Career, Character & Soul, Deborah Tan, Opinions, Self-Improvement

On Malcolm Gladwell’s “Big Fish In A Small Pond” – Deborah Tan

I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Ever since I read “Blink” and “The Tipping Point”, Gladwell, I’ve decided, is a writer I can relate to and easily understand. What’s not to love about someone who explains scientific findings and complicated statistics through stories you identify with or feel strongly for? Of course, mostly, I love Gladwell’s books because they make me feel good about myself.

gladwellcover“Blink” reinforced my belief that gut instincts are sometimes the only things you can count on. I’m, by nature, impulsive and action-oriented. When I have a decision to make, my way of dealing with the issue is to go with what feels right. “The Tipping Point” helped me understand how the general audience deals with marketing messages, and that shaped the way I worked on my magazines and events. “Outliers” was slightly more challenging to comprehend but I digged The 10,ooo-Hour Rule; it validated my opinion that to be good in something, you have to be committed and relentless. “What The Dog Saw” introduced me to the idea of The Hook and, “What’s the hook?” is a question I constantly ask myself and the people in brainstorm sessions with me.

To say I was beyond excited when I saw “David & Goliath” would be an understatement. Gladwell’s latest book deals with the stories of underdogs and misfits. It talks about how the “weak” and “disadvantaged” often have things working in their favour and why it should not be a surprise at all if they ever come out tops.

One of the chapters in “David & Goliath” talks about whether one should be “a small fish in a big pond” or “a big fish in a small pond”. I reckon most of you would choose the former. For me, since young, I have always – sometimes by choice, mostly by default – fallen into the latter.

bigfishsmallfishAt first, as a teenager, it was because there was just no way someone as athletically challenged as myself could ever shine in sports – the cool thing to do in schools. I was short, overweight and clumsy, the very picture of a misfit. Unable to be part of the “in” crowd, I had to settle for joining the “uncool” stuff like Chinese society, like taking part in a Chemistry speech competition in MANDARIN …

But it was in these “uncool” activities that I knew I wasn’t entirely useless. It taught me a valuable lesson: Just to be good in something increases your self-confidence, makes you feel better about yourself.

Another personal example:

Ten years ago, if you wanted to be in publishing, you would send your resume first to SPH. I didn’t, because a part of me felt I’d never be accepted into the “big pond”. I wasn’t a scholar; I didn’t even graduate with a good degree. Thank god a “small pond” took me in and slowly fed me until I became a “big fish”. I don’t think I would have the confidence I have in me now if I had started out in the “big pond”. The competition would had been too great; I would have had to wait for a long time before I was given any chance to shine.

Today, the “big fish in a small pond” spirit continues to live in me.

If you made it to editor-in-chief of an international magazine (a big fish in a considerably larger pond), and then one day you decided you wanted a change of scene, would you apply for a job that gives the same amount of prestige or start from zero?

I chose the latter because (1) I didn’t want to risk ending up in a “big pond” I didn’t like and (2) I knew I would still like a “small pond” better – especially one I built myself. Because …

… Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside. They have all the support that comes from community and friendship – and they are places where innovation and individuality are not frowned upon.” (“David & Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell)

I think the problem with my “fish” is that its desire to do things differently outweighs its desire to be in a safe big pond with regular feeding times. In a “small pond”, like the quote above says, being different isn’t frowned upon.

This chapter in Gladwell’s book also talks about the rise of the Impressionist movement. He uses this example to illustrate how, in order to get people to sit up and take notice of their works, Impressionists like Monet and Renoir built their own “small pond” and showed their paintings in a small rented studio instead of at the Salon (THE art exhibition to be in, the big pond). They made the decision to break away from the norm and took a risk.

Fishes in small ponds have nothing to lose. They are therefore much more able to think outside the box, do things that make them stand out. As the first week of the new year comes to a close, I want to pose this question to you – and especially to the fresh grads:

Do you want to be a fish in a “small pond” or a “big pond”? If you ever found yourself rejected by the “big pond”, how would you take it?

There is a certain perverse pride to be taken in fishes that can grow in small ponds despite the limited resources or opportunities available to them. This year, I challenge all of you to find the small pond that can give you your best chances at becoming big.

Nice space ... pity the crowd.

Nice space … pity the crowd.

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2. Promise Yourself You’ll Never Be Ordinary

3. Stepping Away From The Rat Race

4. Celebrating Stubbornness

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3 thoughts on “On Malcolm Gladwell’s “Big Fish In A Small Pond” – Deborah Tan

  1. Thanks for the introduction, I also enjoyed Gladwell’s Outlier and indeed being persistent and relentless is how one perfects a skill or an art . I’ll pick up this new book that you’ve recommended. Without reading it, I think that being in a small pond is good for growing up in order to proceed on to a big pond, and then given the confidence to return to a small pond as a big fish.. Being in Singapore, I think it is common to be in small ponds (relative to the world at large) and only when going to bigger countries like China and US that we realize just how small a pond we’ve been. But no matter where we are from, we bring with us strengths from our background, and from Singapore, it’s the believe that we are the best resource in our land. 🙂

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