March 13, 2016
Food for Thought: The Harvard MBA’s Soul Goal
So, he’s going off to Harvard, in search of that Promethean fire, hoping he might bring it to the dark places, to shine a little light that might otherwise never shine. And if he’s lucky enough to one day live the simple, luxurious life of the Mexican fisherman, his reward will be twice as sweet knowing that he didn’t just build a better life for himself, he built a better world for us.
A friend of mine was recently accepted to Harvard Business School for his MBA. In jest, my friend’s family brought to his attention the story of the Mexican fisherman and the Harvard MBA. It can be found here and goes like this:
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while.”
The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?
The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.
The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat, with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”
“But what then?”
The American laughed and said that’s the best part. “When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”
“Millions . . . . Then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
I enjoy stories like this. They’re useful for putting our world in perspective and for challenging what we might think are solid assumptions. Assumptions like the Harvard MBA is wiser than the subsistence fisherman, or the world would be better off if everyone could be educated at Ivy League schools. But what about the moral of this story? I read the story as extolling the virtue of the simple life and the folly of ambition. Who’s the fool: the fisherman or the MBA? So, I started thinking about my friend, the future Harvard MBA. Will he be wasting the next few years going a hundred thousand dollars in debt and studying hard just so he can make all the money he needs to one day enjoy the life of a subsistence fisherman? Maybe. But if he just wants to fish, he can fish – what’s the difference to us? Perhaps the more important question is: Would we be better off if he just followed the fisherman’s approach? No. He might be better off, but we wouldn’t.
I originally planned to argue meticulously that a well-functioning economic system requires specialization and increased productivity. The description of the fisherman’s life is enticing to be sure, but why? For me, it’s playing guitar, sipping wine, enjoying my family and friends – that is why I envy the fisherman’s life. But, of course, such a life requires a guitar. Who made the guitar? The fisherman? No. Someone else had to spend a lot of time and energy learning how to make the guitar. Who made the wine? Probably a vintner who learned the process and dedicated many months to making a few bottles. What about the kids? I guess we know who made them, but who keeps them healthy? When they get sick, the fisherman surely wants someone with medicinal expertise to make them better. Anyway, my point was going to be that without the guitar-makers, vintners and doctors, the fisherman can’t enjoy his relaxing life. “Man does not live on [fish] alone . . . .” And, similarly, without fishermen selling excess fish, the guitar-makers, vintners and doctors can’t enjoy smoked salmon or a $9 tuna fish sandwich. Specialization increases individual productivity so one person can provide another with the things that are needed to make even the Mexican subsistence fisherman’s life an enticing one. But, I don’t think that’s my strongest argument against the “lesson” this story tries to teach us.
The story’s moral fails because it assumes the Harvard MBA goes to school and works hard for years with the sole goal of self-gain. The MBA is the fool and the fisherman the wise man because the MBA studies hard so he can pay thousands to attend a top school, so he can then study harder and one day come up with a business plan that will allow him to work ridiculously hard for years, so that eventually he can relax with his friends and family in a tropical clime. What dupe would think this is a good plan? Anyone who simply wants to live a relaxing life with friends should know you don’t have to go to Harvard for that. You don’t need your MBA – you don’t even need your bachelor’s degree. If that’s what you want, you move to Mexico and buy a fishing net – have at it. But some people seek something more – and our communal obligation demands more – than a relaxing life with their friends. Their sole goal isn’t self-gain, they understand that the goal is soul, and they rest easier, laugh harder, and sleep deeper knowing they’ve provided for more than simply their own immediate needs.
Sure, there are plenty of people who would be content with the subsistence fisherman’s lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, if we could all be content with such a lifestyle – one that has little or no negative influence on our world – it would be a great thing. But, there are lots of other choices for people besides fisherman and MBA. For instance: thief, liar, cheater, murderer, manipulator, plunderer. When someone chooses one of those things to be instead of fisherman, an imbalance results. We have a bunch of fishermen fishing and sipping wine with their friends, while the thief steals, the liar lies, the murderer murders. After awhile the fisherman himself has his guitar stolen, the person he thought was his friend turns out to be a liar, and the simple, beautiful life he carved out for himself is ruined by the murderers, manipulators and plunderers. In our world, those people exist. So, if we have any hope of progress from one generation to the next, we need people to step up, let someone else catch the fish and sip the wine, and return balance to the world equation. We need people with gifts to set those gifts on the positive side of the scale and push down hard. That way those still fishing for themselves and sipping wine can continue living the good life, happily unaffected by the lying liars, cheating cheaters and plundering plunderers.
If my friend was just looking out for himself – if all he wanted was to live the good life of the subsistence fisherman – Harvard would be a mistake. But he wants to be more than someone who takes care of his own. He wants to do something to make our world better, for fishermen, guitar-makers, vintners, and even MBAs. So, he’s going off to Harvard, in search of that Promethean fire, hoping he might bring it to the dark places, to shine a little light that might otherwise never shine. And if he’s lucky enough to one day live the simple, luxurious life of the Mexican fisherman, his reward will be twice as sweet knowing that he didn’t just build a better life for himself, he built a better world for us.