When is it Smarter to Give a Man a Fish instead of Teaching Him to Fish?

Teaching Fishing
Image by Sebastian Adanko via Flickr

“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”

Simple. To the point. And missing essential information.

The assumption is that it is better to teach. It is better to encourage others to learn. It is better to allow someone the opportunity to be able to help himself.

But you have to teach him. You have to give of your time, which may or may not be worth it. If you determine it is worth it, teach him. If not, it is okay to give him the fish.

When you should give the fish

If someone needs something quickly or just once, you can give them the fish. If they continue to ask for the same thing, consider teaching.

Sometimes people are incapable of learning a skill. If you notice this, don’t attempt to teach. Like Robert Heinlein said, “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing: it will waste your time and annoy the pig.”

I know a very smart man who cannot discern the capable from the incapable. He is constantly struggling to teach pigs to sing. He is beautifully innocent in his belief that all people can learn all things. His naivete does him and his students a disservice.

When you should teach

If the man in need of fish is your child, then most of the time it is better to teach. But only when time permits and the child is ready for learning. Once your child can do something, never do it for him again. He has learned to fish, let him. If he doesn’t do it to your standards, give it time. He will improve on his learning as well as find his own style.

If  someone is eager to learn, then teach her. She is ready and will likely taken in the information and perhaps even improve on it. Like a child, when she learns the skill, let her do it – even if it is not up to your standards.

What to do if you shouldn’t teach

Here’s where you have to make a choice: give away fish or never let them know that you can fish.

If you are the only person capable of doing something, you make yourself indispensable. If you are comfortable in the same job for the rest of your life, this is for you. Make sure, though, that you are withholding the teaching for good reason. If you refuse to teach people who are eager to learn, then you are falsely creating a need for you. People will resent this. Make sure your skill is truly unique and even attempt to teach it to some people to make sure. Soon you will be recognized as the indispensable expert.

You might not be comfortable doing the task forever. If you believe that others are incapable of learning it, don’t let people know you can do it. To continue the metaphor, you will be forced to fish for everyone – forever.

This is especially difficult for creative and innovative people. If you come up with something, make sure there is someone to whom to give the information and the processes. If not, your creativity and innovative spirit will be crushed when you find that you are named the team fisherman.


If I were head quote writer, I would rewrite the adage as: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Try to teach a man to fish and he might get it and feed himself for a lifetime. But if he doesn’t get it, you’re stuck feeding him because now he knows you can fish.”

Not quite as catchy, but much more honest.

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8 Responses to When is it Smarter to Give a Man a Fish instead of Teaching Him to Fish?
  1. MaryFran Devine
    September 1, 2010 | 2:04 pm

    Maybe you give a fish to someone once so he can have the strength to try learning to fish? The first assumption is to find and fill the need. If the need is hunger, give the fish. If the need is life, try to teach.
    Your blog, a nice way to stray from the beaten path…without stubbing your toe! x

    • Idearella
      September 1, 2010 | 2:45 pm

      Thanks, MaryFran, for the comments. That’s an interesting way of looking at it – feed them, then teach them.

  2. Restorganize
    September 1, 2010 | 9:11 pm

    Sounds like the government welfare program. I guess they got stuck with the “I don’t need to fish if it’s going to keep feeding me” group of people.

    • Idearella
      September 8, 2010 | 9:25 am

      Thanks, Restorganize, that’s a curious analogy.

  3. Sylvain OBEGI
    September 5, 2010 | 5:33 pm

    Wow, great article, thanks!
    You can’t teach everyone, and you can’t teach all the time. Choosing when to do and when not to is the key.
    And as you say, sometimes we can get stuck with the role of the fisherman. What to do then? I’m not sure.
    Also, any idea what to do when someone wants to learn (or say they want to), but can’t or is not ready? That’s a difficult situation, you might want to try to teach them anyway, since otherwise you might be seen as unhelpful (or even unfriendly), but then, you’re wasting time and energy.
    Vast topic, but you definitely gave some key points!

    • Idearella
      September 8, 2010 | 9:27 am

      Curious, Sylvain.

      The desire to learn without the means – no time, no ability, etc. Strange. I’ll give it some thought. Look for a post on it…


  4. izle
    September 6, 2010 | 7:39 am

    thanks your comment article

  5. […] When is it Smarter to Give a Man a Fish instead of Teaching Him to Fish? […]

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