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How to Live Wisely, featuring the Fishing Parable about Fisherman and Businessman, in the New York Times

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5. This exercise presents a parable of a happy fisherman living a simple life on a small island. The fellow goes fishing for a few hours every day. He catches a few fish, sells them to his friends, and enjoys spending the rest of the day with his wife and children, and napping. He couldn’t imagine changing a thing in his relaxed and easy life.

A recent M.B.A. visits this island and quickly sees how this fisherman could become rich. He could catch more fish, start up a business, market the fish, open a cannery, maybe even issue an I.P.O. Ultimately he would become truly successful. He could donate some of his fish to hungry children worldwide and might even save lives.

“And then what?” asks the fisherman.

“Then you could spend lots of time with your family,” replies the visitor. “Yet you would have made a difference in the world. You would have used your talents, and fed some poor children, instead of just lying around all day.”

We ask students to apply this parable to their own lives. Is it more important to you to have little, accomplish little, yet be relaxed and happy and spend time with family? Or is it more important to you to work hard, use your talents, perhaps start a business, maybe even make the world a better place along the way?

Typically, this simple parable leads to substantial disagreement. These discussions encourage first-year undergraduates to think about what really matters to them, and what each of us feels we might owe, or not owe, to the broader community — ideas that our students can capitalize on throughout their time at college.

I had not heard of this version of the parable until this article.

It's a really good thought exercise to think about how many people we'd like to help in life. 

spend some time teaching kids to fish? 

You know that's what troutgirl would say!

Any other nuggets of wisdom in this article. 

Generalist or specialist!

3. I call this the Broad vs. Deep Exercise. If you could become extraordinarily good at one thing versus being pretty good at many things, which approach would you choose? We invite students to think about how to organize their college life to follow their chosen path in a purposeful way.

I would choose some superhero power every time. 

Core Values!

4. In the Core Values Exercise, students are presented with a sheet of paper with about 25 words on it. The words include “dignity,” “love,” “fame,” “family,” “excellence,” “wealth” and “wisdom.” They are told to circle the five words that best describe their core values. Now, we ask, how might you deal with a situation where your core values come into conflict with one another? Students find this question particularly difficult. One student brought up his own personal dilemma: He wants to be a surgeon, and he also wants to have a large family. So his core values included the words “useful” and “family.” He said he worries a lot whether he could be a successful surgeon while also being a devoted father. Students couldn’t stop talking about this example, as many saw themselves facing a similar challenge.

Life is about tradeoffs. It's hard to choose just five values that are most important. 


"They are told to circle the five words that best describe their core values."

Agreed, it's really difficult to choose five.

It seems like five is a good number out of 25. 

It still means there are many values we can't place first. That's tough. Tough tradeoff. 

But a very good exercise to learn to examine - and reexamine - your priorities.

Yeah, and that's a good point. Worth revisiting because priorities in life change with life.

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