“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.