real growth occurs. We tend to stick to what we know, which creates a false sense of security. We enter the dreaded comfort zone where dreams go to die in moderately tolerable office cubicles.

The biggest challenges and problems you face in life have shaped you more than any other experiences. When you're in the midst of a crisis it may not seem like there's any hope. But when we look back, in hindsight we often see the lesson. Steve Jobs admitted how a major failure in his life helped him to grow:

It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Cultivating a growth mindset is crucial to success. The people who have mastered their craft have practised and failed more than you and I have.

Some Suggestions on Developing a Growth Mindset

Okay, so as with all my writing, I want to give you some practical takeaways. When approaching challenges I try to develop a growth mindset by:

  • Getting good at failing – seek out ways to push yourself and learn things outside of your comfort zone. Allow yourself to fail. Learn from it and use it to improve. It’s the best objective feedback you’ll get.
  • Explore fears – ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen if you took that risk you’ve been putting off? Would the outcome really be that bad? Could you recover from it if it didn’t work out? In most situations, the worst-case scenario is not earth shattering. In life, we often regret what we didn’t do, not what we did.
  • The obstacle is the way – if it scares you, it’s probably good for you. Move towards the hard things in life and you’ll grow more than you thought possible.
  • When shit hits the fan – look at the above iceberg image and remind yourself that hardship is part of the process. You never know how close you are to your goal.
  • Don’t compare yourself – as we saw above, you never know what someone’s had to go through to achieve success. But it's also human nature to compare, so keep this quote on hand:
The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.
— Steve Furtick

Do Something – Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day or 2) pick one point in this post. Make it so small you can’t fail. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you're so close to the share buttons - look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out any time. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what you’ve learnt from your failures or how they’ve helped you to grow.

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