“The Mexican Fisherman” Parable

Today, I will share a short parable that has made the rounds over the years on esteemed websites. Every time I read it, it makes me pause and look inward. The story is often referred to as “The Banker and the Fisherman” or “The Mexican Fisherman” – and it brings a lesson in the beauty of simplicity and gratitude over blind ambition.

For those curious, the story has been adopted and modified with a decided (and appropriate) American flavor over the years, but it appears that the origin of “The Mexican Fisherman” story was through a short story Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral (“Anecdote concerning the Lowering of Productivity”), published by a German writer, Heinrich Böll, in 1963.

Enjoy the story – I’ll share a few thoughts after.

“The Mexican Fisherman”

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 fin 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 he didn’t 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 siesta 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, and 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 NYC, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

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

To which the American replied, “Fifteen to twenty years.”

“But what then?”

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?” asked the fisherman. “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 siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evening, sip wine, and play guitar with your amigos!”

The Mexican Fisherman Parable

The Lessons I Take from “The Mexican Fisherman”

There are a few big lessons that I take away from “The Mexican Fisherman”. The first is that it is a sharp critique against blind ambition and pursuit of more money versus simple living – at a time when that is much needed (particularly in this country).

Sometimes the simple, basic things that can give us true happiness are right in front of us, if we only could learn find happiness and gratitude in “enough”. And this story really emphasizes the “why?”. Asking ourselves that question until our answers reach they’re logical conclusion before opting to take on increasingly stressful work roles and responsibilities to earn more and more money in jobs that we aren’t passionate about (or sometimes hate), is about as central to our happiness as it gets.

The second lesson that I take away, is that the pursuit of more money, as a goal unto itself, really has no meaning, value, or purpose. Studies show that once our income is enough to comfortably cover all of our basic needs, gains in happiness from more money are quite minimal. What value does incremental wealth bring if the items it allows you to purchase don’t bring incremental happiness?

A Criticism of “The Mexican Fisherman”

The only part of the story that I would tinker with is this: “The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.”

There’s nothing wrong with catching some extra fish to offer a little bit of security for your family, or, if your love of fishing (or whatever it is you do) dissipates. “Enough to support immediate needs” could be synonymous with “living paycheck to paycheck” and that can be a pretty stressful way to live too. What happens if the fish disappear, the boat sinks or is stolen, or he becomes too old to fish anymore? There is plenty of healthy spectrum between “enough to support immediate needs” and “IPO millions”.

How about this substitute, “The Mexican said he catches enough to support his family’s immediate needs, plus enough extra over the years to indefinitely fund their current lifestyle.”?

Gratitude + saving enough to fund a simple, satisfied existence indefinitely (aka “financial independence“) – now that’s a winning combo. And if fishing is your thing, keep on fishing.

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