The saying is: “If you give people a fish you feed them for a day, if you teach people to fish you feed them for a lifetime.” This is obviously about self-sufficiency, but it is also about sustainability.

The self-sufficiency mindset

Self-sufficiency is not just about growing your own food, having solar panels or ‘doing it yourself’, although that is certainly often part of it.

It starts, however, with a self-sufficiency mindset. Self-sufficient people have the ability and the desire to live life on their own terms, to determine their own course, to make their own decisions, and not have their life choices made by others.

Self-sufficient people are not interested in trying to impress other people, and so it’s possible for them to be more authentic. Self-sufficient people realise that the only person they can control is themselves and they focus on being themselves.

Due to their inner order and wholeness, self-sufficient people are less likely to seek the compensations of material goods and status. They’re less likely to need expensive possessions to feel good about themselves or to seek fame or power to make themselves look good.

Their inner sense of well-being means that they’re more resilient and confident in the face of the vicissitudes of life on a psychological level. Also, lifestyles of self-sufficiency provide practical resilience and they are also much more environmentally sustainable. The self-sufficiency mindset is essentially what we call the thrive-at-least-cost mindset.

Learning self-sufficiency

Give a person a fish

The ‘give a person a fish’ way is the approach of our current political-economic system, which is typified by the top-down control of production. In other words, it is when supply drives demand. This system relies on people being dependent on goods and services supplied to them by others. This is what effectively keeps people motivated to produce and to conform to the system. It is a system that tends to create the needy and helpless people that it requires for making a profit and for economic growth.

Teach a person to fish

The ‘teach a person to fish’ way is the way of the new system, sustainabilism, which is one of smaller-scale production of goods and services by and for local consumers. This bottom-up approach is a system of political-economic order, not control, which is much more human and dignified and allows people to have more meaningful and engaged lives. It also has a lower ecological footprint and does less environmental harm.

Education for self-sufficiency

By-and-large our education system follows the top-down approach. It teaches people what to think and not how to think. It is also increasingly focussed on subjects that have a vocational bent and increasingly less on subjects that have positive intrinsic value such as music, literature and art. Whereas, the bottom-up approach of self-sufficiency in education is about self-directed learning – learning self-sufficiency is really about learning how to learn.

“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”
– Carol Dweck

Learning how to learn

Being told what to learn is shallow learning but it is the most common form of learning because it’s a much easier and more efficient way to teach. It allows for standardisation of curriculum and therefore achievement standards. Deep learning is harder, it requires an open and curious mind, and it requires a vision of what a good life would look like. Unlike shallow learning, deep learning is self-directed, it is learning that actually matters to the learner. We must accept that people know what is best for themselves, they know what interests them, they know what they enjoy doing and what they are good at.

Fundamentally, self-sufficient learning is about asking, and answering, the right questions, like the following:

  1. What do I want to learn, or need to learn? And why?
  2. What do I know and what do I need to find out?
  3. What are my strengths and weaknesses?
  4. Where can I find out what I need to know?
  5. Where can I get help?
  6. How will I apply and share my knowledge?
  7. Where/when/how else can I use what I’ve learned?