July 2015

3 Life Lessons from ‘The Fisherman’s Parable’

Author: Kent Thune

If you’ve not read The Fisherman’s Parable, or if it’s been a while since you’ve read it, here’s your opportunity to soak in some profound wisdom and adjust to a healthier life perspective. While soaking in the wisdom, go ahead and soak in some rays while you’re at it and enjoy this article on one of the many beaches of Hilton Head Island! From your chosen spot under the sun, begin the soul-refreshing story and the lessons it provides.

The thought-provoking tale comes from folklore and is believed to be rooted in Buddhist tradition. Like many of life’s most powerful lessons, the story is simple, timeless, and meaningful.

The story goes something like this: One day a fisherman was sitting by his boat while playing with his child on a beautiful beach, his fishing pole resting against the boat. A wealthy businessman came walking down the beach, trying to relieve some of the stress of his workday. Curious and horrified at the sight of the fisherman wasting the day, the businessman asked, “Why aren’t you out fishing?”

The fisherman looked up at the businessman, smiled and easily replied, “Because I already caught enough fish for one day.”

The businessman quickly followed, “Why don’t you catch some more?”

“What would I do with them?” replied the fisherman.

“You could earn extra money,” said the businessman, “then with the extra money, you could buy a bigger boat, go into deeper waters, and catch more fish. Then you would make enough money to buy bigger, higher-quality nets. With the nets, you could catch even more fish and make more money. With that money you could own two boats, maybe three boats. Eventually you could have a whole fleet of boats and be rich like me.”
“Then what would I do?” asked the fisherman.

“Then,” said the businessman, “you could really enjoy life.”

The fisherman looked at the businessman quizzically and asked, “What do you think I am doing now?”

And with that, I give you three life lessons from The Fisherman’s Parable:

1. Contentment is true wealth: The fisherman was able to spend time playing with his son on the beach because he had already caught enough fish for the day. This is a lesson in contentment, which can be considered true wealth. To be rich is to be satisfied with “enough.” But this is not just a philosophical perspective. It is also part of modern economic theory and psychology. In economics, there is something called diminishing marginal utility, which basically states that, once satisfaction is reached, the usefulness of the product or service begins to diminish. In simple terms, and how it relates to money and happiness, once you have enough money to meet the basic physiological needs of food, shelter, and clothing, the utility of wealth begins to diminish. Put simply, once you have enough money, getting more won’t make you much happier.

For example, the average U.S. household needs about $75,000 in income to pay for all of the basic necessities of life and to put aside a little for savings and the occasional splurge. If that household suddenly began earning $750,000 (10 times what they need to live), they would not be 10 times as happy. In different words, the point at which we have “enough,” each unit of additional money above that point does not translate into an equal unit of additional happiness.

This explains why the United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, is not the happiest nation. Best-selling author and financial behaviorist, Jason Zweig, makes this point clearly in his book, Your Money and Your Brain: “Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days? Are you very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy? The answers are usually ranked from 1 (not at all happy) to 7 (extremely happy). On average, members of the Maasai ethnic group, who herd livestock on the arid high plains of Kenya and Tanzania, score 5.7 on this scale. The Inuit, who live in the frigid wilds of northern Greenland, average 5.8. The Amish, with their antiquated rural lifestyle, also score 5.8. When members of the Forbes 400, the famed ‘Rich List’ of the wealthiest people in America, took a similar test, their average response was 5.8.”

The richest people in the world are no happier than the people on earth living the simplest lives. More does not necessarily translate to more happiness!

2. Money often costs too much: The fisherman had no desire to work harder, longer hours, and for the years or even decades it might take him to reach the definition of “success” that the businessman was so confident was necessary for happiness. Rejecting the businessman’s venturous idea does not make the fisherman lazy—it makes him wise.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Money often costs too much.” What he likely meant by this is that the acquisition of money takes time and energy, which can be “expensive” if the time and energy is taken away from priorities in life that are much higher than career and wealth.

Another lesson here is that modern society and social conventions teach us that the best things in life are purchased with money. But when questioned directly, or in almost any variety of opinion polls or psychological studies, the vast majority of people will say that the most important thing in their lives to them is personal relationships. So why is it that we so commonly spend less time with the people we love and the majority of our time working in a job or career that we don’t love (or might even hate)?

For almost every financial gain we make, there is a cost that is non-financial. How much does money cost in your life?

3. Luxury is artificial poverty: Ironically, the fisherman was enjoying a typical day of his life on a beautiful beach while the businessman was stealing a moment away from his hectic career to help manage the stress of his daily life. Which one is actually “rich?”

From the story, we can assume that the businessman is by far the wealthier of the two, as measured by financial means, and that the fisherman does not likely have much of what may be considered material possessions. But therein lies our final lesson, which can be summarized in one of my favorite quotes from the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates: “Contentment is natural wealth; luxury is artificial poverty.”

Contentment was the first lesson of the fisherman’s parable but the way we end the lesson is by recognizing the opposite of contentment—the desire for more. This third lesson also builds upon the second, which is that money often costs too much.

The life of the businessman, which is defined by hard work and sacrifice to make more money, is also commonly filled with material possessions, such as designer clothes, luxury cars, and big houses. These are the things that define his “success.” But as he fills his life with things on the outside, he may find himself emptier on the inside, which may then lead to the purchase of more things for temporary relief from his stressful life.

However, when we can see the wisdom of the fisherman—that the greatest things in life are the small pleasures and the cherished moments with the ones we love—we find ourselves truly rich. 

Kent Thune is a money manager and the owner of a Hilton Head Island investment advisory firm, Atlantic Capital Investments. He is also a freelance writer and is currently working on a book to be published later in 2015. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com, or you can follow him on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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