“Give A Man A Fish…”


“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Chinese proverb.

“Teach a man how to teach others to fish, and you feed a nation.” – Will Luden

What does it mean, and why is this proverb quoted so often? Is it just about fish? Or food in general? Is it be about teaching people how to help feed themselves? Or is it much bigger?

I am making the case that it is a whole lot bigger.

Before we tackle this together, let’s look at what we want in this area. Do we want to teach and encourage self-reliance, or do we want to promote giving things away when there is a need? I take the position that absent a temporary or permanent mental or physical disability, that we are here to promote self-reliance in ourselves first, then in others.

In the proverb, “fish” is a metaphor for just about anything useful or worthwhile in life. Fish could mean money, a car, an answer to an important question–literally just about anything. For example, instead of simply giving money when requested, if you show the person making the request how to make money for themselves, you have, as the proverb teaches, provided the opportunity for them to have money for life. It’s the same with anything. Show them how to do it for themselves, and you have done them a great favor which will serve them for life.

But it is harder to teach than to give, isn’t it? Which is easier, giving away a fish, or teaching someone how to fish? (The only thing easier than giving away one of your fish, is giving away someone else’s fish.) Any parent will know this all too well. Is it easier to do things like take the trash out and shovel the walk than to teach your children to do these tasks–and make sure they do them well? And what about following up on chores with often moody teenagers? I guarantee you that it is easier to let it go and do it yourself than to hang in and make sure your hormone-assaulted teen did it–and did it well.

Easier is one thing; doing the right thing is another. And they seldom go together. The right thing is clearly to show your kids/teens how to do the chores themselves, then follow up to make sure they were done well. Encouragement and occasional rewards help a lot, but the key is to hang in and hang in and hang in despite the difficulties and push back. They may or may not thank you one day, but the real thanks is knowing that you did the right thing for them, and the people who will be in their lives in the future.

Now, let’s add the, “Teach a man how to teach others to fish, and you feed a nation.” part. Once you have taught a person, for example, how to fish, it is a relatively easy step to give them tips about how to start teaching others. And in the act of teaching others, they will be challenged to get better at whatever they are teaching, and also create more teachers in the process. The person whom you have taught has become a teacher of teachers. As have the people they have taught. Think of the powerful and enduring good that you create by teaching your students to teach. The numbers of people with new skills and self-reliance will explode. Your act of kindness in taking the time and care to teach others how to teach will resonate through history.

Teaching people how to be self-reliant is an act of deep kindness. More than that, it is an act of lasting love in the strongest sense when you give people what they need, even if it is not at all convenient to you. Much harder than just giving them what they think they want when they ask for it. Not only is it more difficult to teach and to teach other people how to teach than it is to give away, in this case, a fish–you don’t have the immediate satisfaction of the quick gratitude that comes with the gift. At best you might receive delayed gratitude; at worst, the only satisfaction you may get is from knowing that you did the right thing. And a really good thing. And lasting.

This lesson applies to us as individuals. Is there something here for us to learn and use with government? Quite understandable, it is tempting not to export this lesson to government. If it is easier to give away something than it is to teach self-reliance, then the temptation to give away someone else’s fish (for example) rather than step up to the task of teaching, has to be even greater. And that’s what governments do; they do not catch fish; all of their fish come from people who do the fishing (taxpayers). And that’s what governments give. But isn’t it vital to each individual’s well being, as well as that of society’s, that we apply this learning to all levels of government, in addition to ourselves, instilling self-reliance and the teaching and encouragement of self-reliance everywhere?

Where do you stand on this topic? Let me add a question here, please: If you take the time to teach a person to fish, literally or figuratively, and they refuse to do it for themselves–even if capable–then what? Do you give in and give one or more away? Do you walk away, hoping they learn and change? And what if they have people depending upon them?

Will Luden, writing from my home office at 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.


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10 Responses

  1. Evanthia Reply

    What would I do? I would like to think that I could find a way to stimulate a trigger in this person to learn a worthy skill and want to learn it well enough to teach others. What that trigger would be could come only from prayer, a true desire and creativity.
    Oh the satisfaction and self worth he would feel to have learned and to have passed it on for others to do the same.
    Building a community of givers instead of a society that has such a strong sense entitlement (takers).

    • Will Luden Reply

      Evanthia, wow; nicely expressed. You reminded me of the need for prayer in all things, and the self-generating power of giving rather than taking. Keep commenting…:).

  2. Charles Reply

    I agree. The rub is that all are not fit to be teachers, so we have to have the discernment to recognize those teacher/leaders and teach them how to teach. And, as you implied, there are some who are emotionally, mentally or physically unable to ever learn to fish whom we must treat with mercy and grace. Perhaps all they will ever learn is to be grateful, and that’s ok.

    • Will Luden Reply

      Charles, I completely agree with your thought–and how well you expressed it. I must always remember to separate those who can’t from those who won’t. And from those who can’t, gratitude would do even more good for them than for the giver(s).

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