Lessons from the Great Fishing Contest

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It was the day of the Great Fishing Contest. I was about seven years old.

We lived in a small town with a creek that ran right through the center of the town square. Every year, the town held a fishing contest. There were prizes for the most fish, the biggest fish, the smallest fish, and all sorts of other things.

There were prizes for different age groups, so I had a chance. I had been fantasizing about winning one of those prizes for months.

My father offered to teach me some things. I told him I didn’t need any help. After all, he and my mom had scraped together enough on a small-town pastor’s salary to buy me some classy fishing gear.

I was sure that I was ready. As I walked from our house down to the town square, I imagined myself receiving the prize. I imagined taking the prize to “Show and Tell” at school. With my great equipment, I was sure to win a prize, maybe even the biggest prize of all.

A positive attitude isn’t enough

You can probably guess what happened. Not only did I not win the big prize, or any prize, I didn’t even catch a fish. Not one. Lots of other boys and girls my age caught fish. Some of them won prizes. And I knew that’s what they would talk about when we had “Show and Tell” at school.

I was about as sad as a seven-year-old can be, walking home. My mother greeted me with her usual smile and a hug, and the question, “Well, how did it go?”

I’m sure she knew what happened. A look at my face with no fish in sight and she probably figured it out in about a second and a half. I didn’t say a word. I burst into tears.

Love first, then critique

Mom didn’t say anything for a while. She let me talk, and she hugged me, and we went to the kitchen. She got me some cookies and a glass of milk. Then, when we were sitting at the table, and I’d had a little of both, she asked me a question. “What will you do differently next year?”

Learn from your experience

Today, we’d call it an after-action review. We went through what I’d done and looked at what I could do the same and what I would do differently next year. The focus was on the future.

We like to move fast in today’s world. We want to get on to the next thing and put any bad experience behind us. But powerful lessons lurk there. I’ve learned that it pays to pause and reflect and learn and then do better.

Self-reliance is good, up to a point

I tend to be stupidly self-reliant. That day was the first time I remember thinking that when people offer me help, I should take it. I’ve had to learn that lesson over and over.

You need help with many things

Sometimes, no one will offer help. When that happens it’s a good idea to ask for some. Since the day of the Great Fishing Contest, I’ve learned that everyone I meet is more skilled than me at several things. Everyone I meet is supremely skilled at something.

My friend Thom can fix just about anything that breaks. When I need help with a home repair, I call Thom. My friend Rick is good at many things, but his major strength is what I call “business intelligence.” Rick has a super-high BQ. If I’ve got a question that involves making money, I’ll ask Rick and he’ll sort it out quickly.

Knowing where to find the answer is almost as good as knowing the answer. Most of the time you’ll find the answer embedded in a person.

Find the Joy

There was one more important lesson that day. Mom asked me if I had congratulated my friends who won awards. When I said, “No,” she said, “Well, let’s go do that.”

We walked to their houses. At each one, I congratulated the other little boy or girl on their performance at the fishing contest. That was the biggest lesson of the day.

When I was concentrating on my performance and how awful it was and how far it was from my expectations and how my friends would probably get to celebrate while I didn’t, I felt awful. But after I had a way to share in their joy, I felt really good about the day and everything I’d done.

You can find joy in many a “bad” situation. Look for it. Seize it.


A positive attitude isn’t enough.

Love first, then critique.

Self-reliance is good up to a point, then you need help.

You will need help with many things. Seek it out and accept it.

Knowing where to find the answer is almost as good as knowing the answer.

You can find joy in many a “bad” situation. Look for it. Seize it.

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