Do NOT Teach a Starving Man to Fish

Image by St Boniface's Catholic College, Plymouth/Flickr

You've heard this old saying before: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. You may even be nodding your head in agreement right now. Sorry— this saying is all wrong.

When a person is starving, that's not the time to fill their head with knowledge. The right thing to do is to first give the person a fish - banishing their hunger - and only then teach them to fish.

Far too often, people ignore this common sense first step. They see someone who is struggling, and they rush to offer wisdom. "Let me tell you what I'd do in your position," a well-meaning individual might offer.

But few of us understand the anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty that comes with overwhelming need. People in the midst of personal disasters are reeling. They can't think straight. Their nerves may be shot. Their confidence may be non-existent.

We all know affluent, outwardly successful professionals who lack confidence and - at least temporarily - the ability to think straight. Can you imagine how people must feel in the midst of outright failure?

Rushing to offer a struggling person long-term advice is a waste of time.

Instead, it makes far more sense to help them regain their equilibrium. Once this happens... once their ears, heart and mind open, then you have an opportunity to teach a new skill.

What does it take to decide whether a person needs a fish before a fishing lesson? Two things:

1.) The ability to pay attention: Is the other person open and receptive, or looking at the world through narrowed eyes that tip off just how terrified they feel inside? You can't just take their words at face value, because claiming to be alright is a basic survival skill. You have to look at how the person acts and what they don't say.

2.) Empathy: The more successful you are, the harder it is to imagine what it must be like to be the opposite.

By the way, don't trust everything you read on the Internet, where the "give a man a fish" saying is attributed to everyone except my Uncle Nathan.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn. Read the comments...