There’s a modern day parable called ‘The Good Life’, about a businessman who travelled to a quiet fishing village on holiday. As the businessman walked along the beach, he saw a fisherman rowing towards the shore with a small catch of fish.
“How long did it take you to catch those fish?” he asked. “Only a couple of hours,” the fisherman replied.
“Then why don’t you stay out longer and catch more?” The businessman was certain there must be a greater demand for fish than the few he saw in the boat.
The fisherman smiled. “I catch enough to support my family and I lead a full and busy life. I rise with the sun, fish a little, play with my daughters, have lunch with my family, then teach children how to fish before I stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my wife and friends.”
“Listen,” said the businessman, “I have an MBA. I can help you vastly expand your business. If you would simply spend more time fishing you would soon earn enough money to buy a bigger boat. With a bigger boat you’d soon catch enough fish to buy a whole fleet. Then you’d be able to sell your fish directly to a processor, cutting out the middle man and greatly increasing your profits. Eventually you could open your own cannery and control the product, the processing and the distribution.”
“And then what?” asked the fisherman. “Then you could relocate your operations to the capital, and if all went well, you’d likely find yourself in control of a rapidly expanding empire.”
“How long would all this take?” the fisherman enquired. “Probably between 10 to 15 years,” the businessman estimated.
“And then what?” quizzed the fisherman. “That’s the best part,” exclaimed the businessman. “You’d announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public! At that point my friend, you’d be very, very rich. A millionaire many times over.”
The fisherman paused. “Really? A millionaire? Then what?” “What do you mean?” The businessman was surprised. “I mean, what would I do if I were a millionaire?”
“What kind of question is that? You could do whatever you like! You could retire, move to a small coastal village where you would rise with the sun, fish a little, play with your grandchildren, have lunch with your family, teach children how to fish before strolling into the village each evening, where you’d sip wine and play guitar with your wife and friends.”
The fisherman smiled, “Isn’t that what I’m doing already?”
This story gained popularity in 2008 when Harvard business professor Dr Mark Albion created his award-winning three minute animated movie ‘The Good Life Parable’ based on his 1997 published story. It was at the time when big business had been rocked by scandals such as Enron, and people were disenchanted with widespread corporate greed. The fisherman was held up as the hero, content with his simple existence, focusing on what really matters in life. The businessman was the villain – greedy and overambitious, reaching for more than necessary and missing out on what truly makes life rich.
While at first glance the aspirations of the fisherman may appear to be nobler, both men are in fact approaching life with the wrong perspective. They both have a flawed definition of success. To the businessman, success means accumulating wealth, gaining power and influence. To the fisherman, success means living a simple life, enjoying the company of family and friends.
On the surface, these definitions of success seem different, but they are based on the same premise: Success centres on what is best for the individual. To both men, the ultimate measure of success was the fisherman’s happiness. They only took into account what seemed most beneficial to the fisherman. This self-centred assumption led to faulty reasoning. It resulted in limited dreams.
The fisherman had no dreams beyond his own comfort. As long as he and his family were alright, he wanted nothing more. The businessman appeared to be dreaming big dreams, but he was pursuing personal ambition rather than vision. His vision was restricted because he couldn’t see beyond individual interests.
And so for both men success meant being able to retire to the beach where they could laze around, sip wine, and play music with their friends all day. For the businessman, having lots of money would enable him to do this. For the fisherman, not requiring much material wealth enabled him to do so.
When your view of success revolves solely around what is of benefit to you and your family, your decision making has a narrow, self-serving focus. If however, you have the mind-set that you’re here to leave a legacy, to give back to society, to “leave this world a little better than you found it” as Robert Baden Powell, founder of the Scout Movement declared, your outlook will be very different.
You’ll realise your success is not yours alone.
The more successful you are, the more people you can help. You can use your influence and resources to contribute to the success of others. And when you shift from simply thinking about your own personal success to building the success of others, you move from success to significance. And that’s when you truly start living the good life.