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 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.
I will counter your parable with one I appreciate; it really is more about sharing than saving: https://theunboundedspirit.com/heaven-and-hell-the-parable-of-the-long-spoons/
Although your’s is a Mexican parable that you post, and mine is a Jewish one (although I am of no religion), they speak of different “ambitions”..
We are Americans, and live in a capitalistic nation. That is the difference. So we MUST save our profits to take care of ourself, and our family. It’s gotten to the point where we have no choice. Take care of YOURSELF, because NOBODY else will. Nobody? What about your family taking care of you? “Financial independence” is about using money to take care of yourself and loved ones. Are you not independent “enough” to do it otherwise (“think outside the box”)? Is there something wrong (inherently) with being “dependent”?
I would much rather be financially independent than dependent, if given a choice between the two.
Other types of dependence can be a good thing – i.e. dependence on community or family for a rich social life – that is almost a requirement for a good life.
I could make my business bigger, by renting an office and hiring 1-2 extra-designers to create websites. but this would ‘tie’ me to my city and I like traveling on a whim. Just like the Mexican, I’m happy to provide for our family and spend the time together as much as possible. Money is just a means to get some of our goals, it’s not the end goal for us.
Reminds me of the children’s book “Selma,” by Jutta Bauer:
“A sheep ponders the meaning of happiness.
Selma is asked: What is happiness? She says: Happiness is eating a little grass at sunrise, playing with the children until lunchtime, a little exercise after lunch, a little more grass, a chat with her neighbour Mrs Miller in the evening and then a lovely long sleep.
And if she had more time? She would eat a little grass, play with her children until lunchtime, do a little exercise after lunch, eat a little more grass, have a chat with her neighbour Mrs Miller in the evening and then have a lovely long sleep.
And if she won a million dollars? She would eat a little grass, play with her children, do a little exercise…”
The book is available online at Abe’s Books for about $5 (including shipping).
Yes, very similar, without the rebuke of blind capitalistic ambition.
That, and the drawings, might be what makes it a book for children. :)
Maybe there’s a middle ground in there somewhere – something between a subsistence lifestyle and mogulhood.
I remember one of the stories that Keith Cameron Smith told about himself in his book “The Top 10 Distinctions Between Millionaires and the Middle Class.”
OK – I may not remember it perfectly, but it involved him selling propane tanks or something in his youth. The profit margins and potential were pretty lucrative as I recall – but once he made a couple of sales and had enough money to get him through the week or the month, he would take off and head to the beach.
His response in the book in hindsight: “Boy was I stupid.”
I don’t think it takes an obsessive, workaholic mindset to build or acquire assets that – in one way or another – can provide you with a steady and growing stream of passive or semi-passive income over time.
In fact, at some level, I think you have an obligation to do so,
Great topic for conversation!
Absolute stunner. I just love fishing madly. As a fishing enthusiast your brilliant thought will help me a lot. Keep doing the great job. Thanks a lot for your time.