Throwing Starfish

Perhaps you've heard this story before. I’ll tell it in my own words, but it is by no means mine.

One day after a storm, a man walked along a beach. He stepped lightly around the thousands of sea creatures tossed onto the sand by the wind and waves, now stranded by the receding tide. Ahead, he saw a boy. As he drew closer, he could see that the boy was picking up starfish and tossing them back into the sea, spinning them out past the breakers to safety. One after another, he bent and threw, bent and threw.

Now within earshot, the man said to the boy, “Don’t you see that there are thousands of starfish on this beach, and this is just one beach out of hundreds of miles of coastline? It’s no use. It won’t make a difference!

The boy knelt to collect another starfish and sent it wheeling back into the surf. Then he turned to the man and replied, “It made a difference for that one.”


I think of this story often when I feel overwhelmed by the complexity of life, the endless demands of work, and their apparent insignificance relative to so many things larger, even immense in comparison. I once worked for a company of sixty thousand people. Did anything I did there matter?

The now-famous tale of the boy throwing starfish is based on a 1969 essay called The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley, an American anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer. It was published as part of a collection of essays in the book The Unexpected Universe. Although it is beautifully written, it is much longer, deeper, and darker. Eiseley explores the fragility and futility of life, the cruelty and indifference of nature, death, mortality, and isolation—heavy stuff. Don't worry, I read it so you don’t have to. Suffice to say I prefer the short version.:-)

Three Lessons

Here are three lessons that we might draw from The Star Thrower:

1) The first starfish you should throw back into the sea is the one at your feet.

It is tempting to look far down the beach at the many thousands of starfish ahead of us. Sometimes this is necessary. We must be realistic about the task before us, but if we allow our focus to remain there we risk becoming paralyzed by its magnitude.

Likewise, it is our nature to look to the past at all the starfish we missed. Again, reflection has its place. We learn from history, but dwelling there too long is pointless. Past and future exist only in our minds. We cannot reach them. We cannot act there. All actions occur in the present. We can only engage with the now. In this moment, the only real moment, the starfish to save first is the one lying at our feet. 

2) Starfish add up.

One starfish becomes ten, becomes a thousand, becomes a million. Little actions repeated consistently over time add up to big results. Understanding this is essential to so many things in life, including building a career and running a business. Skills are mastered, projects are completed, and successful companies are built not by innate talent, productivity hacks, or home run products, but by the cumulative effect of many small acts over the long term.

3) We are surrounded by starfish in disguise.

No other act has as much difference-making potential as our daily interactions with the people around us. A word of encouragement to a direct report, sharing your knowledge with a coworker, or offering believing eyes to the leaders of your organization really can change lives. That is not hyperbole. Case in point:

Just like starfish, days quickly add up to years, and I realize now that quite a few have passed since a young employee came to see me in my office. She had started with the company on the production line, and was quickly recognized as one of our best. I was happy to see her, and happy for her when she shared with me that she was working on an engineering degree. She was clearly excited about her new future.

Much to my surprise, she thanked me and said that it was my words, at least in part, that had inspired her to go back to school. I had no memory of that conversation that altered the course of her life. It was just a small thing. I did not know at the time that she was a starfish.

And that’s how it works: we often don’t get to know the impact we have on others, for worse or for better. What that young engineer-to-be didn’t know is that when she left my office that day, I closed the door, sat down at my desk, and let the tears stream down my face. Unbeknownst to her, I had been in a terrible place, stressed out, overwhelmed, and discouraged, wondering if anything I did or said made any difference at all. Her words changed everything for me that day. They inspire me to keep going even now, years later.

On that day, I was a starfish, too, and she made a difference for me.

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from Retexo.


Executive Coaching, Corporate Training, and Group Facilitation

Privacy PolicyTerms

Executive Coaching, Corporate Training, and Group Facilitation

Privacy PolicyTerms