A painting of the fisherman from the Heinrich Boll's Anecdote for Lowering Work Morale.

An Anecdote for Lowering Work Morale by Heinrich Boll

Anecdote for Lowering Work Morale (Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral) is a short story written by the Nobel Prize-winning German author Heinrich Boll in 1963. It’s a parable about the value of ambition, complacency, and capitalism. It serves as a critique of the modern work ethic.

Almost all of the stories on this site are retellings in my own words. This one isn’t. I’ve translated it from German into English but otherwise left it the same.

The Parable

A long time ago, in a harbour on the western coast of Europe, a modestly dressed man lay dozing in his fishing boat. A well-dressed tourist was busily loading a new roll of film into his camera to capture the idyllic scene: a blue sky, a green sea with peaceful, snow-white waves, a black boat, and a red fisherman’s cap.

Click. Again: click. And since all good things come in threes and certainty is best, a third time: click.

The brittle, almost hostile noise awoke the slumbering fisherman, who groggily straightened up and sleepily reached for his pack of cigarettes. Before he could find what he sought, the eager tourist held a pack of cigarettes before his nose, placed one in his hand, and, with a fourth click of the lighter, completed the hasty act of politeness.

An irritated embarrassment arose from the tourist’s excessive, yet well-intentioned, courtesy, which he attempted to bridge with conversation in the local language. “You will have a good catch today,” he said.

The fisherman shook his head.

“But I was told the weather is favorable.”

The fisherman nodded.

“So you will not set sail?”

The fisherman shook his head again, and the tourist grew increasingly nervous.

Certainly, the tourist cared for the welfare of the modestly dressed man and grieved over the missed opportunity. “Oh? Are you not feeling well?”

Finally, the fisherman transitioned from gestures to spoken words. “I feel fantastic,” he said. “I’ve never felt better.” He stood up and stretched, demonstrating his athletic build. “I feel amazing.”

The tourist’s expression grew unhappier, and he could no longer suppress the question that threatened to burst his heart: “But why don’t you sail out then?”

“Because I already went out this morning.”

“Was the catch good?”

“It was so good that I don’t need to go out again; I caught four lobsters in my traps and nearly two dozen mackerel.”

Finally awake, the fisherman became more animated and patted the tourist on the shoulder. The concerned expression on the tourist’s face seemed misplaced but endearing to him. “I even have enough for tomorrow and the day after!” he said, hoping to ease the stranger’s mind. “Would you like to smoke one of mine?”

“Yes, thank you.” Cigarettes were placed in mouths, a fifth click, and the stranger sat down on the edge of the boat, shaking his head. He put his camera aside, for now, he needed both hands to emphasize his words.

“I don’t mean to interfere in your personal affairs,” he began, “but imagine if you went out a second, third, or even fourth time today, and you caught three, four, five, or even ten dozen mackerel. Just think about it!”

The fisherman nodded.

“Not only today,” the tourist continued, “but tomorrow, the day after, and every favorable day. You would go out two, three, maybe four times. Do you know what would happen?”

The fisherman shook his head.

“In at most a year, you could buy a motor. In two years, a second boat. And in three or four years, perhaps a small cutter. With those boats, you would catch much more. One day, you would own two cutters. You would”—the tourist’s enthusiasm momentarily stole his voice—”build a small cold storage facility, perhaps a smokehouse, later a marinade factory, fly around in your own helicopter, spot schools of fish, and direct your cutters via radio. You could obtain salmon fishing rights, open a fish restaurant, and export lobster directly to Paris. And then…” Once more, the tourist’s excitement left him speechless.

Shaking his head, deeply saddened in his heart and almost bereft of his holiday joy, the tourist gazed upon the peacefully rolling tide where the unfished creatures merrily leaped. “And then,” he said, but again, his agitation stole his words.

The fisherman patted him on the back as one would a child who had choked. “What then?” he asked softly.

“Then,” said the stranger with quiet enthusiasm, “you could sit here in the harbour at ease, dozing in the sun, and gazing at the beautiful sea.”

“That’s what I’m doing now,” replied the fisherman, “I’m sitting here at the harbor, at ease and dozing. But your clicking has disturbed me.”

Indeed, the thus-enlightened tourist walked away pensively, for he too had once believed that he worked to one day no longer have to work. Yet no trace of pity for the modestly dressed fisherman remained in him, only a hint of envy.

Painting of the businessman from Heinrich Boll's anecdote about lowering work ethic.

The Moral & Meaning

Heinrich Boll’s anecdote has a tricky moral lesson. It criticizes those who work at jobs they hate, dreaming of one day earning enough money to retire, at which point they can finally do what they actually want.

There’s a problem with the dream of retirement. Working hard makes us tired, so we dream of rest. But if we spend too much time resting, we get bored and lose our sense of purpose. Retirement is often less fulfilling than we expect it to be.

That brings us to the fisherman. He balances his work with his rest. He has no need to retire because he enjoys his life the way it is.

You might question whether dozing aimlessly is a nice way to spend an afternoon. Maybe you’d rather work harder to accomplish more things. Maybe you want to add other challenges to your life (such as children).

I don’t see this parable as a criticism of doing difficult but meaningful things. Rather, I think it’s a criticism of suffering through today with the hopes of a better tomorrow. I think it’s telling us to find purpose in the life we already have, difficult or not.

Similar Parables

If you like this anecdote, there are a few other stories you might like. John Lane wrote a simpler version of this story that’s become somewhat of a meme. Another popular variation is The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman, which has a Mexican fisherman but is otherwise the same.

I think it’s more interesting to look at stories that contradict this one. Here are a few parables that offer a completely different perspective:

Or, if you want a thought-provoking parable about a different topic, I recommend The Citizen and the Traveller.

Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

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