Would you like to be the small fish in the big pond or the big fish in the small pond?
There is no “better” place to be, it is just a matter of preference. Both have its benefits and shortcomings. For those who do not know the meaning of this question, “fish” and “pond” represents abilities and knowledge. The exact definition will vary and basically it means to ask if you prefer to be the best in a small or constrained environment or be the worst or average in an unrestricted or big one.
Personally I prefer to be the latter, for the most part anyway.
Big fish in a small pond
Being the biggest and baddest one around isn’t a bad thing. It is a comfortable existence and one will get much respect from the other denizens of the pond. No competition and no want for anything. It feels good and it is relaxing.
On the other hand, there is not much motivation to improve either. I doubt there will be many “big fish” that tries to make the small pond bigger for one. Most will probably be contented lying around…and be bored. There isn’t much space to move around either for the big fish. Everything comes to a standstill.
Small fish in a Big Pond
Survival is a major question for the small fish in the big pond. There are always bigger fish that will gobble one up if one is not careful. Bigger pond also means more fish, and hence more competition for food. To grow bigger oneself, one must fight and fight hard. It is an endless struggle to get that edge.
As such, being the small fish is a mental drain and struggle. And it can get depressing. There is also the possibility of hiding in a small corner of the big pond, never ever coming out to challenge the bigger fish and always living in fear of being eaten. Without the resolve to compete, being the small fish can be quite miserable.
Done well however, eventually the once small fish will grow to become the big fish and the once big pond will now feel small. What next then?
From the small to the big pond
Outgrowing the pond one is in, is a happy circumstance. Of course, the question now repeats itself. Remain the big fish in the now small pond or find a bigger pond to live in?
Making the transition from a small to a big pond isn’t easy. The conscious decision to become the small fish again requires ditching all the comforts one had gained in the previous pond. One must also swallow all the pride and go back to being a humble student.
If “life” itself is an endless learning process, the decision is clear. One should always move from the small to the big pond, even at risk to oneself. As Master Shifu in Kungfu Panda puts it, “if you only do what you can do, you will never be more than you are”.
As a kid, the choice of ponds was made for me by my parents and elder siblings. In going from an average elementary school to a premier high school, I went from being in the top 10 to nowhere close to the top. That was absolutely unnerving. The move from there to an Ivy League university however wasn’t as bad because I knew what was coming. Thriving well, even if only once, equipped me with the skills to do relatively well in another big pond. Yes, I am very proud of that fact.
As a parent, this is going to be a decision I will make for my kids as well. I have known people who thrived in big ponds as well as people who failed to survive. Those who fail can end up depressed, suicidal or withdrawn from society.
Yet I think it is imperative that we give our kids the shove to move to a big pond, no matter how unwilling they are. Just as water always chooses the easiest path to flow, typical kids will never intentionally seek out challenge. However I think we also need to sometimes take a breather to reevaluate our own kids’ survival in their big ponds.
I think it is perfectly fine to give them a bit of help, and a lifeline if necessary.