Learn From Fishmongers How They Approach Work

In 1997, we flew to Seattle and hauled our film gear to the quaint little town of Langley on Whidbey Island. There we filmed the poet David Whyte, who is known for the message he shares with organizations about bringing one’s whole self to work. We became immersed in conversations about wholeheartedness in the workplace. David quoted a friend of his who said, “The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest. The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. It is those things you do halfheartedly that really wear you out.”

Later, talking to the camera, David recalled an answer he gave on a radio interview when asked what it was like to take his message into organizations. He responded, “Sometimes it is quite marvelous and sometimes it is like visiting the prison population.” When he said this I was surprised and shocked. Then he continued, “I don’t mean organizations or businesses are necessarily prisons, but sometimes we make prisons of them by the way we live there.”

Our time with David was a feast for the soul. We left Whidbey Island with a greater understanding about this as-yet theoretical workplace image we sought.

We drove back to Seattle and spent Friday night there. I was flying out the next morning, but John was staying until the following night. We asked the concierge to suggest places a guy from Minnesota might visit on Saturday. She recommended the Pike Place Market. We knew little about Seattle and this seemed like a fine idea, since John loves to shop.

John was on one end of the market when he heard laughing and screaming. Like a child following the Pied Piper, he was drawn to the sound, and found himself in the back of an enthusiastic crowd. Suddenly the crowd parted and he came face-to-face with the source of the commotion. It was the World Famous Pike Place Fish market.

If you’ve ever been to Pike Place Fish, you know that when a customer places an order, the fishmongers standing in front of the counter throw the fish over the counter to co-workers for wrapping. They make some spectacular catches and the crowd loves it. The fishmongers regularly invite delighted customers behind the counter to try their luck at catching.

But on this day, as John stood in the middle of a cheering crowd, he was more interested in the way the fishmongers threw themselves into their work. The market was crowded and noisy, but when one of the fishmongers focused on a customer, it was like they were the only two people in the place. Everywhere John looked, both employees and customers were smiling, laughing, and most important, connecting with each other. Not coincidentally, the cash registers were ringing like crazy.

John watched in fascination for almost an hour. Suddenly a fishmonger broke his trance. “Hi,” he said. “My name’s Shawn.” His hair was red, his smile was huge, and his eyes twinkled mischievously.

“What’s going on here?” John asked.

Shawn answered with a question of his own. “Did you eat lunch today?”

“Yeah,” John said, wondering what he was getting at.

“How was the service?” Shawn asked.

John shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, I guess.”

“But did the waiter really connect with you?”

Connect with me? What in the heck is he talking about? John thought to himself.

Shawn’s eyes locked on John’s. “See, this is our moment together, yours and mine, and I want it to be like you and I are best friends.”

John started to understand what was happening here. A bunch of fishmongers — not M.B.A. professors or organizational gurus — were showing him how to bring more fun, passion, focus and commitment to work.

As John continued to watch the fishmongers engage and connect with customers, a drama off to the side caught his attention. One of the fish guys had attached a crayfish to a young boy’s pants. The boy was startled and began crying. The fishmonger got down on his knees and crawled over to the boy, who was clinging tightly to his mother, and asked first for forgiveness and then for a hug. The fish guy had misjudged this child, but his recovery spoke volumes.

John’s mind drifted back to the previous week, when he had taken his daughter, who has severe asthma, to the doctor because she was having trouble breathing. As they stood in front of the registration desk, Kelsey gasping for each breath, a cold voice asked them a number of questions. Its owner typed the responses, never looking up, and then barked, “Take a seat.”

Finally a disembodied voice from the hall shouted, “Kelsey Christensen.” The nurse, barely looking at Kelsey, carelessly whacked the top of her head with the measuring device attached to the scale. The nurse marched down the hall as John and Kelsey struggled to catch up, then stopped by a door and pointed inside, never looking back.

John looked at the boy at the fish market, who was now smiling and holding the crayfish. Why would a fishmonger give more care to a frightened child than the professionals in the health-care clinic where I took Kelsey, he wondered.

John watched one fishmonger after another engage customers with all the attentiveness of the best caregiver. He knew he had to capture this image on film. His intuition told him it would be hard to watch these guys at work, see the power of the way they live each day, and not be inspired. He suddenly felt anxious. What if they said no? Two hours later he had finally gotten to the point where he was ready to broach the subject with the owner. He said he was a filmmaker and before he could continue, one of the guys said, “Where have you been? We have been waiting for you.”

We soon brought our cameras to Pike Place Fish. After watching hours of footage, we saw that the fishmongers created their engaging environment through a few fundamentals — simple but powerful choices that we all can make. We translated these actions into the new language we call the FISH! Philosophy. Its four core principles include:


  • Play: Work made fun gets done, especially when we choose to do serious tasks in a lighthearted, spontaneous way. Play is not just an activity; it’s a state of mind that brings new energy to the tasks at hand and sparks creative solutions.


  • Make their day: When you “make someone’s day” (or moment) through a small kindness or unforgettable engagement, you can turn even routine encounters into special memories.


  • Be there: The glue in our humanity is in being fully present for one another. Being there also is a great way to practice wholeheartedness and fight burnout, for it is those halfhearted tasks you perform while juggling other things that wear you out.


  • Choose your attitude: When you look for the worst you will find it everywhere. When you learn you have the power to choose your response to what life brings, you can look for the best and find opportunities you never imagined possible. If you find yourself with an attitude that is not what you want it to be, you can choose a new one.

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