In Seattle, Washington, you’ll find a workplace like no other. As you approach the Pike Place Fish Market, you will inevitably hear sounds of joyful laughter and glee. Big crowds tend to surround the stalls; and if you can break through the throng to get a look at what the commotion is about, you’ll find fishmongers filling orders by flinging fish to one another. This is flying fish, literally! Their actions incite laughter from customers and compliments or commiseration, depending on whether the slippery fish is caught or falls on the floor. Employees often invite customers to join the fun too.
Author and documentarian John Christensen stumbled upon this during a short visit to the city. What he found interesting, however, wasn’t just how busy the market was but how the employees of the market operated. Everywhere he looked, both employees and customers were smiling, laughing and connecting. He couldn’t help but be inspired. He realised that the fishmongers were showing how to bring more fun, passion, focus and commitment into their work environment.
Believing he was on to something special, Christensen asked for permission to film the fishmongers at work and interview them about how they conducted their business. The result was a documentary called FISH!, which has become a leading leadership training tool for businesses and schools around the world.
The FISH! philosophy breaks down how the fishmongers operate their business into four simple principles: (1) play, (2) make their day, (3) be there and (4) choose your attitude.
What follows is how each of these aspects has an important role in corporate life as well as in our individual lives.
The FISH! philosophy mantra is simple: “When work is made fun, things get done.” The fishmongers display real energy and vitality as they attract customers with their playful antics. Their “play” isn’t restricted to toys or games but is more of a general sense of fun.
Instead of fulfilling a customer’s order by walking to the back counter, one employee will throw a fish over the counter for another employee to process, thus saving time. This allows the fishmongers to spend more time with their customers. Sometimes they even get the customers behind the counter to try their hands at catching orders.
Pike Place’s fish throwing antics are not only a kind of performance art, they actually make the employees more effective and productive at the same time.
The FISH! philosophy promotes the importance of going out of your way to make people’s day. Whether you show kindness to or interest in a customer or simply give him or her an opportunity to create an unforgettable moment, the most routine of encounters turns into a special memory.
The flying fish, chants, teasing and other antics lift customers’ spirits, making them more interested in purchasing the products. Even when a product isn’t sold, the customer will still leave with a story to tell, which can translate into invaluable word-of-mouth advertising and a future sale.
It’s as if the fishmongers see themselves primarily in the business of entertaining and making the world a more fun place to live. The fact that they sell a lot of fish in the process is the profitable by-product.
FISH! philosophy proposes that one of the greatest gifts that can be given to another human is to give of ourselves completely while in conversation or simply by our presence. Being there means to be fully present.
Customers are treated with respect and courtesy when in the presence of the staff at Pike Place Fish Market. There is no discrimination of age, gender or social status. When fishmongers approach customers, they do their best to make eye contact. They use verbal and visual affirmations throughout their conversations to let their customers know that they are important.
Rather than being interesting to the customers, they focus on being interested in the customers.
FISH! philosophy suggests that when you learn the power of choosing your responses to life’s challenges, you get opportunities to make a difference both in your own life and in the lives of those around you.
The fishmongers must wake at four every morning and they often work gruelling 12-hour shifts stocking, packing and selling fish, as well as dealing with customers. They can often get tired during the busy schedule. They also have to deal with issues in their personal lives like the rest of us.
However, they make conscious efforts at the start of every work day to be the best employees they possibly can be. This infiltrates every part of their lives, as well as the lives of the people with whom they come into contact.
Even though Jesus never verbally mentioned any of these principles while on earth, His ministry, as outlined in the Bible, involved them. He was heavily into fish and fishermen, and like us today, told fish stories. He used fish and fishermen to illustrate His lessons!
In Matthew 17, Jesus was accused of cheating the religious system by refusing to pay the temple tax. Rather than simply handing over the money, getting defensive or ignoring the accusations, Jesus sent His disciple Peter (a fisherman) on a treasure hunt at a nearby lake.
“Throw out your line,” He told Peter. “Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours” (Matthew 17:27).
I can imagine Jesus smiling as Peter shared the story of his find. It seems improbable to me that Jesus didn’t know how to play. I think this story, in which He used a fish to make a point, is an example of the same sense of humour with which He endowed His human creation.
In Matthew 14, we read the story of how Jesus ministered to a crowd of more than 5000 people. What an amazing day it must have been with Jesus healing and telling stories to the large crowd. However, when hunger pangs began to gnaw, Jesus instructed His disciples to search among the crowd for anyone with food. They returned with a mere five loaves of bread and two small fish.
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up 12 baskets of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:19–21).
Their hunger pangs satisfied, the crowd stayed longer to listen to Jesus and they returned home with their stomachs filled and in high spirits.
In John 21, Jesus had an intimate conversation with His friend Peter after sharing breakfast on the beach. After a meal of fish, Jesus asked Peter three times whether Peter loved Him. Interestingly, earlier, just before Jesus was crucified, Peter categorically denied that he was associated with Jesus. In fact, he stated his denial three times. Imagine the emotion Peter must have felt when Jesus looked him in the eye and, after their meal of fish, asked him three times, “Do you truly love me?” (John 21:15–17).
Just before Peter and Jesus shared this meal, Jesus had performed a miracle. His disciples had been out fishing on the Sea of Galilee all night without any success. They were frustrated and demoralised. On the shore, Jesus called out to the men as they neared the beach. “He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some’ ” (verse 6).
The men didn’t recognise Jesus in the early morning gloom and as professional fishermen, they might have been insulted at what appeared to be a ludicrous instruction. Despite the low chance of success however, they decided to choose their attitudes and to give it a go. They were more than surprised at their success—a net full of fish.
Sometimes, when we’re frustrated with the challenges of life, we, too, may see things turn around for the better if we simply choose our attitudes and follow the instructions that God gives.
Even though Jesus never knew or taught the FISH! philosophy as such, He used humble fish to teach its four principles. If we apply these principles to our lives, we, too, will see incredible results in our work and greater satisfaction with our lives.