“I am not in the fish business”, a consultant told me about his approach. With this remark he referred to the proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”. So with this statement the consultant emphasized that he doesn’t provide solutions (give fish) , but wants to help his clients to find their own solutions (teach them to fish).

The dilemma between providing solutions versus stimulating someone to solve their own problems is found in all kinds of services, not only in consulting, but also in other helping professions like coaching, health care, or education. Teaching man to fish seems attractive: by using the proverb you dissociate yourself from the short time focused, result-driven and dependent-making others that are so ignorant (or greedy) to give (or sell) fish.

The origins of the proverb are not very clear: references are made to Chinese, Native American, Italian, or Indian roots as well as to the bible. The first literally quote however is found in 1885: Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie used the phrase in a book referring to solving the hunger problem by charity.

Maybe that is why I don’t feel that comfortable to use this proverb anymore.  Nowadays the paternalistic background somehow strikes me: in the proverb the other party (‘a man’) is simply left out. What would this ‘man’ want for himself? By bringing the other party back in a crucial shift takes place: the focus isn’t anymore on the helping person, but on the problem owner.

By doing this the focus shifts directly from ‘teaching’ to ‘learning’. And learning is an activity of the other person himself, not of the presumed helper. Of course the helper can try to teach him in various ways. But what the other party learns can only be constructed by himself, and even only afterwards.

Maybe a specific man learns in the end he doesn’t like fish at all…

Executive Coach & Management Consultant

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