The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman

The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman

There’s story I ran across several years ago that has really helped influence my thinking on the differences between “productivity” and “fruitfulness” in life.  The idea is that one can stay relatively busy and become genuinely successful in a particular field of work while honestly not accomplishing anything ultimately meaningful when it’s all said and done.  Or, at least discovering, when it is all said and done, what was truly meaningful about it could have been accomplished so much sooner in life and with a lot less busyness.

I think the story was originally written by an author named Mark Albion, though I first saw it in one of Tim Ferriss’ books.  It’s called “The Parable of the Mexican Fishermen,” or “The Parable of the Businessman and the Fisherman.”  The story goes like this:

A young businessman was at the pier of a small coastal village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Seeing several large yellowfin tuna inside the small boat, the businessman complimented the fisherman on the quality of the fish and asked how long it took to catch them. “Only a little while”, the fisherman replied.

A little surprised, the young business man asked, “Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The content fisherman said, “This is enough to support my family’s immediate needs. I don’t need any more.” “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” asked the confused young man. “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a walk with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my buddies; I have a full and busy life.”

The lad 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 LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The fisherman asked, “How long will this all take?” to which the young man replied, “15-20 years.” “But what then?” The business man 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, sir? Then what?”

“Then you would retire, move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a walk with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your buddies.”

If there’s any takeaway from this parable it’s not to bash the hard-working corporate executive.  I for one am very grateful for those who work hard to keep the gears of industry moving, but it does make you think.  It makes you think about what in life you’re really working toward and how direct of a path you’ve chosen to get there.

Some people tend to work for the sake of work itself, while others out there will work more as a means to some other end.  I tend to fall in the latter camp.  The question then is, “to what end are we working?”  And “do we really think that end can only be reached at some distant date on the calendar, say, when we finally reach retirement?”

If you’re working for some material end—a larger nest egg, a more prestigious position, a bigger home, or something like that—I’d imagine it may very well take you until retirement to reach that.  But, if you’re working towards something more personal—a stronger marriage, trying to build character in your kids, or growing closer to the Lord—you don’t need to kick that can down the road.  In fact, if you are waiting for your retirement years to focus on those things then I can tell you, you are wasting a lot of your time.

The Mexican Fisherman story reminds of the story in Luke 10 when Jesus visited the house of Mary and Martha.  In that account, Mary was content to sit at the feet of Jesus in order to visit with him, while the text says Martha was distracted with much serving, running around the house to get things done.  While Mary’s was just sitting on the floor talking with Jesus, Martha voiced her complaint, “Lord do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me.”

From Martha’s perspective, it didn’t look like Mary was being very productive.  But what did Jesus say in reply?  He said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion which will not be taken away from her.”

Mary chose “the good portion.”  Question—does that describe your life?  Have you chosen the good portion?  Have you chosen what is truly fruitful and meaningful in life over the mere illusion of achievement, productivity and busyness?  Are you wasting precious years of your life or your wife and kid’s lives detouring around the very destination that’s right in front of you?  The fact is you can be very productive in your work and not very fruitful in your life.  Take a lesson from Mary and the Mexican Fisherman.  Don’t confuse busyness with fruitfulness.

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