Why you feed a man for a day if you give him a fish, but you feed him for a lifetime if you teach him how to fish

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Kevin Mangelschots

The most capable people typically enjoy the most success in life. That’s because the more resourceful the individual is, the better their chances are to become thriving in life. There are no shortcuts in life, you need to put in the time to become capable.

This is related to the popular quote, “if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”.

Let me explain why it’s better to teach someone how to become competent rather than doing everything for them.

Why you feed a man for a lifetime if you teach him how to fish instead of giving him a fish

Doing everything for someone else doesn’t teach them to become capable, self-sufficient, nor does it teach them vital life skills such as determination, perseverance, becoming hardworking, and learning to deal with failure.

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.” This means precisely that. You’re helping someone else at the moment/short-term, but are actually hindering their growth in the long-term because you’re doing everything for them, rather than letting them learn for themselves.

However, if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. If you learn people how to fend for themselves and become self-sufficient, then you won’t have to worry about them being unable to defend, or care for themselves anymore.

Because they’re capable enough to go through life on their own accord. They have the required skills to flourish in society.

This might conflict with our belief system and our good intentions. Because most of us have some altruism tendencies, that are deeply rooted inside them. That’s why they want to help others, thinking it aids them.

And it can certainly make their lives easier, at least in the present. But easier isn’t always better, although we frequently associate easier with something positive.

Illustration of the funny quote, “give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.” Written on a white background.
Another possibility of what can happen if you teach a man how to fish…

The irony is that helping someone only assists them in the present, and typically not in the future. Because by taking all the work out of someone’s hands, it prevents them from the opportunity and the necessity to learn the abilities that are obligatory in order to be independent.

It’s true that we can learn from observing others. But some things can only be acquired and truly understood by doing. By performing the task at hand. This means that we should never understate the importance of learning through experience. Knowing this, we, and everyone else, should be granted equality of opportunity in order to learn new information that will aid us down the road.

Funny enough, this means that you’re typically not doing a service by taking everything out of somebody else’s hands. What’s even worse is that this can create a pattern of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a toxic cycle that occurs because one feels powerless and unable to control their own situation. This can be a consequence of people taking everything out of someone’s hands instead of letting them do what they’re capable of themselves. So even when the intentions to help someone are good, it can still have catastrophic results if you overdo it.

Obviously, that’s not to say that you can never aid or support anyone out there. Sometimes, people need support. And supporting those in need is something everyone should attempt to do.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

What does, “if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime” mean?

Two people fishing while the sun sets.

If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, means that doing something for someone else helps them in that particular moment, but not necessarily in the future. As a matter of fact, you might’ve denied them the much-needed opportunity to learn and become more skilled as well.

The meaning of “teach a man to fish”

If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime, conveys that if you teach someone else a skill, and how to become competent, then they can fend and provide for themselves.

All in all, it provides the notion that it’s much better to teach other people how to become competent rather than doing everything for them. Because taking everything out of someone’s hands prevents them from becoming capable.

The meaning of “teach a man to fish” in the bible

The bible has many verses about fishing. Yet, contrary to popular belief, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” does not come from the Bible.

The verse is utilized to learn others new skills in order to make them capable, rather than doing everything for them and making them dependent on you.

Not only that, it can also be employed to our spiritual lives as well.

Is “teach a man to fish” a Chinese proverb by Lao Tzu?

A statue of Lao Tzu.

Teach a man to fish is a Chinese proverb.

The quote originates all the way back to sometime between the 4rth and 6th century before Christ.

It was first expressed by the famous founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu. Taoism means the mystical path/way, that many followers have wandered ever since.

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”, is the exact wording that Lao Tzu used to convey what he meant.

Although between the 4th and 6th century BC is the first time this quote was uttered to our knowledge, it’s certainly possible that someone else before him has said the same thing, or meant the same thing, just with different wording.
 

Is “teach a man to fish” a metaphor?

Illustration of a man scratching their head while holding a yellow question mark.

It is a figure of speech, but can also be taken literally.

Teach a man to fish as a metaphor

Teach a man to fish is a metaphor that applies to life.

It’s better to teach someone how to do something, and make them more capable in the process, so they can fend for themselves rather than doing everything for them, preventing them from learning new skills. These new skills could then be applied on their own whenever needed.

Thus, it entails that long-term benefits are more helpful than immediate and satisfying, yet short-term benefits.

Teach a man to fish, taken literally

If we take things literally, then it still holds merit. It is correct that when we give a man a fish, we only feed him for a day. But if we teach that same man how to fish, then he could provide fish for himself indefinitely.

Therefore, knowing how to do something signifies that you can apply that skill whenever the situation calls for it.

How is fishing a metaphor for life?

Illustration of a tree being a metaphor for peace.

Fishing is a metaphor for life because fishing requires failure, patience, and perseverance in order to succeed and become good at it.

Learning how to bait a hook, how to cast your fishing line, and how to land a fish are just some of the many abilities you need to possess to become a competent angler.

Learning these skills takes patience, perseverance, and a willingness to fail. And make no mistake, you will fail a lot, that’s a given.

Ironically, these same skills apply to life in general as well. That’s because you will fail a lot since it’s impossible to do everything right from the very start. It’s impossible to be very good at something from the beginning, which means you must be willing to be bad at first.

Furthermore, becoming better at something requires a lot of patience and hard work.

And lastly, pushing through the many failures and hurdles along the way means you must have a strong mindset. You must be unwilling to give up, and have the capacity to persevere even when times are tough.

“Teach a man to fish”, similar quotes

Illustration of green quotation marks on a light green background.

  • “If you give a man a fish, he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish, you do him a good turn.”
  • “Teach a man to cycle, and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring.
  • “Light a man a fire and he’ll be warm for a day. Set him on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”
  • “It’s more worthwhile to teach someone than to do it for them.”
  • “God helps those who help themselves.”
While the wording might be different, the intent remains by and large the same. This means those quotes are regularly used interchangeably.
 

Final note

Lessons Learned statement on paper note pad. Office desk with electronic devices and computer, wood table from above, concept image for blog title or header image. Aged vintage color look.

Give man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for life. It’s that simple.

Teach people around you to become competent rather than taking everything out of their hands.

They might like it when you do everything for them because it suits their goals, such as being lazy, or maybe because they’re afraid of failure or undertaking challenges.

But if you care for them, you learn them to be capable in life, since this means they’re self-sustaining, and can provide for themselves endlessly.

Helping those in need is fine. But helping them also involves getting to, and solving, the root of the problem rather than taking everything out of their hands.

Call to action

“Take action” written with white chalk on a blackboard.

Teach those around you the skills you’ve mastered, the information you’ve learned through the years, and how to take care of themselves instead of doing all the work for them.

Sure, they might like, and even thank you for doing the jobs they know they should really be doing on their own. But in the end, they’ll end up miserable and incompetent because they never had to develop and improve themselves.