Learning to Fish– Or Not

There’s the proverb, alleged to be Chinese in origin, which says “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day: teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” (If you prefer gender neutral language– don’t blame the messenger. I didn’t write the proverb. Feel free to rewrite) For me, as a student of learning theory, there was always something that felt unsatisfying about the proverb.  Then I realized what was bothering me. It’s this: we learn from everything we do, or even everything that  happens to us. It’s not a choice: learning happens. So this is a bit of a follow-up on the last post. If we learn from everything that happens to us, what do we learn? And as we interact with others, what do they learn from us?

This is another area where mindfulness is important. Or, in the ancient wisdom of my Midwestern ancestors, “pay attention!” Why the caveat? I’ll tell a brief story. If you’ve heard this one, skip over it. I was in a training and the trainer related a story about the unconscious power of positive reinforcement. He and three of his fellow psychology grad student friends were going into a class taught by a professor who liked to pace the front of the room as he lectured. They decided to do a harmless behavioral prank: every time the prof got to one corner of the room they would smile at him. Given the prankish– and behavioral– nature of what was going on, I’m sure the smiles were genuine. By the end of the lecture, the prof was standing in that corner of the room all the time. He learned, but he was not aware he was learning. It happens to all of us.

So here’s my rewrite of the old proverb (now in gender neutral, though not grammatical, language): Teach someone to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime: give someone a fish, and you teach them to bug you for a fish every day.”

For further reading, I suggest Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor. Available in paperback & probably available use, as it’s been out for a while. Also available at your public library– at least in San Francisco.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in behavioral health, change, choices, mental health, mindfulness, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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