What a poor Mexican fisherman taught me about time and luck


One of the greatest benefits of traveling, or even better, of living in another country, is that we get to see how others live their lives and compare it to how we live ours. When we are open to it, we can gain perspective and insight, not just into the human condition in general, but more directly into our own condition.

I’ll give you an example.

On a nearly year-long road trip through Mexico, I repeatedly noticed that, especially in the poorer villages, virtually all the Mexicans I saw interacting with each other seemed to be happy. There was, as the French call it, one joie de vie, or “joy of life,” and a lightness in their demeanor. Now that I’ve settled here in Mexico to run Best Mexico Movers, I almost always see lots of jokes and lively collaboration between the team members as our team unloads our clients’ belongings. A customer even pointed it out to me with another French expression, spirit of corpor a tough collaboration.

I’ve noticed that, compared to the US, the workers/workers all over here in Mexico joke a lot and make fun of each other. Walking past a construction site, it is in no way unusual to hear several workers singing (loudly) along with the radio. You will encounter this spirit in many places, whether you meet Mexicans in their shops or when they take their children to school. They seem genuinely content and socially connected. Not the fake, superficial “how are you/I really don’t care” kind of socially connected, but the “genuinely happy, joking with each other, greeting each other warmly like the other person matters” socially connected. on

on some level this even extends to complete strangers, for example me. When I walk through a village where no one knows me, I almost always get thanks, warm smiles and several times “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes”.

But from my typical north-of-the-border perspective, this made no sense. As I was used to looking at it, these people lived in tiny houses and had very few material goods. Wouldn’t it be obvious, then, that their relative material poverty would make them relatively miserable? Poor = unhappy, right?

But what I saw with my own eyes told me the opposite.

The situation was so different from what I expected that I couldn’t help but compare what I saw in these areas of Mexico to what I saw when I was in much wealthier, large First World cities like New York City, Chicago or Tokyo. In those places, I generally saw people with a tense look on their face, most likely planned too late and late, rushing from one place to another, apparently not very happy and certainly not very relaxed. If they ran into each other on the street, their concern was not to say “hello” and spend some time inquiring about each other’s relatives, but to find a way to get past the other person, and to do so as quickly as possible to do. The other was seen more as a hindrance than as a person.

Could be part of this because I spent a lot of my time in Mexico

rural, more traditional areas? Maybe, but that wasn’t all. There was also a general cultural difference.

Comparing the attitude of what I saw in Mexico to what I saw in the US reminded me of the Spanish word the people south of the US border use for “to worry about,” which means “Take in custody,” and which I think stems from the root of “being seized”. In our developed world’s quest for material goods, most pronounced in the larger cities, we have taken part of our free time and with it part of our humanity traded in exchange for the more “nose to the grindstone” activity of acquiring material goods “Of course we have. But in the bargain, have we made ourselves more preoccupied/worryed/unhappy? And what is actually the purpose of working for all these material goods? Isn’t the goal to acquire more material goods? happier?

An economist might argue that the people of these small, poorer towns are “piggybacking” on the advances of those preoccupied First World people with their more hurried, self-righteous lives and their grim determination, which is true. People who don’t work so seriously and instead enjoy each other’s company more lightly don’t develop cures for illnesses, or even invent

from how to get clean water and enough to eat, etc., without which no one would be very happy. And you might also be less happy if your lighthearted, easygoing, singing plumber shows up two hours late to fix your drain because he was distracted while talking with a friend. So there are trade-offs. We just need to understand where the compromises are and then know where to make these tradeoffs.

Here’s what I see as the trade-off: time not focused on making money (what I’ll call “free time”) versus material success. For conceptual clarity, we can think of it as a continuum, with more free time on one side of the continuum and more material success on the other. The more free time you have, all other things being equal, the less material goods you will acquire. The more material goods you acquire, the more free time you had to give up to acquire them.

We don’t think much about this continuum unless, being in a different country or place, you see people in a significantly different place on the continuum

then where you are. For me, this was one of the perks of living in Mexico. As I observed these people choosing a different place on this continuum from my friends and I north of the border, it was natural to ask myself, “Where is the best place on this continuum for me?”

Wouldn’t it make sense if you were also wondering what the best place on this continuum is for you?

All of this reminds me of a parable told to me over 30 years ago. (I tend to memorize things like this and then apply them when it’s most appropriate.).

The story opens with an investment banker on vacation in Mexico who, after taking his ulcer medicine, prepared a hurried breakfast which he did not enjoy and made several tense calls to the office very early in the morning, on the advice of his doctor, uncharacteristically a walk on the beach made from his $600 a night hotel room. There he comes across a poor Mexican fishing village where he notices a certain fisherman who had come in hours before the others, but had three times the fish, and who left his boat to go home. Being curious by nature, the investment banker stopped the fisherman and asked him how he caught so many more fish than the other fishermen.

“I have a secret technique, señor, that I use to catch a lot of fish with ease.”

The investment banker was intrigued, but he was also perplexed. “Okay. So, if you can catch so many more fish so easily, why don’t you go back for a second or third time? Then you can get even more back.”

“I’d rather come home early.”

The investment banker took a moment to process the answer he just heard, even more confused and a little disbelieving, and asked, almost screaming, “Well, what the hell do you do when you get home early?”

The fisherman found the investment banker a bit obnoxious and intense, but still wanted to be polite, very calm, and replied, “I can be with my kids. Later, after I have a big lunch with my family, I’ll take a nap and have enough have time to walk along the beach with my wife. If I went back to fish several times, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”

The investment banker was baffled and a little shocked that the fisherman left so much potential profit on the table. He calmed down, as if talking to a child who “just didn’t get it,” and said, “Listen. This is what we’re going to do. You tell me the technique. I will hire a bunch of high end IP lawyers to get a patent with the exclusive rights. If someone infringes our patent, we will sue them! Then I will go to New York to raise some investment capital, we will buy a fleet of boats, train the crew, set up worldwide distribution, go public and pay out a fortune!

“How long would this take and now would I need a lot of time to work?”

“I think it would take five or six years and you would work seven days a week, 12 hours

per day. But after that you will be rich!”

“And if I am rich, what shall I do, señor?”

“Well, with all that money, you would come home early and be with your kids. Later, after you have had a big lunch with your family, you can take a nap and have enough time to walk along the beach with your wife.”

Now that I’ve seen this in person (and I’m getting older), this story means a lot more to me.