When the Mexican fisherman parable breaks

I’ve seen this parable everywhere for years, most recently in Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks (great book!), and I’ve usually appreciated it:

A vacationing New York businessman who gets talking to a Mexican fisherman, who tells him that he works only a few hours per day and spends most of his time drinking wine in the sun and playing music with his friends. Appalled at the fisherman’s approach to time management, the businessman offers him an unsolicited piece of advice: if the fisherman worked harder, he explains, he could invest the profits in a bigger fleet of boats, pay others to do the fishing, make millions, then retire early. “And what would I do then?” the fisherman asks. “Ah, well, then,” the businessman replies, “you could spend your days drinking wine in the sun and playing music with your friends.”

The usual moral of the story is highlighting the futility of mindless growth; maybe you don’t need to do everything that you feel like you need to do. Maybe you’re already living a happy, simple, life that you just need to appreciate a little bit more.

Of course, this parable doesn’t account for the realities of tragedy or challenges. 

What happens when the Mexican fisherman’s spouse experiences unexpected health problems and they need to pay a big hospital bill? Or the kids grow up and need some financial support going to college? Those millions would certainly have helped in those cases.

Then again, another possible ending is the business fails, testing and eventually breaking the fisherman’s marriage. The fisherman had it all, and lost everything because of his greed.

I appreciate nuance with parables, and I’d love to see more people use these stories as starting points rather than ending ones (which they then mindlessly repeat). 

In order for us to keep up with changes, we need new parables to help us. Nathan Barry writes a cool perspective on the parable here too

Anyway, I don’t mean any of this literally, because it’s a parable. (I’m much more reluctant to test Zen koans like this!) My own takeaways:

A parable ends with a certain lesson; real life has no certainty.

Money can help deal with some of the uncertainty, and certainly not all of it.

Parables are parables, and real life is real life.

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