If We Need To Evolve Beyond Today, Don’t “Teach A Man To Fish.”

Leadership Lesson: In order to set someone up for their best habits in development, growth, and their own definition of success, it’s important to consider the true adaptability skills we provide alongside the traditional tools we impart on those we lead, teach, or influence. 

“Give a man a fish
and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish
and you feed him for a life time.”  

Yeah, I don’t think so. 

Unfortunately, this Chinese proverb is incomplete. It leaves so much — too much — to the imagination. Although expecting imagination to fill in the gaps can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on the student’s own curiosity, the proverb should have taken its message one step further.

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The issue I take with the proverb is How much – and what — are they (the “man,” or student) really being provided to reach what they truly need, or whatever their ultimate success really looks like?

One illustration of this dilemma we come across often in today’s society is when employers say students entering the workforce are not equipped or ready to meet the demands and needs of their organizations. Students are getting through school, but companies complain students are lacking in the most essential of skills.

They’re not evolving to meet the need in their environment.

The thought is echoed in this article as well: Students held up their part of the bargain. They’re making the grades and graduating. So what gives?

Again, “teach a man to fish…” Reading these stories reminded me of the proverb. Its lesson demonstrates the exact problem in the way it conveys the initial need and provides just one step in the direction of self-sufficiency. We’ve always assumed the words in the proverb were enough.

But they aren’t.

Think about it by trying to overlay this proverb with what we teach our students in any discipline

Yes, students are not being provided success (the fish in the first part of the proverb), so they’re not merely being handed the reward. 

Continuing to the second part, with the student comparison in mind, they are being provided the sustenance — a standard of education (being taught to fish) required to get in the door of the workplace. They’re learning what they need to learn for what seemed to work at some point in time.

But the motivation, hunger, and drive to continue building is what’s missing. Generally, we’re giving students a baseline, but we’re missing the third part – the evolution. (This overall lesson applies to any situation in which there is a student of any kind, not just those in a traditional system.)

And this isn’t to say the educators in the traditional educational landscapes are not trying to motivate their students. People reach their definitions of success all the time, coming up through the same education system as their less-“successful” counterparts.  

Again, my beef is more with how incomplete our subject proverb is. It provides its lessons but then just seems to fall off when it counts most.

It maintains the status quo — the current need for fishing — is all that will ever be needed, so what is needed today is what will be needed tomorrow.

But there’s a good chance those who have reached their successes were introduced to a mindset varying from the status quo along the way. Someone in their life may have influenced them to always seek out and want better. Many influencers can and do do that, such as teachers, other educational and community partners, mentors, and family and friends.

It’s a matter of ingraining that motivation and drive into everything we do and learn, so it becomes second nature to work toward filling in the gaps we come across in our environments, and so those new hires in the articles above can work toward filling the gaps their employers have encountered.

In that education example, we can’t just provide what they need to get in the door to start; we need to provide them with the mindset to continue digging deeper and/or building up, depending on the need in their environment. 

Alongside the foundation of any kind of lessons or education for a student of any kind, we need to build a co-foundation of: 


Students need to want to learn about everything around them. They need to have instilled in them a sense of survival by assessment, wanting to seek the best tools around their environment, whether within or without, to improve upon the current situation of the environment and deliver for the stakeholders, with whom the investment should go both ways.

They need to want to look around and observe, from the get-go.

Traditionally, any kind of education asked you to read-and-pass. Read to learn, pass your tests, and you’re good to go. It prescribed what was needed, limited the need for curiosity.

But meeting a minimum standard, no matter how high that standard may be today, is not necessarily going to get you into the habit of improvement. At best, it may get you incremental improvement. A standard is the expectation, but true success exists beyond the expectation.


Curiosity is the foundation of all general leadership and professional development. If you’re not curious about something, you’ll stay the same and forfeit the ability to evolve.

One step beyond curiosity, in conversation a student should seek to dig deep into the details of what’s around them while conveying who they are and what they stand for.

Related: So, You Want To Be An Effective Leader.
How Are Your Conversational Skills?

This isn’t just talking to share information, but also taking in from someone else their best value while also translating one’s own level of quality in response. Much like the run-of-the-mill lessons mentioned previously, most conversations today are reactionary, merely conveying or sharing what is; rarely, do they go deep into what could be, or what’s not evident.

Critical Thinking

Curiosity pushes us to seek. Conversations then empower us to share and ask. Finally, critical thinking combines all of it to interpret and translate what’s been found. In that translation, new thoughts, points of view, opinions, and solutions are created off of which to build.

Generally, the student mentality, for the longest time, has been to train to work. But critical thinking pushes us to think of new things – new ideas to create, new solutions to implement, new problems to avoid, new connections to make, and new frontiers to explore. Most of all, it helps us adapt to both our needs and those of our environment. Merely learning a minimum standard, which is a beginning threshold to meet to move forward, won’t cut it. 

Granted, not all educational environments have this issue. Some begin providing this mindset from a young age. But this is the approach which needs to become more pervasive. 

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mindset: The New Psychology of Success

In the organizational examples, companies need to evolve to stay competitive, but they can’t evolve if what we teach mimics a past version. We have to share a new level of approach to development.

So, going back to that proverb, remember I said that when it comes to education, it only represented the beginning of a progression? 

In the first part, we can’t just provide the fish (success).  

But then we also can’t just provide the second part — a method (education) for getting a fish (work/success).  

In a proposed third section, we would need to go beyond teaching to fish. We would need to convey the power of curiosity, conversations, and critical thinking, so that those we teach can look around and determine how to come up with new, better tools to get that fish – if the need for a fish even still exists beyond today.

So in that proverb, the teacher would outline what the true importance is of a goal (hunger/survival) and how to seek out and assess the tools and factors in the environment which need to be considered to reach goals, even when the likely tools in our environment change.

A man or woman shouldn’t just learn to fish with today’s method. They should be analyzing the process and considering all other factors. They should be continually reassessing the importance of that need. What happens if I run out of fish? What if this body of water dries up? What if this area becomes flooded and too treacherous to fish? What if the fish in this body of water are deemed too dangerous to eat? 

How do I adapt?

Here is the lesson of a third section to the proverb, and the underlying foundation of the education debate: You can’t stick to one method for solution and knowledge, if the environment around you is constantly changing and evolving. 

Every one of us needs to anticipate all factors in our changing world.

Yes, you can teach the known steps which need to be taken to succeed in the foreseeable future. But we, as teachers of any kind, need to teach adaptability to factors even we can’t predict or anticipate but which the student might need to prepare for and navigate.

It’s like coaching: It’s not providing the answers for today, but providing the wherewithal and tools and mindset for the client to devise their own tools for the future.

And those things come through curiosity, conversation, and critical thinking – to start.

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