Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The reality of "The Mexican Fisherman"

Maybe you’ve heard this little fictitious tale and maybe you haven’t. It’s often shared by those advocating early retirement, a richer lifestyle, or getting away from the rat race, and it goes like this:

An American businessman was standing 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 fish. 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 you stay out longer and catch more fish?"

The Mexican said, "With this I have more than enough to support my family's 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, 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, "You’re going about this all wrong! I'm a businessman, and I will tell 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 a whole fleet – a business! Then you would leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you will run your ever-expanding enterprise."

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

To which the American replied, "15 to 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. You’d 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 evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."

And that’s how it goes.

And when we read this, we’re meant to marvel at it... Oh, the irony! The ingenuity! What wit that writer has! How ignorant we all are for working! And after we’ve had our moment of smiling and shaking our head at the poor souls who operate like this, we start thinking about what to pack for another cubicle-hosted lunch-hour tomorrow.

Because here's the thing with "the Mexican Fisherman:" while we recognize the irony, it doesn’t compel us to quit our job the next morning and spend the rest of our lives enjoying hobbies, drinking wine, enjoying long, drawn-out dinners with friends.


Two reasons – and very good ones:

1.     We are naturally risk-averse. This is fundamentally true for each and every one of us. We can’t just up and move to another country! We can't just quit our jobs! What if our health fails us and we need to lean on the company-provided insurance? What about our families, our friends? We can't just sell our children's childhood home. What about their college? What will we do to eat? All valid concerns.

2.     But far more importantly: working makes us feel important. And, just like all human beings are naturally risk-averse, all human beings also deeply desire to feel like we matter. (“There are two things people want more than sex and money -- recognition and praise." --Mary Kay Ash) When we work, we are validated as people in society. We have an identity within the social structure, and we have status through the goods we buy. While leisure time may delight us, so too does the satisfaction of knowing that we are doing something, and that whatever it is might just be important. 

And so of course we don't stop working towards our retirement. Of course we don’t check out of society and “take siesta” with our lives. For most of us, it’s not in our nature, and while it’s fun to chuckle at the irony, it’s also not fair to pretend that our habits of working for 40 years render us nonsensical.

What we want in life is not just to spend time indulging in leisure. We also ultimately want to know that our time here was well-spent and that we were a little important to the world.

The ultimate goal, then, is to learn what you want to contribute - what you want to "do" - and how to enjoy the years you spend doing it.

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