The Mexican Fisherman Story: 5 Powerful Lessons To Live By

Man fishing on the sea representing The Mexican Fisherman Story

The story of a fisherman and businessman

The Mexican Fisherman story is an adaptation of a short parable originally told by Heinrich Theodor Böll, a prominent German writer in the mid-1950s.  This version, which was adapted for the American reader, tells of a chance encounter between a successful Harvard graduate and a village fisherman.

The story packs some powerful lessons within its simple and brief narrative. I was recently reminded of the profound truths that speak between its lines and wanted to share some insights I gleaned from reading it again.

Here is the story in full:

The Mexican Fisherman

A businessman 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 businessman 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 businessman 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 businessman 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 a 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, señor.”

The businessman scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and I 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 and eventually open 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 would run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?” To which the businessman replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, señor?”

The businessman 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, señor? Then what?”

The businessman 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 a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

The fisherman, still smiling, looked up and said, “Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?”

Mexican guitar

5 lessons from The Mexican Fisherman story

There are a few lessons I can appreciate from this short tale.  As with any good parable, the closer you look, the more insights you’ll find.

#1  Stop waiting for someday to find happiness

As humans, we are prone to look forward to something that’s going to happen in the future.  In fact, there is a famous Dutch research study that shows how the anticipation of an event can often create more satisfaction than the event itself.

Although anticipation can be a powerful emotion that can generate much-needed hope and motivation, many people spend too much time idealizing the future at the expense of enjoying life in the present.

The danger of this is (of course) that the future isn’t promised to any of us. The only guarantee we have is the moment we’re in.

Putting too much focus on what’s to come will blind you to what’s in front of you right now.

And, when you choose to delay fulfillment because you’re waiting for some future experience to be realized, you lose the opportunities to live out your best life in the present.

It’s good to have goals and anticipate all the awesome things that you’ll achieve in your future.  But, as you hold the expectation of what’s to come, it’s important to fully embrace and enjoy life today.

Stop waiting for all of your ducks to get in a row.  For your bank account to get to a certain balance. For more time, more energy, more inspiration.

Start living your best life *now*.  And, know that the best is still yet to come.

#2  Contentment leads to a rich life

As the fisherman pointed out in this poignant tale, all of the planning and working and striving would ultimately lead him back to the rich life he’s already living.

More is not always better than enough. 

Learning to be content with what you have, so you can fully enjoy the blessings you’ve already been given, will enrich your life far beyond career achievements and financial gain.

In fact, being content is the key to living within your means. When you’re content with the life you have, and you live out of an abundance of gratitude, your values get aligned with your spending.  You use your money to support your priorities, instead of allowing your emotions to dictate how you spend your money.

Learning to be content, practicing gratitude, and aligning your spending with your money values will give you a rich life that doesn’t depend on having more.

#3  Your daily life should reflect your values

If you could watch your life on film, would you see someone whose actions reflect their values? Would that person be investing their time in the people and things that matter the most right now?

Or would you be putting your energy into endeavors that actually keep you from your biggest priorities?

While the businessman was laying out a roadmap to get to a fulfilling life, the fisherman had already reached that destination.  He had just taken a more direct route.

This was because he valued his time, his talents, and his family more than the pursuit of more money. He knew he already had what truly mattered to him.

I once heard a pastor say,

You can always tell what’s important to a person by looking at their checkbook and calendar.

Your priorities are evident in what you spend your money and your time on.

What do you value?  Spend some time clarifying your own values.  Figure out what matters the most to you.

A good exercise to do this is by imagining yourself being diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow.  You have 6 months to live. What would you do? Who would you spend time with? What would be the things you regret *not* doing in your life?

Then, make the time and find the money to start doing more of those things now.  Do what you can to minimize the regrets you’ll have when it’s too late.

#4  The journey is more important than the destination

The businessman’s knowledgeable advice would allow the fisherman to eventually live his dream life in 15 to 20 years.  But, if the fisherman continues to do what he’s doing, he’ll still be living out his dream life then as well.

Same destination, different journey.

The roadmap that the businessman recommends would require a lot of time away from family, and less time doing the things the fisherman enjoyed. He would have to work more hours, take on more responsibility, and move away from the village that he and his family love. And then, he could retire, have a good life with his family, and live out his dreams.

Although he would “make millions” at the end of his journey, he would have to sacrifice a lot to get there.

The fisherman’s path is much simpler, and yet he would effectually end up at the same place. He wouldn’t be a millionaire, but he could look back on his life knowing he lived out his dreams every day. He would have the cherished memories of watching his kids grow up, and the satisfaction of knowing he was a present father.  He would have a good marriage after many years of spending time with his wife every day.  And, he would have fulfillment in being a very good guitar player!

Yes, I know that ending up with millions would be much different than having just enough to live on.  The point is, you have to decide if the road you must take to build great wealth is worth it.

Because the journey is what shapes who you are and creates real meaning in your life. The destination is just icing on the cake.

#5  Time is the real currency of life, not money

If the fisherman took the businessman’s advice, he would end up with a lot more money, but much less time.

Two decades is a lot to spend on something you don’t really enjoy doing.  And, once that time is gone, you can never get it back.

You can always make more money, but you can never make more time.

Money can buy you cars and houses and fashionable clothing. But, it can’t buy you a healthy marriage or a strong relationship with your kids.  It can’t buy you wisdom or spiritual growth. Those things take time.

Money can also replace some things that you lose or break, like a wallet or a washing machine.  But, if you lose a loved one, you will never have more time with that person (here on earth, at least).  If you break a relationship, more time may never heal it completely.

Your time is valuable, and what you do with it will result in more significant consequences than what you do with your money.

So, spend your time wisely.  Yes, definitely use it to strengthen your future financial security.  But, be intentional with living fully each day in the present. Give your time to those people and things that are important to you today.  Because you never know when your time will run out.

Questions to think about

The fisherman gave us an excellent example of how to live a rich life without a lot of wealth.  However, he did need the freedom to make those choices, which many people don’t have because they are steeped in debt.

Pursuing financial freedom for your own life may require you to make some adjustments. You might need to take on extra hours at work or find a second job for a season.  You might have to give up some things that you enjoy doing or make your life more comfortable, at least for a while.

Finding that balance between sacrificing for your future and living your best life today is an exercise in self-awareness.  You must be connected to your values and know what you need to have real joy, contentment, and fulfillment in your life.

Here are a few questions you can ponder as you think about how the lessons outlined above could apply to you:

  • What would financial freedom look like for me?
  • To what end am I willing to work for more money?
  • What brings me lasting joy, and not just temporary happiness?
  • How can I find contentment and express gratitude in my current circumstances?
  • What (and who) do I value the most in life?
  • Do my checkbook and calendar reflect my priorities?
  • Am I spending my limited time on things that truly matter?
  • If I was told I had 6 months to live, what would I spend my time on? What would be my regrets?
  • How do I want to be remembered after I die?
  • How can I align my values with my spending today?
  • What do I need to do to balance the pursuit of my future goals with living my life fully in the present?

Take the time to answer these questions for yourself, so you can start being more intentional about aligning your actions with your values.  It will be time well spent!

Where the Mexican Fisherman got it wrong

If the life of the fisherman never changed – if he never got sick or went into debt or lost the ability to fish – he would probably be fine with his current plan.

However … that’s not reality.

To work just enough to meet your family’s needs is like living paycheck to paycheck.  So, we could probably safely assume that the fisherman wasn’t saving for retirement, didn’t have an emergency fund, and had nothing saved for his kids’ college education.

He was probably never taking his family on a vacation or paying for extracurricular activities that would help his kids grow up into well-rounded adults.

Instead, he was using what discretionary income he had for going to the bar every night!

Obviously, he doesn’t give us a great example of wise financial planning.  The way he’s going, he’ll have to work until he dies.  He’ll never be able to retire.

I know this is a little silly to point out because parables aren’t meant to address every possible circumstance within a story.  If we begin to argue about what ifs, then we miss the whole point.

Instead, focus on the lessons I’ve outlined above, and how you can apply them to your own life.  You may discover there’s a better path you should be taking.

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The Mexican Fisherman Story: 5 Powerful Lessons To Live By

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