The Fisherman and the Banker: A Commentary

I recently came across this parable in The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss, and having given it a lot of thought lately, I think it’s worth examination.

This is the parable:

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.  Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.  The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos.  I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”

“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part.  When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire.  Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

When I first read this, it really made me take a hard look at my life to see whether or not my values were misplaced.  But, having really given it some thought, the parable falls in line with Ferris’ standard approach of enjoying life while others do his work for him.  Sure, the fisherman catches his own fish and shares some with his amigos.  But, is fish all he ever eats?  If not, who provides the rest?  Who makes the wine he drinks in the evenings?  Who pays for it?  The same goes for his guitar and the house he lives in.  What about the clothes he wears?  Does he pay for everything with fish?

More importantly, should everyone aspire to live the life portrayed by the fisherman, or does it take a higher level of work and responsibility for society to function?  And, there’s an aspect of this story that seems more like laziness than simple wisdom.  Mother Theresa lived very simply and yet spent a lifetime tending to the needs of others.  I’m not saying we should all be Mother Theresa either, but I think society needs contribution from all its members in their own way.

I’m still left wondering what we will value most at the end of our lives.  Will we say, “I lived a good and peaceful life sleeping late, fishing a little, playing with my kids, taking siestas with my wife, strolling to the village in the evenings where I could sip wine and play my guitar with my amigos”?  Or, will we say, “I worked hard and accomplished [fill in the blank] with my time on this earth”?  Which one would truly be more valuable?  A part of me envies the life of the fisherman.  Another part of me wants to say to him, “I’ve been working incessantly, and I’m exhausted.  When you’re done goofing off, I have a stack of bills that need to be addressed and a lawn that needs to be mowed.  And, how are you at math homework?”

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