Food for Thought: The Harvard MBA’s Soul Goal

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.

8 thoughts on “Food for Thought: The Harvard MBA’s Soul Goal

  1. We face dilemmas like this and spend our time resolving them. We know that our decisions affect who we will be and what we will become. To be a fisherman or a Harvard MBA? For someone like me who puts a premium on education and lifelong learning, my choice is very clear. I would chose graduate school and get my degree, and would keep on learning. Living a life of learning is any time more rewarding than being a fisherman.

    After that and having settled my student loan and having earned enough (what is enough?), I can decide whether I want to be a fisherman, move to some corner of the world, not necessarily Mexico, and lead a “quiet and simple” life. How romantic. But I prefer to lead a purposeful life (LKY’s advice).

    A good education creates options for the individual. I always believe that we must have options for ourselves since good fortune does not smile on us all the time. Fortune favors the prepared individual.

    By the way, who says the life of a fisherman is an easy one. It takes hard work to earn enough for the family and oneself, including paying for the education of one’s kids. To take up fishing as a hobby is fine. It is also fine to be in commercial fishing. Otherwise, one has to depend on UMNO-owned MAJUIKAN for help. I am not prepared to be dependent on UMNO!

    CLF, Conrad, LeMoy, Orang Malaya, Tok Cik, Isa Manteqi, katasayang, TL Man,, what route would you take,if you are starting life again?–Din Merican

  2. They are called God’s chosen people not for no reason.
    Diversity through immigration and a national ethos– Chutzpah (audacity, or the amount of courage, mettle or ardor that an individual has). –Din Merican

  3. It depends on where you grew up. If you were born and brought up in Trengganu and fishing is the only vocation that you know, and you are satisfied with the income of your catch, then remain a fisherman. But then if you grew up in Trengganu and know nothing about fishing, the alternative is go to school and college, work hard and someday return to be a recreational fisherman or even a commercial fisherman.

    Same story about Felda settlers except that the children of Felda settlers nowadays prefer to work in business and industry instead of farming. This has resulted in the FGV fiasco, the early settlers work all their lives only to see their sacrifice and efforts being hijacked and their holdings monetized against their will. Thus they remain the poor farmer.

    Upward mobility is the key to modern day success. If your grandfather was a fisherman, your father a seafood middleman, you would want to be something like Majuikan, owning your own commercial deep sea fishing fleet and probably controlling the pricing of the catch.

    Once you’ve achieved that success you can then return to your roots and be the fisherman. Otherwise you will forever be indebted and dependent to government handouts for your kids education and your own well being.

  4. My parents wanted me to become a doctor but I chose to study in making medicine, which save the life of the fisherman, Harvard MBA, guitar maker, liar, thief, manipulator and plunderer…. I started out with no intention of making a lot of money but it turned out it provided me very much more than I needed, a very more than comfortable life. Today I can enjoy my family, smoke my cigar while playing golf, take my boat out fishing and sipping wine, and reach out to the needy to remember I once was one…. Should there be a next life, I would certainly choose to be a pharmaceutical scientist again.

    I am glad you chose to do what you like. Success came because you did it right. You can now celebrate it your family and play golf.

    I have a Malaysian friend, Paul Heng, who is an entrepreneur with MBA from The Ohio University @Athens. He is located in Silicon Valley. He is a multi-millionaire. Paul also has factories in Penang and Vietnam. He is a friend of The University of Cambodia. I wonder what he would have become if he had remained in Malaysia. America is a land of opportunity for the man/woman who is prepared to take intelligent risk and work hard.–Din Merican

  5. What if One has transcended the MBA and still wants to be a Fisherman?
    I always wanted to be a beach bum.. And Trengganu seems like a good place.
    I’m considering acquiring some shares in a rundown Beach Resort there..
    Orang Malaya, is welcome to join me.
    The rest of the Ivy League MBAs can go jump into the sea..

    Seriously though, most of my generation of baby-boomers never had a ‘Choice’. Family pressures and societal norms ruled. Heck, we were corralled like cattle and offered courses and careers that had nothing to do with our ‘wishes’. I wanted to be a physicist or a chemical engineer – but ended up neither. Not that my math was any good – ‘cuz my 1+1 always ended up as 3..Yet i was an agnostic rebel at that time when my parents insisted that i should be baptized..! I married out of choice, bred kids out of joy and never regretted because i had no choice of careers. That is ‘pragmatic’. Absurdism is the result of too much ‘Choice’.

    The Path of Life is Narrow and Long, the Door to Self-Realization is Not about Poison Ivy and Materialism. It is being comfortable in your own skin and sin. That is what the ancient Greeks called ‘Eudaimonia’. Not that we don’t have to struggle day-to-day.

    You see “Choices” are only possible if you have the Means to dissent and go your own way. Culture functions to create order out of disorder and all of us, ‘rational’ folk function within it’s imposed boundaries. Revolution of any sort requires a fixed idee’ and the no compromise. For every successful Darwin or Einstein or Bill Gates, billions end up in the gutter. Or as beach bums. Zeno’s paradoxes.

  6. @dato. din Unfortunately, I am still one of those fisherman in today’s world, aka a salaryman. Nonetheless, if the question is what Harvard MBA ought to teach, I think this documentary from 3 years ago is important. Perhaps, it could be incorporated into your school’s curriculum?

    P. S. I disagree that going back to classical economics and gold standard is an answer at all.

  7. Din: There are many successful Malaysians, mostly ethnic Chinese I must say, in California and New York that I know. I also know some in the Houston, Seattle, Phoenix, and Des Moine areas. We all felt one thing in common: we love Malaysia but Malaysia does not want us. Malaysia could have become like the US in SEA. But the Malays in power are, please take no offense, too narrow-minded and short-sighted. Mahathir boasted his achievement of having brought the nation from the third world to three and a half, ignoring the facts LKY brought S’pore to the first world and same with Hong Kong, Taiwan and S. Korea during the same period. You know very well why Malaysia lags further and further behind. Because of its racist policies, it is not maximizing the full potential of its human resources. Why can’t a non-Malay become PM?

    We need to change our mindset. There are moments when I thought what difference it would have been if Lee Kuan Yew was the Prime Minister of Malaysia. He was a brilliant mind with character. The Malaysian constitution does not say the Prime Minister should be a Malay. We need competent and incorruptible Prime Minister and top quality ministers in the Cabinet. –Din Merican

  8. There’s a difference between an education and qualifications. You don’t need to attend fancy universities for the former. As a long standing member – not in good standing – of the Ceylon Tamil haute bourgeoisie, there were of course certain expectations to be fulfilled.

    I was fortunate to have parents who knew the difference between an education and qualification, hence the pressure to conform was minimal. Or at least their kids understood that the latter was a privilege – unearned one at that – which should not be wasted or discarded merely because we were more attuned to Western culture and the fact that we were raised by outlier parents.

    So get your qualification and do whatever you want as long as you are independent and do no harm to others, was the mantra. I still think it is a good mantra.

    Then again, one of my all time heroes is Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski and he’s a fictional character, so maybe life lessons is not something I should be seriously discussing.

    I agree; that was what my late mother did. She said to me, “son, go and get a good education that will make you human and whole, who knows right from wrong so that you are always working from first principles.” My mom was a hardworking Ceylonese woman. I was lucky because when my father died (in 1946), she became my role model and mentor who guided me as I was her eldest son. She was demanding and I was a demanding and rebellious kid.–Din Merican

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