There’s an old story that Tim Ferriss tells in The Four-Hour Workweek about a Mexican fisherman who was approached by an American businessman. It’s a neat little story, but the point of the story doesn’t paint the full picture. You’ve probably heard it before, but here’s the story for those that haven’t.
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.”
The story is great for its irony. And it definitely has an important lesson for us all. Don’t spend your best years running yourself ragged to obtain what you already have.
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”
But the story fails to take something into account. And that something is important to men. It fails to take into account that men need to be challenged. While we are drawn to the path of least resistance, that path doesn’t satisfy the longing in our souls to strive, struggle, overcome, and accomplish. That path doesn’t tell us what we’re made of.
Victor Frankl said it well: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”
The Stoic philosopher Seneca made a similar point: “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent. No one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
We’ve been sold on pursuing a life of leisure. We need to work our asses off so that we can relax. And, certainly, it’s good for us to be able to dial back in the later years of our lives. But leisure cannot be the goal. Because joy is found in the striving and the challenge.
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent. No one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.“
That Mexican fisherman sounds like he had a pretty great life. Not too busy. Full of family and friends and leisure. But I wonder if, at the end, he looked back and wondered if he could have done more, been more, helped more, and made more of a difference. Perhaps not. But he’d be the exception.
Both the Mexican fisherman and the American businessman were trying to identify important truths. The fisherman realized that chasing money wouldn’t make him happier than he already was. The businessman recognized that men needs to strive, struggle, and accomplish.
The good news is that life is not an either/or. We can incorporate the truths that both men were pursuing. We can build a life that moves at our pace, that provides ample time for rest, recovery, and time with family and friends. And we can also pursue hard things. Things that stretch us. Things that challenge us. Things that require all of our strength and skill to overcome. And we can help others in the process. That’s the man’s life. Let’s build it. Godspeed.