The wisdom of the Mexican fisherman: Work to live

If Thoreau could survive at Walden Pond working just six weeks a year, why labour so hard now just to knock off much later?

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From the Summer 2014 issue of the magazine.

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Over the years I’ve written about personal finance, the apocryphal tale of the Mexican fisherman is the story that most resonates with me. Readers have probably encountered it at some time over the Internet but the parable never fails to amuse me, even after multiple readings.

Those unfamiliar with it are in for a treat. Those who know it vaguely may enjoy it again and for those who know it well, I’ve added a few new twists below. To me, it epitomizes the difference between working to live, and living to work.

The protagonist of this little fable is a humble fisherman. I’ve not seen him named before, so let’s call him Pedro. The antagonist is a rich American investment banker who visits the pier of Pedro’s small coastal village in Mexico. Inside his fishing boat are a few yellowfin tuna. The banker asks how long it took to catch them and is told “only a little while.” Curious as to why he didn’t stay out longer to catch more, the fisherman said he had enough to support the immediate needs of his family.

The banker then wants to know what Pedro does with the rest of his time. He says he sleeps late, plays with his children, takes siestas with his wife Maria, walks to the village each evening to drink wine and plays guitar with his friends: in short, he has a full and busy life.

To this, the banker—who among other things possesses a Harvard MBA—scoffs incredulously. He says he could help Pedro by showing him how to spend more time fishing and upgrade his boat, eventually buying a whole fleet of state-of-the-art fishing vessels. He’d show him how to bypass the middleman and sell his catch direct to a food processor, controlling both the product and distribution. Of course, he’d have to leave his village, move to Mexico City and ultimately New York in order to run the thriving enterprise.

Dismayed, Pedro asks how long all this would take. He’s told 15 or 20 years. But after that, the banker tries to reassure him, he could do an IPO and make millions selling his company’s stock to the public.

“And then what?” the fisherman persists.

“Why then you would retire,” the banker replies triumphantly. He could move to a small coastal fishing village in Mexico, sleep late every day, fish whenever he wished, play with his kids, take siestas with Maria, stroll to the village to sip wine in the evenings and “play guitar with his amigos.” (Go to bemorewithless.com for the full story.)

It’s a killer punchline—though in real life the kids would have to be replaced with grandkids, the amigos would be long gone and the odds are 50/50 that by then the beleaguered Pedro would be paying alimony to Maria.

Still, the tale nicely illustrates the absurdity of accumulating vast wealth for its own sake. It reminds me of Henry David Thoreau’s experience on Walden Pond. Thoreau estimated he could meet his basic needs for food and shelter by working just six weeks a year, leaving the other 46 weeks a year for leisure.

Of course, the phrase “basic needs” is where this story’s utility becomes less apparent. Modern consumer society is nothing if not efficient at manufacturing needs from what were formerly wants. A case in point: smartphones and wireless access. And as needs multiply, so do taxes on income, investment and consumption.

The fisherman story reminds us of the real meaning of the word “Enough.” Interestingly, while Vanguard Group founder John Bogle appears to be closer in temperament to the U.S. banker than the Mexican fisherman, Bogle did write an excellent book entitled Enough, published in 2009. Chapter 10, which is called “Too Much Success, Not Enough Character,” opens with another apocryphal tale. It’s about an old greyhound who spent his days at a race track chasing a mechanical rabbit. Over the years, the dog had won over a million dollars for his owner but he ultimately decided to quit—not because he was mistreated or had become disabled but because “I found out that the rabbit I was chasing wasn’t even real.”

Remember, financial independence is about having income exceed expenses, no matter how modest those expenses might be. It’s about working only because you want to, not because you have to. There’s nothing so depressing as that old bumper sticker that declares “I owe. I owe. It’s off to work I go.”

As Thoreau found, if you value freedom over stuff, it helps to keep your wants—and therefore expenses—to a minimum. If your wish list of stuff includes multiple properties, flashy baubles and fast-depreciating luxury cars and technological gadgets, you may want to verify whether the rabbit you’re chasing is real.

A humble fisherman named Pedro might be able to help you answer that one.

Jonathan Chevreau is Editor-at-Large at MoneySense. He blogs at findependenceday.com and at moneysense.ca.

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