WFME’s You Decide: Give a Man a Fish or Teach a Man to Fish?

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Welcome to yet another democratic decision making moment of WFME’s You Decide, where you (the reader)…read. And us (the writer) write. And somewhere in between there’s a mutual understanding that results in positive communicational exposition, cooperative role-playing and over-the-top jockeying, in order to come to a conclusion that will, eventually, bring waring tribes of vocabulary goodness into one like-minded hive of thought.

Aw, screw it. Let’s talk about fish.

As you’ve seen before, WFME’s original and trademarked feature “You Decide” gives you two choices. Neither is necessarily correct, and both have their positive and negative spins. Personally, here at WFME, we like to choose one and then watch the wolves rip apart each other.

Today we’d like to address a famous saying that’s been around at least as long as the Back to the Future trilogy. It’s an ancient Chinese proverb that goes a little something like this: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Which would you rather do?

Personally, if given the choice between giving a man a fish or teaching a man to fish, I’d always end up giving a man a fish instead of teaching a man to fish. This, of course, stems from the fact that I honestly don’t have the time to try and teach a man to fish, not to mention the fact that I’m not a huge fan of live fish bait and lures. Now, I haven’t taught people to fish in the past, so I must come clean about that — but I have tried to teach my mother how to upload pictures to Shutterfly and then print them out on her printer, and it came dangerously close to ruining our relationship forever. I also have tried to teach the “older set” how to go to my blog website — but it seems that no one outside of our generation can figure out how to type a URL into the address bar of a browser. Everyone’s Google this and Google that and it doesn’t help when you’re trying to teach someone how to just go to one single website.

The frustration has overwhelmed on more than twelve occasions, and so based on my experience here, I’d probably have to opt out of teaching a man to fish. Teaching someone to surf the web is, in my opinion, one of the easiest skills to teach — and yet it’s not. Imagine trying to teach a man to fish? Too many variables, too much time, and you’d probably have to get up at like 5 in the morning just to get the jump on the fish. And the water. And the rental boats. And the lures. And so on and so on.

What a nightmare, teaching a man to fish.

Not to mention, if you ended up getting paired with one of those “just let me try to do it myself before you teach me how to do it” kind of guys, you’re in for the looooong haul if you know what I mean. Please — if you ask me to teach you how to fish, let me teach you how to fish. Don’t ask me to teach you how to do something, then let me come out there with the intent on teaching you how to do it, and then you stand there and suggest you may already have an inkling of how to do it in the first place. That’s just wrong, a waste of my time, and I’m not having it.

But giving a man a fish?

I go to the supermarket on a pretty regular basis. When I go there, I pick up everything from water to cereal to milk to eggs to fruit and vegetables…and I often walk past the produce section on my way to the sparkling water aisle. It would be so easy for me to just pause, ask for a fish, and then bring it home in preparation of giving it to said man.

The only complication, of course, would be just when I’d be meeting said man to give previously aforementioned man the previously aforementioned fish. Fish goes bad fast, my friends. In fact, you usually only have about three or four days in which to cook or freeze those mothers. The hope, of course, is that I could previously schedule the fish hand-off with the man before going to the store, then I’d be able to succesfully prepare for the exchange. But if for some reason the man had to reschedule after I’d already bought the fish I was going to hand off to him… Well…

I’d end up with a smelly fridge, filled with one smelly fish.

But when I weigh the pros and cons of both situations, the giving the man a fish choice always seems to come out on top. In a nutshell, I look generous (cause I gave a man a fish), I look patient (because I waited a little while until the man’s schedule allowed for me to give him the fish), and I appear to be a lover of protein and healthy fish oils (since I chose to give a man a fish instead of a box of Double-Stuff Oreos). The cons, of course, only pretty much have to do with the fact that I might end up stuck with a smelly fish or that people might not want to hang out with me on the day in question (the fish hand-off), since most people steer clear of fish delivery folks. But that’s it.

However, when doing the pro/con list for teaching a man to fish — the cons pretty much outweigh the pros. I mean, there are no pros. So I get to teach some guy to fish. I don’t even get to wear those A River Runs Through It water pants/overall things. I get to drag my ass up early, meet some guy at a dock, rent a boat (which I’m assuming I have to pay for since I’m the guy teaching the man to fish), sit in a boat for hours with raw bait, and potentially have a frustrating day on my hands. What’s the positive? What are the pros? So I taught a guy to fish? So he can feed himself forever? All sea life is supposed to be extinct in the next fifty years anyway, so it’s really a moot point.

I’d give the guy a fish.

That’s the way to go.

18 comments on “WFME’s You Decide: Give a Man a Fish or Teach a Man to Fish?

  1. cinekat - December 20, 2006 at 6:22 am -

    Definitely give the guy a fish for the sake of future converations with said guy: Scenario A calls for a brief exchange of words regarding where one has recently bought fish and whether it was fresh/tasty/expensive. (5 min total)
    Scenario B on the other hand entails cruelly detailed accounts of every single fishing trip underataken since last meeting, with possible photos of fish caught. (38min – ?)

  2. Jerry - December 20, 2006 at 7:10 am -

    The flawed concept of teaching him to fish is that he will take care of himself and never come around again asking for a handout as opposed to giving him a fish which could end up being a daily occurance. I say flawed concept of teaching because just teaching does not adequately address his immediate needs, which is why he is bumming a fish off of you in the first place. He’s got no job and no income. What good is learning to fish if you can’t purchase a pole and the bait — which he will need daily if he is to successfully be fed for a lifetime on his own. And just having the tools and the skills will not help him if he cannot successfully barter his daily catch for the next day’s fishing supplies. So now it becomes not only teaching him but also supplying him with the tools to catch fish and access to a very tight market in which he can sell his catch and that becomes a huge increase in funding and resources society needs to address. Do we want our taxes paying for the Department of Learning to Fish (teachers, administrators, contracts with supply vendors, etc) or a department of Giving a Fish (probably nothing more than adding cans of tuna for distribution at existing Public Assistance Offices) In the long run it is probably cheaper to just give him the fish everyday than to sustain his new found life skills everyday.

    And quite honestly, I have never come upon anyone on the streets asking me for a fish. That would be really creepy.

  3. Rae Rae - December 20, 2006 at 7:48 am -

    Giving a man a fish allows for much more flexibility. If you teach him to fish, he is stuck with one skill set which may become insufficient to sustain him, if (as you said) fish levels drop, mercury levels rise, or his nutrition needs change. Since you are simply buying him a fish, you can always alter your shopping and instead pick up some vegitables, beef, or even cake (for his birthday). Otherwise he would be forced to blow out the candles on a grilled tilapia which I think we can all agree would be a horrible way to celebrate a birthday.

  4. Jen - December 20, 2006 at 8:03 am -

    I saw the pic accompanying this post, and I was all, “woo hoo, a post about Seattle.” And then as I read, I was all, “oh, it’s just about fish and proverbs, not Seattle at all.” Damn you and your false advertising, I thought you were going to give props to my town. Ah well.

    Happy Holidays! I’ll be in your neck of the woods next week. Don’t worry, I won’t stalk you this time. 🙂

  5. del - December 20, 2006 at 8:56 am -

    I used to work telephone tech support and I can personally attest that many (most?) people just want the fish handout. They have no interest in learning to fish for themselves, don’t have the time for fishing, and will get angry if you try to waste their time trying to teach them.

  6. Pauly D - December 20, 2006 at 10:46 am -

    Jerry – Thanks for putting so much thought into that. Just a question, though — did you pull that from your ’94 thesis: “Fish and the world in which we live?”

    Jen – It WAS a shout out to your hometown. But also the fish. Seattle’s got a lot of fish.

  7. dgm - December 20, 2006 at 11:52 am -

    it’s pretty clear that a wise prophet named napoleon dynamite agreed with you when he proclaimed: “i caught you a delicious bass.”

    since i have never been properly instructed in the ways of fishing, i can’t well teach others. so can i have some fish?

  8. Amy - December 20, 2006 at 12:16 pm -

    I choose to teach a man to fish. I’m a teacher, so my view is biased.

  9. sandra - December 20, 2006 at 12:38 pm -

    I might not even give him a fish — I might just give him $5 and point him toward the nearest fish market.

  10. Michelle - December 20, 2006 at 1:20 pm -

    Besides, he is asking because he is hungry not (we must assume) because he was looking for a new hobby. If he was just bored you could give him a book, or a DVD or something.

  11. Pauly D - December 20, 2006 at 2:17 pm -

    Michelle – Yeah, but does he have the proper gutting tools? If I give him a fish cause he’s hungry is he going to turn around and ask me for some paper towels, a gutting knife and a Coleman portable stove?

  12. Brooke - December 20, 2006 at 3:56 pm -

    Can’t we do both?

  13. Michelle - December 20, 2006 at 4:10 pm -

    I am assuming that if he is asking for the fish, he would have those other things available to him, otherwise wouldn’t he ask for a cheeseburger or something?

  14. susan - December 20, 2006 at 5:43 pm -

    I know it’s changing the parameters of your question a bit, but can I teach a man how to make his own grilled cheese, so he can stop pestering me to do it for him and maybe, just maybe, he can grill me one for me now and again?

  15. Daniel Hendleman - December 21, 2006 at 4:37 am -

    You must type quite fast.

    Lest ye forget:

    It’s no big thing to he who giveth boney fish away, When well self satisfied, the nonce finds him full of bull,

    Nor to he who from but one saltine cracker hath made cottage industry for the frenzy feeding masses. Amen!

    Besides ,I never did like fish much.

    But before ye venturith out peradventure with dreams to teach thy noble eskimo that he may fish, first must ye learn to conjure irony from that which is antirony.

    If possible, in ten words or less, please!

    go crazy

    Merry whatever

  16. Daniel Hendleman - December 21, 2006 at 4:52 am -


    Hey jer, I think you’re on to something….though it’s hard to say for sure.

    Never have I seen a loaf of my bread go so far and be chewed and chewed so well.


  17. CJ - February 22, 2007 at 10:01 am -

    Yeah, there, really are no pros when teaching said man to fish, what good does it do you, unless of course you devise some sort of contract, in which you aquire royalties of 15% of his catch at anytime he goes and fishes, with the skills you had taught him.
    In addition to the royalties, the only purchase I would make in this, “teaching a man to fish”, venture would be the case of beer that sits, ice cold in the cooler at my feet, as I place my kiester on the seat of the rented boat, paid for by said pupil.
    Now, I’m not privy to any kind of “fish talk”, and seeing as, the last time I went fishing was in the summer of ’86 when I was more interested in mallory, (my boyhood, schoolyard crush, and daughter of our “family friends”) and what she liked, which, turned out to be NOT fishing, I don’t really stack up to be a great candidate to advise in the aforementioned skills that the aforementioned man is looking to be taught.
    Anyhow, with him asking, and my requirement to royalties and negation of my paying for nothing, well, maybe the beer, I’d wake my happy self up and climb in the aforementioned boat.
    Yeah, I’d show him how to cast, but that’s most likely it, beyond interjecting with small comments to the tune of, “No, you want to lightly move the line.” or, “It’s really more in the wrist.”
    I of course, have no idea what I’m talking about, but sitting in the morning sunshine, consuming tastey fermented hops, tends to make one think you know everything about anything, and I WAS brought on to teach this, aforementioned man.
    So, yet again, my long winded answer would be to teach a man to fish, with my necessary upgrades to this “chinese proverb”
    And so it goes:
    Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime, while he, under contract gives you 15% of his earnings, thus, feeding you.

  18. Pablo - May 1, 2007 at 5:45 pm -


    I was actually seriously looking for this proverb and look where I came upon. I guess I am the kind of peopl that has googlitis except I do know how to go to my friends blogspot and I’m not properly third age yet.

    I was wondering….If we discuss this in such raw manners, as probably the fish you will get him is, why discuss it anyway? If a man is hungry and you’re going to give him a fish, he might as well slap your face with it. If we suppose he’s hungry you might as well get him something already cooked cuz he may not have a proper stove, or BBQ grill where to cook it. And if he did, how do you know he’d know how to gut the fish and cook it properly? By the time you get him a fish, with a portable stove and a pan that you had to go and buy to avoid teaching the man how to fish and making him your dependent and an undesirable friend until he is free to begin with his small fish selling industry, someone else might already have given him money that he’ll probably waste on cigarrettes or drinks trying to forget the fact that he has no valuable assets as fishing to feed himself and you won’t find him again at the same spot. Get him maybe a sandwich from the closest snack bar and if he stands there every day you will be doomed to feeding him the rest of your life. Yeah that seems better than giving someone a fish, which he’ll probably end up feeding to stray cats anyway. Unless, you teach him and get him to give you 50% percent of his fishing profits which in case he won’t have money to stop asking you for more fish, simply because 15 percent may not even pay an aquarium size fishy.

    So much for figurative speech

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