Blog Post #491 Big Fish in a Small Pond

Coaching for Life Success: A Big Fish in a Small Pond

I’m listening to Malcolm Gladwell “David and Goliath” and one of his concepts (also used by others) is being a big fish in a small pond. (As compared to being a small fish in a big pond).

His example is for a good student who got into a top-tier university and really wanted to be a scientist.  But, that was too much of a challenge for, and less personal attention and she did finish her degree, but not in science (that she really wanted).  Gladwell hypothesizes that she would have done much better at a regional university – close to home, close to support, where she could be a “big fish in a small pond”.  She had been a big fish in her high school, but in a major top-tier university there were many other such big fish and that made the competition rough and frustrating.

Our son is a TV reporter in a small market.  He loves it. If he was in New York, he would be a ‘commodity’ – just another reporter.  But in central Nebraska – he IS definitely a Big Fish. He has won many accolades, had opportunities to get out into the community.  He knows the governor, US Senators, and other officials by name – and they know him. He does a weekly, well-received farm show (pretty good for a kid with limited farm background).  If he calls for an official, just his name opens doors. That would not be true in a large market. Maybe the pay isn’t the same, but the recognition and the ability he has to be heard is great.

I attended a regional university (Winona State University) for my bachelors and masters degrees; and a large university (University of Nebraska).  At Winona State, I was a ‘big man on campus’ – on the student senate, on join student-faculty committees, in organizations and more. If I had gone to the large university (Nebraska) for my undergraduate degree, I would have been a small fish in a very big pond.  Sure, I would have made it (and enjoyed Big Ten football and other sports), but I also would have been a number.

In my teaching, I taught at a small midwestern university (for 18 years) that specialized in information systems (and even was dean of the program for five years).  It was a great place for me – I was a “Big Fish in a small pond”. My second major employment (for 13 years) was a medium-sized private university in New England. My final teaching was at the University of Texas – a huge university, whereas I headed to retirement I was content to be a small fish in a big pond.  (Maybe more of a minnow!!!)

Not that everybody wants to be in the limelight (or in the limelight some of the time), but it is fun to be part of something, building it, refining it, and being proud of being on the team.  At the University of Texas, I was very content to be a great teacher, but little more. I came in (early, of course), taught my classes, had my office hours and went home. Some days I did not have teaching responsibilities so I didn’t come to campus.  

As compared to Quinnipiac where I was the advisor to three campus organizations, on many committees (and chairing some of them), I generally knew many of the faculty and staff and they knew me.  A big fish is a small pond? Sure. (And it was fun). I even organized and ‘ran’ the Profs – faculty softball team!!!

Which size is right for you?  Who are you? We’ve talked about “bloom where you are planted”.  You can make a difference wherever you are. Go for it!!! Set your goals!!!  You can be a huge fish in a big pond; a big fish in the big pond, a small fish in a big pond; or a big fish in a small pond.  What do you want to be? What makes sense for you? (And WHY does it fit you?)

Think about it!!


Posted by Bruce White

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