In 1998, my wife and I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina so that I could pursue an MBA degree at UNC. The amazing thing about getting an MBA from a top school is that it opens up so many doors for future careers. The downside, if you could call it that, is that it opens up so many doors and you have to pick which one to take!
Some people start business school, or any type of school for that matter, knowing what they want to do after graduation, but many do not. The choices you make about which direction to go with your career have a significant impact on your work-life balance after graduation. It’s no surprise then that during my first year of business school, a version of The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman and the Banker made it’s way around to all of the students.
It was good food for thought back then, for those of us in business school, who were trying to decide which path to take after graduation…
- The big money on Wall Street with the 100 hour work weeks
- The medium money with a management consulting firm, flying out of town for the week and home only on weekends
- The reasonable money in a corporate job, potentially offering more work-life balance
It’s good food for thought for anyone at a crossroads after graduation, or even mid-way through their career. So, without further ado, here is the parable.
The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman and the Banker (author unknown)
An American investment banker was taking a much-needed vacation in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. The boat had several large, fresh fish in it.
The American investment banker was impressed by the quality of the fish and asked the Mexican fisherman how long it took to catch them.
The fisherman replied, “Only a little while.”
The banker then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish?
The fisherman replied he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.
The banker then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The fisherman replied, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos: I have a full and busy life, señor.”
The investment banker scoffed, “I am an Ivy League MBA, and I could help you. You could spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats until eventually, you would have a whole fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to the middleman you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You could control the product, the processing, and the distribution.”
Then he added, “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City where you would run your growing enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?”
To which the banker replied, “15-20 years.”
“But what then?” asked the fisherman.
The banker 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 could make millions.”
“Millions, señor? Then what?”
To which the investment banker replied, “Then you would retire. You could 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.”
Lessons From the Mexican Fisherman
Parables are not about real events, but merely stories intended to illustrate an underlying truth or to provoke thought. In the context of a business school setting where people are making major life choices, this parable about the Mexican fisherman was particularly relevant and I think it’s relevant to any discussion of personal finance issues.
The fundamental issue it raises is, how to know when you have enough and can start to focus more on family, friends, and community instead of just focusing on your career and making another buck. There’s no easy answer and many people have gotten it wrong.
Here are a couple of examples that I have seen recently at my Fortune 50 company, illustrating the impact of a work-life imbalance:
- One of our Senior Vice-Presidents, a woman, was out on an MBA recruiting trip, talking to an auditorium full of soon-to-be Wharton business school graduates. One of the female students asked, “Your company is known for being family-friendly. As a woman, how do you balance work-life issues with a demanding corporate career?” Our Senior VP responded coolly and without hesitation, “You don’t get to be where I am without making sacrifices. I chose not to have a family.” The conversation ended with an awkward silence.
- Our former CEO, who is now retired and extremely wealthy, was asked at an internal employee meeting, “Looking back, what would you have done differently.” He reflected for a moment and then began, “I was so focused on making it to the top for all those years, thank goodness I’m still married. The problem is, I don’t know my kids and they don’t know me. I regret that quite a bit.” It’s one thing to decide not to have kids, it’s quite another to have them and not even be around to help raise them.
I know plenty of people that did go for the big money jobs and are perfectly happy. They are well into the top 1% of U.S. earners and have happy home lives and great kids. You just never know. I think that’s why there is not an easy answer for how to handle the work-life struggle, because it’s a different answer for each person.
For me, I’m happy with my corporate job. I’m in town most days, have plenty of time with the kids and even get a date night out with my wife from time to time. We’re also putting plenty of money into savings and maybe someday I’ll be taking siestas in the afternoon and drinking wine and playing guitar with my amigos at night – time will tell!
What questions does the parable raise for you? Are you making the right choices around simplicity vs. wealth? What would you like to be doing differently?