What A Poor Mexican Fisherman Taught Me About Time And Happiness
One of the greatest benefits of traveling, or better yet, of living in a different country, is to be able to see how others live their lives and to compare it with how we live ours. If we are open to it, we can gain perspective and insight, not only into the human condition in general, but more directly, into our own condition.
I’ll give you an example.
While on a road trip through Mexico for almost a year, I noticed repeatedly that, especially in the poorer villages, virtually all the Mexicans I saw in interactions with each other appeared to be happy. There was, as the French call it, a joie de vie, or “joy of life,” and a lightness to their attitude. Now that I’ve settled down here in Mexico to run Best Mexico Movers, when our team unloads our clients’ household goods, I almost always see a lot of joking and spirited cooperation among the team members. A client even pointed this out to me, using another French phrase, esprit de corp, or a spirited cooperation.
I have noticed that, compared with the US, the workers / laborers everywhere here in Mexico joke and kid each other a lot. When walking past a construction site, it is not unusual in any way to hear several of the workers singing (loudly) along with the radio. You’ll see this spirit in lots of places, whether encountering Mexicans here in their little stores, or when walking their children to school. They seem to be genuinely content and socially connected. Not the fake, perfunctory “how are you / I really don’t care” type of socially connected, but the “genuinely happy, joking with each other, greeting each other warmly as if the other person mattered” socially connected. On
some level, this even extends to complete strangers, for example, me. When I walk through some village where no one knows me, I almost always receive acknowledgements, warm smiles and several instances of “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes”.
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But from my typical North of the Border perspective, this made no sense. From how I was used to looking at it, these people lived in tiny little houses and had very little in the way of material goods. So wouldn’t it naturally follow that their relative material poverty would make them relatively miserable? Poor = unhappy, right?
But what I was seeing 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 in Mexico with what I saw when I was in much wealthier, large First World cities, such as New York City, Chicago, or Tokyo. In those places, I would generally see people with strained looks on their faces, most likely over-scheduled and late, hurrying from one place to another, seemingly not very happy and certainly not very relaxed. When they encountered each other in the street, their concern was not to say “hello” and spend some time inquiring about each other’s relatives, but rather to figure a way to get past the other person, and to do so as quickly as possible. The other person was viewed more as an obstacle than as a human being.
Could some of this be because I was spending a lot of my time in Mexico in the more
rural, more traditional areas? Perhaps, but that didn’t account for all of it. There was an overall a cultural difference as well.
Comparing the attitudes of what I saw in Mexico to what I saw in the US reminded me of the Spanish word that the people south of the US border use for “to worry about”, which is “preocuparse,” and which seems to me to come from the root of “to be preoccupied.” In our Developed World quest for material goods, most pronounced in the larger cities, have we traded a portion of our free time and with it, some of our humanity, 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 / worried / unhappy? And what is the objective of working for all these material goods, anyway? Isn’t the objective of acquiring more material goods to be happier?
An economist may argue that the people in these little, poorer villages were “freeloading” off of the advancements made by those preoccupied First World people with their more hurried, self-important lives and their grim determination, which is true. People who are not working as seriously and instead, are more light-heartedly enjoying each other’s company are not developing cures for diseases, or even figuring
out how to have clean water and enough food to eat, etc., without which no one would be very happy. And you, too, may be personally less happy when your light-hearted, easy-going, singing plumber shows up two hours late to fix your drain because he got distracted when talking with a friend. So there are trade-offs. We just have to understand where the trade-offs are and then know where to make these trade-offs.
Here’s what I see as the trade-off: time not focused on making money (what I will call “free time”) vs. material success. For conceptual clarity, we can view it as a continuum, with more free time on one end 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 in order to acquire them.
We don’t think a lot about this continuum, unless, as a result of being in another country or place, you see people at a significantly different place on the continuum
than where you are. For me, this has been one of the benefits of living in Mexico. As I observed these people who chose a different place on this continuum than my friends and me north of the border, it made sense to ask myself, “Where is the best place on this continuum for me?”
Wouldn’t it make sense for you to ask yourself the best place on this continuum for you as well?
This all reminds me of a parable I was told more than 30 years ago. (I tend to remember these types of things and then apply them when it is most appropriate.).
The story begins with an investment banker on a vacation in Mexico who, after taking his ulcer medicine, jamming down a hurried breakfast he didn’t enjoy and making several tense phone calls to the office very early in the morning, on the advice of his doctor, uncharacteristically took a walk down the beach from his $600 per night hotel room. There, he comes across a poor Mexican fishing village where he notices a particular fisherman who had come in hours before the others but had three times as many fish, and who was leaving his boat to go home. Being naturally inquisitive, 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 lots of fish easily.”
The investment banker was intrigued, but he was also perplexed. “OK. So, if you can catch so many more fish so easily, why don’t you go back out for a second or third run? Then, you could bring back even more.”
“I would rather come home early.”
Taking a beat to digest the answer he just heard, even more confused and a bit incredulous, the investment banker asked, almost shouting, “Well, what in the world do you do when you come home early?”
Finding the investment banker to be a bit unpleasant and intense, but still wanting to be polite, very calmly, the fisherman replied, “I can be with my kids. Later, after I have a big lunch with my family, I take a nap and have enough time to stroll along the beach with my wife. If I made several trips back out to fish, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
The investment banker was aghast and a bit appalled that the fisherman was leaving so much potential profit on the table. Composing himself, as if talking to a child who just didn’t “get it”, he said, “Listen. Here’s what we’ll do. You tell me the technique. I’ll hire a bunch of high-end IP lawyers to get a patent with the exclusive rights. If anyone infringes on our patent, we’ll sue the pants off them! Then, I’ll go to New York to raise some investment capital, we’ll buy a fleet of boats, train the crews, set up distribution worldwide, go public, and cash out for a fortune!”
“How long would this take and now much time would I need to work?”
“I guess it would take five or six years and you would work seven days a week, 12 hours
per day. But after that, you’ll be rich!”
“And after I’m rich, what would I do then, señor?”
“Well, with all that money, you would come home early and be with your kids. Later, after you have a big lunch together with your family, you can take a nap and have enough time to stroll 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.