You have probably heard the Rich Man and the Fisherman story. (In case you haven’t heard it, you will get a chance below.) It is meant to persuade people to lead a simpler life. In my opinion, that story is a little too idealistic, too biased, and also rather incomplete. Here is my modified and extended version of the story, with a much more realistic and also, in my opinion, more meaningful, ending. This version of the story was actually inspired by the picture of the windswept tree above. I took this picture recently when I visited the Point Reyes Lighthouse in California. The tree reminded me that there is a way to remain true to your spirit while also remaining in tune with your environment. When that happens, the results are better than what either the individual or their environment can achieve on their own.
I have split the story into 5 parts. I begin with the original story in the first part, and then take you on an interesting journey with a few twists and turns and even some action in the remaining parts.
Part 1: The Original Story
A rich man is sitting on a pier in a small fishing village. A small boat docks at the pier and a fisherman gets out with his catch.
The rich man asks, “How was the fishing? What did you catch?”
The fisherman replies, “Very good! See? I caught enough fish for me and my family. And it’s not even lunchtime yet.” He shows his catch to the rich man.
The rich man is surprised. “That’s not a big catch at all. I’m sure you could have caught a lot more fish if you had fished a bit longer, right?”
“Sure, I could have. But what would be the point? I have enough already so I’ll go home now. See up there behind the coconut tree? That’s my house.”
“What do you plan to do after going home?”
“Have lunch, then sleep for a while. Then play with my kids, have dinner, and then may be I will go hang out with my friends and play some guitar. Pretty much my daily routine. But why are you asking?”
“I am surprised that you are satisfied with just that much. You seem to have lots of free time and there is clearly no dearth of fish in the ocean around here.”
“Yes, but what would I do with them?”
The rich man is suddenly overcome with pity for the fisherman. What an innocent little soul, he has no idea how things work in the real world, does he.
“You could have taken them to the market and sold them for good money. In fact, I would have bought some right here!”
“Yes, but what would I do with the money?”
“Save it and then some day buy a bigger boat. Then you could catch even more fish and make even more money! You could keep doing that over and over until you became a rich man just like myself! I was myself a poor handyman at one point. But I worked hard, saved money, and took risks. And look where I am today – a big builder with properties all over the country!”
“Wow. But still, what do rich men like you do after they have made all that money?”
“They retire to some beautiful beach somewhere just like this one.”
“Then? Do nothing! Go out fishing in the morning, come back and have a lazy lunch, followed by a long siesta. Then may be go hang out with some friends and some music. You know, the good life!”
“But isn’t that what I am doing already?”
The popular version of the story stops at this point with the rich man being overcome with pity for himself and reconsidering his whole approach to life. I think that is fine, but, as I said, it feels incomplete and a little too idealistic. So allow me to continue with the story. This is where it starts to get interesting.
Part 2: A Dose of Reality
The rich man, a little upset, responds, “Yes, today you are doing what I plan to do when I retire, but not for too long.”.
“What do you mean?” asks the fisherman.
“Because I just bought this property. This pier is now mine. And even that coconut tree is now mine. My property extends all the way from the beach up to right where your house is. I am going to build a huge mansion here.”
“Uh…” the fisherman is at a loss for words.
“By the way, you will have to start using some other pier to tie your boat now. I will be tearing it down and build a boathouse for my new yacht.”
“What? Where will I tie my boat then? The other piers are far away from my house. I won’t be able to keep a watch on my boat.” The fisherman is really worried now.
“Come to think of it, here is an idea. I need someone to take care of my property. I could offer you a job as a groundskeeper. You can continue to live in your shack – as long as you keep it tidy and well hidden of course. My guests should never see it. Or you could do as I had suggested earlier – start a fishing business and soon you could move to a better place with your own pier. Your choice.”
“What? How can you do this to me?” the fisherman is getting angry at this point, “I am not going to do any of that! I like things just the way they are. I am not going to take your job offer or your damn business advice!”
The rich man continues to give an even bigger dose of reality to the fisherman.
“You don’t understand. This is not about you or me. This is about reality. It’s about progress! Haven’t you heard? This sleepy little island is a gold mine! Soon there will be more people like me wanting to build their own mansions. Not just that. I myself have plans to build an entire resort on this island! Three towers with full ocean view, six swimming pools with swim up bars, three restaurants, the whole works. And other developers will build their resorts. This place is going to be teeming with tourists! There will be no place for little fishermen here. You won’t even be able to afford to live here anymore on just a fishing income. I’d suggest you at least take my offer of becoming my grounds keeper.”
Ok, I guess at this point, you are wondering. Am I some kind of cynic trying to twist this beautiful old story in an effort to subconsciously convert you into following my “it’s a dog-eat-dog world” philosophy? No, I am not going to insult you with something that obvious. Keep reading to find out what happens next. The promised real twist is yet to come. But first, we need some action to liven things up…
Part 3: The Action Sequence
Many years pass. The rich man becomes very old. He has been living at his beachfront mansion for a few years now, having finally sold his business for a huge sum. He has also been divorced for many years now. His kids have left home long ago and rarely even call him these days. He spends most of his days by the pool with a drink.
The fisherman is very old, too. He has been working as the rich man’s groundskeeper for many years now. Not only that, he is the rich man’s only companion at this point. His own kids have moved to the city, after having realized that they could not afford to live on the island. They have found jobs in the city and have settled down. His wife also lives in the city, preferring to be close to the grand kids. They visit once in a while and generally end up complaining about how things on the island have gotten worse over the years with all the tourists and commercialization. Whatever happened to the simple idyllic life they had once?
One day, the rich man is sitting by the pool with a drink in his hand. He sees the groundskeeper working hard in the garden and smiles to himself. “Look who is working now and who is relaxing and enjoying his life. I was right all along. I know I have had too much already, but I am going to get another drink to celebrate my victory!”
As he starts walking towards the bar, he trips on a lounging chair and falls into the swimming pool. His drink spills all over the side of the pool, the ice cubes scattering everywhere. His drunken state combined with the shock of hitting the water pretty hard overwhelms him and he starts to drown. He shouts for help. The groundskeeper hears the cries and rushes to the pool. He slides on one of the ice cubes fallen by the side of the pool, hits his head on the diving board, and also falls into the water.
Next day, the housemaid finds the two men dead at the bottom of the pool.
Haven’t we had a twist to this story already? Well, get ready for some more!
Part 4: A Plot Twist!
The rich man reaches the gates of heaven first. He is a little apprehensive. All the stories he has ever heard tell him that rich men like himself are judged harshly. But he knows they are wrong and he is going to make his case.
“Tell us about your life.”
“I was a very successful real estate developer, and an average, but not bad husband and father. I created beautiful huge mansions, hotels, and even entire resorts. All my customers were very happy. I created thousands of jobs. I donated half my money to charity at the end, leaving only half for my kids and wife. I have been a very good man.”
“Yes. We know. Thanks for doing those things.”
“Great! You know everything of course! So do I get in?”
“Eh? Why not?”
“Contrary to popular belief, getting in is not about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – based on whatever notion of good or bad you or your contemporaries may have had. Those words unfortunately have never been properly defined, except at the extremes. Their meanings have always changed from time to time and from one perspective to another. That’s not how we judge people.”
“Then? What basis do you use? Should I have given even more of my wealth away? Oh, I know. I should have been more like the fisherman, right? Living the simple life and all that?”
“No, you shouldn’t have lived like him either. But you should certainly have listened to what he was saying instead of just trying to prove him wrong.”
“I am confused. What should I have done?”
“You were a real estate developer. So of course you should have continued to build your buildings, because that was your purpose, and the buildings were needed by people to live in, and your employees also needed the jobs that you created. But you should have done these things in a way that did not drastically endanger the environment, destroy local culture, displace people in large numbers, altering the whole balance of life in those regions where you built your buildings. Do you know that all of your development has led to many times more people losing their livelihoods than the number jobs you created? Do you know that your activities led to a huge decline in fishing stocks and groundwater? Do you know that people who live in the houses you built have had to work harder, commute longer, and generally live unhealthy lives as a result? I can go on and on talking about things that have gone wrong as consequences of your actions. The sum total of your life, if you take into account the intended as well as unintended consequences of your actions, has been negative. Most other creatures on earth are doing better than you as far as that is concerned.”
“Basically, you replaced a highly complex, intelligent, efficient, self-managing, and adaptive ecosystem, consisting of land, water, fish, birds, people, interdependent upon each other in delicately balanced ways, with a cruder, dumber, and more fragile system that requires constant maintenance and generates tons of waste. As a human being, you were endowed with a brain with more capacity than what was needed to survive on earth. But you wasted that capacity. Instead of using the excess capacity to study and appreciate the complex and healthy ecosystem that had existed there, and to figure out how to maintain and even enhance it while building your buildings, you just just barged in with your bulldozers and mortar and completely destroyed it. You should have tried to understand the delicate balance and figured out ways to work within that balance. If you had done that, you could have helped even more people, helped them lead better lives, and not caused all this damage. Buildings and real estate development in general are very important because they determine where and how people live, how they interact with each other and their environment, how they work and shop and play, and so on. These things are critical to their health and happiness. All you cared about was how much money you could make. What for? So you could sit by the pool drinking at the end of your life? Well, the fisherman was already doing that, right? And without the need for a drink we might add? That was really dumb of you. We only let smart people in. You are out. Sorry.”
The rich man is astounded. He thought he was being smart, when he was actually being dumb.
I know what you are thinking. I am back to the “live a simple life” theme, right? So that was my hidden agenda all along, right? Not really. Just keep going and you will see.
Part 5: Yet Another Twist
As the rich man leaves the gates of heaven, the fisherman is on his way up.
“You too? How did that happen?”
“I died within seconds after you did. Slipped while trying to save you.”
“Really sorry about that. But not as sorry as what I had to hear when I went in. I have lots to think about. Anyway, bye now.”
The fisherman was outwardly concerned but inwardly a little relieved. “Looks like the rich man didn’t make it. Does that mean I get to go in? May be justice does exist after all!”
He moves forward.
“Tell us about your life.”
“I lived the simple, natural life. I fished for only what I needed, I spent time with my wife and kids, I enjoyed playing my guitar. Life was wonderful. But then, this rich man came in and turned my whole world upside down. He destroyed everything I had. Still, I made the best of the situation. I worked as his groundskeeper although I hated every minute of it. I actually liked the natural landscape the way it existed before instead of the manicured garden he made me maintain. And I couldn’t fish anymore either, except for the few times the rich man would take me on his yacht to help him fish. I feel like I deserve some justice for what was done to me.”
“Yes, we feel sorry for what happened to you.”
“So do I get in?”
“What? I saw you turn away the rich man. So I should get in, right?”
“No. This is not about rich vs poor. We only let smart people in, not dumb ones. You were pretty dumb.”
“You were doing ok in the smartness department until the rich man came there – at least you weren’t ruining things. No better than most other creatures, but at least not worse. But you were not really using the full extent of your special gift, the excess brain capacity you were given as a human being. You lived a simple, natural life like you said, but did you ever try to understand why living that type of a life was a smarter thing to do? Did you ever study the complex ecosystem that you were a part of, and your special role in it, and why it was a critical role? Your job, as a thinking animal was to really understand the complexities and delicate balances of your ecosystem, understand the challenges it faced, whether natural or man-made, and figure out intelligent ways to counteract them and may be even improve the balance. The rich man had never known the simple, natural life. He did whatever he thought was right. He thought he worked hard and smart to build all these buildings. You should have worked hard and smart, too, for what you believed in. It was your job to educate him about your way of life. Human beings tend to value money / power / fame higher than equally important aspects of life such as health, peace of mind, relationships, and most importantly, time. Time is the most precious commodity for all living creatures and human beings have unique abilities to use that time in very beautiful and meaningful ways. It would have been smart of you to demonstrate that through your own life and even persuade others, just like rich man and his type have been successful in convincing everyone about their way of life.”
The fisherman tried to object, “But… I tried that. I told him that I was already able to live the life he thought he would live after making all his money. I begged him to not build his mansion and resort. But all he was seeing were dollar signs. He did not understand.”
“Yes, but there was a way to make him understand in his language. There was a way to help him see that he could make money even while maintaining the balance of life. But to make that case, you would have needed to really understand how the ecosystem worked and what opportunities it provided for a businessman. You should have helped him come up with ways to let him build his buildings and resorts, but in a way that did not disrupt the ecosystem beyond repair, and still made him money. If you had become a local expert and steward of the ecosystem, you might have been able to do that. You should have done the research, the innovation, the advocacy, the legal legwork, whatever it took, that would have allowed the existing ecosystem to evolve into something capable of housing all these people, letting them enjoy their lives, creating all these jobs, and yet keep the system intelligent and adaptive. You could have been the driver of change once you saw the winds shifting, not him. Instead, you just grumbled and accepted your fate. Sorry, that does not cut it.”
The fisherman is astounded, too. He thought he had been wronged, when he had just not been smart enough.
A few moments later, two children are born in two separate parts of the world. One is born in a high rise apartment building in a big industrial city. The other is born in a little shack close to a beach on a small island.
“Sending them to hell would have been pointless. They weren’t bad people, just clueless. They have it in them to make things right. We always give such people another chance. Let us hope they get a clue this time around.”
I have a strong feeling, though, that the windswept tree is getting in. It is the smart one. And it is freely offering itself as an example that others can emulate, if you care to listen…