The Poverty of Riches

Early in my dental career, I sought out mentors – people whom I admired and had achieved what I hoped to achieve. One of my mentors shared a story with me, a parable if you will.

It began with a fisherman who lived with his wife and children by the sea. One day, a traveler stopped to talk with him. The traveler asked him of his life and trade. The fisherman told how he arose each day and fished throughout the morning hours. Then he would come home for lunch with his family and take a siesta. In the late afternoon when he awoke he would fish again, if he wanted, or spend time with his family.

The traveler, upon hearing of this man’s life and seeing the bounty of the ocean, talked to him of the money to be had if he fished all day. “What would I do then?” the fisherman asked. The traveler explained how he could buy more boats and hire other men to fish for him so he could earn more. “Well, then what?” the fisherman wondered. A plan to purchase an entire fleet was unfolded to the fisherman. And the fisherman asked, “What next?”

The fisherman was told of going to Wall Street and selling stock in his company. “And then what?” the fisherman queried. “Well,” said the traveler, “you would earn so much money you could retire and live with your wife and family by the sea. You could fish when you want and siesta in the afternoon if you desire.”

There is a fine difference between being content and being complacent. I find that the happiest individuals I am fortunate enough to encounter are content in life. They have food and shelter and clothing. And they are happy with the things they have in this life – breathing clean air, being able to walk, run, and jump, beholding the beauty of the earth, enjoying friendships and family.

Notwithstanding their contentment, these people are far from complacent. They are continually seeking for improvement – it could be learning to play the piano or honing their photography skills, developing new language abilities or building something. Whatever it is that piques their interest, these people look for ways to become better. And they do so without becoming discouraged that they aren’t immediate experts. Enjoyment is found in the process, the journey, and not so much in the destination. For when one reaches the horizon, one sees that there are many new horizons now visible from this new vantage point.

On the other hand, the unhappy folk are generally focused on what they do not have. They are unhappy because they live in the poverty of always wanting what they do not possess. And when they obtain what they want, they generally see that someone else has more of what they wanted, or something that seems more desirable than what they have. And so their focus shifts to that which they do not have instead of enjoying what they had achieved.

These people are also on a journey. However, when they reach their destination, they do not find happiness in the victory, only defeat because the destination does not satisfy their want. What they do not understand is that happiness is a state of mind, or a choice we make from within ourselves, a decision of how to be. They believe that something or someone will make them happy when it is obtained, only to be disappointed when they get there.

I am grateful for my mentor who taught me this lesson. I have learned that happiness is indeed a decision to find joy in the journey. And, as the fisherman, I am content with my work, my family, and my pursuit of excellence in all that I do.

One thing that I enjoy very much is hearing about the travels of others. Please join in our Flossing Around the World contest and take photos of yourself flossing wherever you might be in the world this summer. Send your photos to us at and be entered to win an iPad at the end of September. One entry per person please :^)

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Dr. James Burneson

Our practice is working together to realize a shared vision of uncompromising excellence in dentistry.

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