Catching Whales

Catching Whales

A Short Fable For Our Time1

Once upon a time there was a small king­dom that had recently been started in what the land-brokers swore was an “always green and fer­tile coun­try­side with great promise of future fecun­dity.“2 The peo­ple moved in, saw the green fields, and rejoiced. They appointed a king, who looked at his sub­jects, who he loved dearly and who he was sure loved him the same way, and at the land, which was green and lush. And the new king, con­sid­er­ing his prospects — includ­ing where he had pre­vi­ously been king3 — was filled with as much joy as his people.

And then — as always seems to be the case in historically-accurate recount­ings such as this one — bad things hap­pened. Specif­i­cally, the rains that had kept the fields lush sud­denly stopped falling. And the crops with­ered and died. And all mer­can­tile exchange with other new small king­doms ceased, as did the hope of ever get­ting into the good graces of a really large, really rich king­dom which would oth­er­wise have been impressed at how quickly the small king­dom of our story had grown.

The chil­dren cried and the peo­ple went to the king and demanded to be fed, now. And the king did what kings always do, he put the squeeze on his Pro­foundly August Advis­ers, who did what such advis­ers always do, which was to put the squeeze on the Slightly Less Than Pro­foundly August Advis­ers, and so on down the line until they came to Some­one Who Actu­ally Knows Things, who, upon squeez­ing, said, “why not go fish­ing?”

And that’s what they did. At the per­sonal direc­tion of the Some­one Who Actu­ally Knows Things a great fleet was built and fish­er­peo­ple4 were brought in to per­son5 the boats and pro­vi­sions were laid in and so on. In fact the Some­one Who Actu­ally Knows Things pretty much ran the show until almost the very end, when he got a bad head cold, so the only thing he didn’t do was super­vise the con­struc­tion of the nets. Which was con­sid­ered so impor­tant a task that the king’s own Pro­foundly August Advis­ers over­saw their design and con­struc­tion themselves.

In short order the fleet was launched to much cheer­ing and rejoic­ing6 and went sail­ing out of the main har­bor of the king­dom. Ten days later the fleet came back. With absolutely no fish … not a sin­gle sardine.

So the king imme­di­ately did the kingly thing and called on his Pro­foundly August Advis­ers to blame them for what hap­pened.7 And, being on the hook, they in turn imme­di­ately called on the Slightly Less Than Pro­foundly August Advis­ers and blamed them, and so on down the line until all the blame had been heaped at the feet of the Some­one Who Actu­ally Knows Things.

And that hum­ble per­son­age, stand­ing in front of the assem­bled crowd of the king and his descend­ing ranks of hun­dreds of advis­ers8 said, “I did every­thing but over­see the nets, and I stand by my work.” And he stared quite hos­tilely at the innu­mer­able ascend­ing ranks of kingly advis­ers,9 the most ascen­dant of whom said, “We are the Pro­foundly August Advis­ers to the king, and we designed the nets, with the utmost eru­di­tion and with the recog­ni­tion that, with our design, our illus­tri­ous fleet would col­lect the plen­ti­ful bounty of the seas, the fishes of the deep, for the glory of your majesty.“10

And since it was quite clear that the seas were full of fish whereas the nets were not, the king went on to ask the Pro­foundly August Advis­ers exactly what design cri­te­ria they’d used for the nets. “Well, your majesty” the Pro­foundly August Advis­ers said, “we looked at the nets the com­mon fish­er­peo­ple use and saw that the open­ings are very small, so that vast num­bers of small and undig­ni­fied fishes such as anchovies and smelt and cut­tle­fish and so on are caught. And, your majesty,” they con­tin­ued, “being Pro­foundly August Advis­ers we knew imme­di­ately that the plen­i­tude and abun­dance of the seas could best be har­vested for your majesty far bet­ter by dis­card­ing such insignif­i­cant fish and catch­ing whale fish instead. And so we re-designed the nets to have enor­mous open­ings which would allow the small fry to pass through but would with­out dif­fi­culty ensnare the great whale fish, with which the peo­ple would be fed.”

The prob­lem — as you, being some­thing other than a Pro­foundly August Advi­sor, already no doubt well know — is that, like most seas, those around the king­dom were loaded with insignif­i­cant fishes like cut­tle­fish and anchovies and smelt and so on, whereas as for the mag­nif­i­cent whale fish … not so much. So the king, hav­ing had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences with the Pro­foundly August Advis­ers in his pre­vi­ous gigs,11 sighed, imme­di­ately had all of his Pro­foundly August Advis­ers exe­cuted,12 and, at the direc­tion of the Some­one Who Actu­ally Knows Things had the fleet refit­ted with nor­mal nets, which brought in tons and tons of smelt and anchovies and cut­tle­fish, which weren’t much to look at but tasted quite nice. And, bet­ter yet, fed the king­dom, which went on to pros­per and, even­tu­ally (after receiv­ing a suf­fi­ciently high val­u­a­tion), was bought by a much larger pros­per­ous king­dom.13

Moral: A cut­tle­fish on your plate is worth ten mag­nif­i­cent whale fish in the sea.14


  1. With a tip of my hat to James Thurber. []
  2. That’s how they really talked. Although they prob­a­bly used the term “near-term great com­mer­cial suc­cess” instead of “future fecun­dity.” []
  3. A series of other startup king­doms which hadn’t done so well — but that’s a story for a dif­fer­ent day. []
  4. It was a very pro­gres­sive king­dom where peo­ple were smart enough to know that both men and women are good at lots of things, includ­ing fish­ing. []
  5. Unfor­tu­nately, writ­ing in gender-neutral form gets tediously non-euphonious. []
  6. And other things peo­ple inex­plic­a­bly do when they’re des­per­ate and have very lit­tle hope. []
  7. This is a stan­dard tech­nique for kings; see “How to Be a King: Lessons from Other Top Man­agers” if you want to learn more. []
  8. It is also stan­dard for new kings to imme­di­ately appoint lots of advi­sors, as the book I’ve pre­vi­ously men­tioned (“How to Be a King: Lessons from Other Top Man­agers”) makes quite clear. []
  9. They all had their own titles, much like the heav­enly hosts of Seraphim, Cheru­bim, Ophanim, etc, but it would be tedious to repeat those titles here, so I won’t. []
  10. Yes, they really do talk like that. In fact they say a lot more and I’ve done you the favor of elid­ing over most of it. []
  11. Although appar­ently not hav­ing learned much from these expe­ri­ences. []
  12. He did feel some­what bad about this. But, after hav­ing read the man­age­ment book for kings I referred to ear­lier, he’d con­cluded that — you know — a king is a king is a king is a king … (it was a very lit­er­ary book). []
  13. Which went on to mis­man­age the entire prop­erty and even­tu­ally brought the entire edi­fice crash­ing down — but again, that’s a story for another time. []
  14. Whereas catch­ing whale fish, while tempt­ing, isn’t easy under the best of cir­cum­stances, even if it were polit­i­cally cor­rect. []