Seek Autonomy, Rather Than Chasing Passion

A reader of this blog recently sent me an email, along with a link to a podcast, asking if a) I was familiar with the man being interviewed and b) did I agree with what he said.

The man in the interview was Cal Newport, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and noted critic of much of the “lifestyle design” and “courage culture” of the Web.

I answered that reader with a) Yes!, and b) Yes! Yes! Yes!

<iframe style="width:120px;height:240px;" marginwidth="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" src="//"> </iframe>If you haven’t read Newport’s book, I would urge you to do so (even though it’s apparently out of print now and the price of remainders is quite high.) I’d also urge you to listen to the podcast interview with him. (I’ll put a link to the podcast at the bottom of this post.)

But before you read or listen, allow me to offer a synopsis of Newport’s work, and why I think it ties so closely to the Big Fish in a Small Pond approach.

Newport argues that the “find your passion” craze, in which people are urged to pursue work that resonates with them on some deep, passionate level, is both silly and dangerous. It leads to poor career decisions, tends to leave people feeling ungrounded and prone to jumping from one job to another in hope of finding “it.”

The “follow your passion” concept, Newport says, is  “a childish look at a very adult topic.”

Rather, Newport suggests that people pursue some distinctly different concepts in their working lives — mastery, connections and, most importantly, autonomy.  And that’s where Newport and I agree.

As I’ve said before, I have reservations about “finding your passion.” I don’t object to the idea of a having a passion, and I think that searching for it can be illuminating. But I think it is far more effective to find places where you can exercise authority (which seems to be quite close to Newport’s idea of seeking autonomy.)

More importantly, the Big Fish approach suggests that the key to finding the right Small Pond for you is to ask a series of questions related to mastery, value and love.  Newport also argues that the key to becoming autonomous is to build “career capital” through competence and connections and the creation of value. That “career capital,” Newport argues, is the leverage you need to get autonomy in your career.

Also, Newport suggests that the “courage culture,” in which assorted experts argue that the only thing holding you back from success is your own fear of striking out on your own is wrong-headed and dangerous.  Success and happiness don’t require that you run your own business. And the Big Fish approach says the same thing.

But perhaps most significantly, Newport says that the key to achieving what you want from your career is in developing a craftsman’s mindset. If you don’t listen to anything else in the podcast, listen to a minute or two of where he talks about what it means to be a craftsman (it starts at around 18:20 in the podcast, which you can find here.)

And if Newport can’t convince you, read this earlier post of mine and we’ll see if Matthew Crawford can do it.

– by Paul Conley

American Idol logo

Roots of the Big Fish approach: American Idol

Have you ever had a moment when it seemed as if you, and perhaps you alone, felt that something was wrong?

Do you know the sort of experience I’m talking about? It’s like when someone tells an ethnic joke and everyone laughs except for you …. not because you don’t “get it,” but because you do get it and it seems cruel. Or when, as happened to me just the other day, you glance around a romantic restaurant full of young couples and realize that no one is speaking to the person they’re with, but that everyone is instead staring at smartphones?

I had one of those moments years ago while watching a wildly popular television show. And that moment was one of the pivotal events that led, eventually, to the creation of the Big Fish in a Small Pond system.

Let me explain:

In early 2005, American Idol began its fourth season. I had never seen the show, but was aware of it because everyone was aware of it. It was a huge hit.  The whole country seemed to be talking about it as the start of the new season approached. So I made a promise to myself to watch.

I missed the premier, and missed the first few episodes after that as well, so that by the time I actually tuned in to the show, the audition stage was over. And that turned out to be a critical difference between how I saw the show and how others saw it.

American Idol, as you probably know, is a contest. Viewers vote on how well a singer performs. And by the time I began watching the show, the herd had been culled. There were only a handful of performers left standing. And they were talented.

Some  of them, certainly, were more talented than others. Carrie Underwood, who would go on to win that season, was simply stunning. I and millions of others fell in love with her.

But by the time I started watching American Idol the difference between Underwood and the other contestants was minimal. Everyone left in the contest then had great talent. It was possible at that point to watch the show and think that any one of those contestants could go on to fame and fortune as a singer.  It was possible, in other words, to imagine that any of them could become a Big Fish in one of the most competitive Big Ponds on earth — the entertainment industry.

In January of 2006, Season Five began. And this time I watched from the beginning. It was a vastly different experience. I managed to watch one or two of the first episodes, which featured some of the thousands of people who come to the first round of auditions, before I gave up on the show forever.

And here’s why: those early auditions are full of people who do not stand a chance of ever making it as singers. Many of them are horrible singers. And many of those horrible singers are also, clearly, delusional.  There are also tons of folks who audition who are good,or even very good, singers. But they are clearly not great. And it’s instantly clear when you watch them that they will never be great.

Yet when they are rejected they seem surprised, and are often angry. It’s as if they were simply unprepared for facing one of the most obvious truths of life: only a tiny, tiny percentage of people will ever be rich and famous.

The day after those early auditions, I would go to the office or visit with friends or just listen to conversations around me and everyone seemed to be talking about American Idol and everyone was having the same reaction: they were laughing about the auditions.  And the undertone of that laughter was contempt. There was an anger there, and a bitterness and that repulsive form of glee called schadenfreude.

But I didn’t find anything about those auditions funny at all. Rather, I found the whole thing sort of soul-crushingly sad. The auditions were filled with people who clearly suffered from grandiosity and delusion to a degree that suggested mental illness. And there were others who just seemed naive, lost and vulnerable.

And everyone laughed at them, and the ratings were great, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

As I thought about all this, I noticed a few things:

  • People all around me were taking delight in the fact that there were slews of people who would never be famous, yet didn’t realize that they would never be famous.
  •  The level of delight increased in inverse proportion to the contestant’s talent.  The less talented a contestant was, the funnier it seemed to people.
  •  The level of delight increased in proportion to the contestant’s delusion. The more surprised a contestant was to be eliminated from the competition, the funnier it seemed to people.

I started thinking of all this as the “fame-schadenfreude problem,” and it seemed to me that:

  • Fame-schadenfreude was new.  This was not something my parents or grandparents would have experienced.
  • Fame-schadenfreude is born of a growing sense in America that people are supposed to be famous. It’s an expectation similar to the way we think we’re supposed to be self-sufficient or successful or patriotic.
  • Fame-schadenfreude was making us nasty. Watching troubled, sad, delusional and possibly mentally ill people fail isn’t funny. It’s heartbreaking. But as a culture we reacted to the dashing of people’s dreams as if we watching the Marx Brothers.

Although I was ashamed to admit it, I also realized that I wasn’t immune to fame-schadenfreude. I didn’t experience it when watching American Idol, probably because I have no interest in singing. But I was perfectly capable of being cruel about untalented people who thought they could make it big in my industry (journalism).

In the years since I first watched American Idol, a few things have changed. The show itself is not the phenomenon it once was. But that’s largely due to the proliferation of copycat shows. The reality-TV-competition format is on television in multiple languages in multiple countries around the globe now.

More troubling is that the nastiness that surrounds reality TV is no longer limited to the shows themselves. There’s something newly, and more deeply, cruel about the whole culture now.

If there’s good news here it’s that nearly everyone seems to recognize that something is wrong. As early as 2011 people were noting the new level of cruelty, and predicting that it would grow worse. No one has an answer. And no one seems to truly understand what has happened to us.  People blame the Internet, they blame politicians, they blame reality TV, and they blame each other. But they never blame themselves.

But it is clear that our obsession with fame has grown to its logical conclusion:  we would kill for it.

So look:  I don’t have the answer to fame-schadenfreude. I see it everywhere. And I tend to see similar phenomena — the WWIC problem, the rise of anti-celebrity news like TMZ, etc.  – everywhere too. But I have no idea what to do about any of it.

I do, however, have an obligation to think about what the culture’s obsession with fame might do to me. I’m not immune to fame-schadenfreude and I’m not immune to the charms of wealth and the lure of prestige.  I’m as capable of envy and narcissism as anyone else. And there’s something about our culture today that will reinforce those vulnerabilities if I let it.

In the years since I started thinking about all this I began to notice that when I responded to the call of fame (taking prestigious jobs at big-name media brands like CNN), it’s made me unhappy.  Although I’ve never been a Big Fish in a Big Pond,  I’ve been a Small Fish and a Medium Fish in Big Ponds many times, and I hated it.  There’s something about the places that attract the fame-focused that makes me miserable. And they seemed to make everybody else there miserable too.  (It’s also worth noting that I have a few friends who actually did make it big. They are, by any measure, really and truly famous. Yet they’re not very happy.)

By contrast, I began to notice that when I ignored the lure of fame and responded instead to the call of service (taking responsibility for a community that I wanted to help), it made me happy. I’ve been a Big Fish in Small Pond a bunch of times, and I’ve loved it. And as I looked around among my friends, colleagues, associates, acquaintances, neighbors, etc. I realized that the happiest people I knew weren’t truly famous, but they were all famous within the tiny niches in which they chose to spend their lives. They were all Big Fish in Small Ponds.

So I’m glad that I watched American Idol. Because it taught me, in a roundabout fashion, that there’s a better approach to life than auditioning for reality TV or mocking the people who do. I call it the Big Fish in a Small Pond system.

– by Paul Conley

The risks of not being a Big Fish in a Small Pond

There’s nothing truly revolutionary in the Big Fish system.

All I’ve done here, all I’m trying to to do, is to codify what seems to be an emerging consensus on how to achieve success and find happiness in today’s economy and culture. Everything I suggest that you do is something that other people — people much smarter than I — also suggest that you do.

Consider, if you will, the work of Joe Pulizzi.

Joe is one of the smartest guys I know in the business world. I can’t think of anyone who has built a more interesting business (the Content Marketing Institute), written a more helpful book (Epic Content Marketing), or has done a better job at personal marketing (his famous orange suit.)

Joe published a piece a few days ago on LinkedIn titled “The Risk of Being a Full-Time Employee.” It’s worth a read.

Risk Board GameIn that article Joe tells the story of how he decided to leave a great career in the publishing business because staying seemed risky. And that risk wasn’t because his job was about to be eliminated. The risk was a function of the limited power he could exercise in his position as a medium-sized fish in a big pond.  Joe puts it this way:

The problem was, as “cushy” as some may have thought my position to be, I didn’t have much say in how the company was run. I had virtual no control over what the company did or did not do. I’m not sure if my position was at risk, but my job seemed awfully risky, benefits and all.

Joe’s problem was that his job didn’t offer him sufficient authority.  That’s what life is like in a Big Pond for everyone except the biggest fish.

So Joe left that position and started something entirely new. And, although he had no idea at the time, the new thing he created met my definition of a small pond, i.e., a place

What’s most interesting to me about Joe’s career path is that I’ve had a number of consulting gigs in recent years at the company that Joe left. We both know a number of talented, smart, hard-working folks who stayed in the “safe “jobs in that Big Pond long after he left. Dozens of them are unemployed today.

But Joe, because he’s someone who has started a business, knows how difficult the entrepreneur’s life can be. And he acknowledges that not everyone is cut out for it. So Joe poses some questions to help employees measure, and reduce, the risks that are inherent in the supposedly safe choices they’ve made on the job.

Among the questions Joe thinks employees should ask are:

  • In your job, do you have enough control in the workspace to help set the direction of the business? Will the CEO take a meeting from you and actually listen?

  • What can you do in your current role to start to win over that influence?

Those are wise and important questions, and they track closely with how the Big Fish system suggests employees view their jobs.

Joe has a few other questions worth asking in his article. Check them out. And let me add one query to the mix: There may be very, very little risk involved in ignoring anything I have to say, but what is the risk involved in ignoring advice from Joe, from Robert Kiyosaki (quoted in Joe’s article), Matthew Crawford, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chris Brogan?

– by Paul Conley


Finding your small pond in (more than) three steps

The Web and your local bookstore are full of advice on “finding your passion” as the key to happiness at work.

In fact, there’s so much passion-finding advice out there that it invites a backlash. And sure enough it seems an entire new genre of self-help journalism has emerged dedicated to debunking the find-your-passion craze. For example, articles in support of a something-other-than-passion approach to work can be found here and here.

The Big Fish approach is not about finding a passion.  But it’s also not anti-passion.

Rather, the Big Fish approach suggests that you spend as much of your life as possible in Small Ponds, i.e., places

  • where your authority is clear, even when you are not the sole authority or the leading authority
  • where you lead more often that you follow
  • where you are often responsible for others, but seldom responsible to others

And the Big Fish approach suggests that when trying to decide if any particular small pond is the right one for you to ask a series of questions related to mastery, value and love.

Passion is not a requirement.  And I would argue that there are small ponds worth selecting – particularly those that involve charitable pursuits — where passion need not be a significant factor at all.

So although it’s safe to say that Big Fish don’t feel passionately about passion, it would be misleading to say that we feel totally dispassionate about it.

The search for your passion can be illuminating (and fun. ) It can help point the way toward Small Ponds that might otherwise escape your notice. And it can help you understand why some Small Ponds wouldn’t work for you.

Let me explain:

One of the best methods I’ve found for discovering your passion is from the author and self-described “book mentor” Mary DeMuth. In a guest post several years ago on the website of Michael Hyatt, DeMuth outlined “How to find your passion in three steps.

Step two in her approach is to list your three favorite movies. Give it a try. Do it quickly, without thinking about it too much. Then look at the list and try to find the common thread that runs through each film.

When I did the exercise my three favorite movies were:

  • Quest for Fire
  • Book of Eli
  • Fly Away Home

By most any measure, these are wildly different sorts of movies. Quest for Fire is about three friends in prehistoric Europe searching for a new source of fire; The Book of Eli is about a dystopian future in which one man travels the land with what may be the last copy of the Bible on Earth; and Fly Away Home is about a teenage girl who adopts a motherless flock of geese.

quest for fireBut if you know those three films you’ll agree there is a common thread running through them:  people finding meaning through the acceptance of difficult duty in service to others.

And that — searching for meaning, accepting duty, serving others  – is my passion in life.  I can’t pretend that it is the only theme in my life, or that it is constant. But I can say that it calls to me.  And I can say it reappears consistently throughout what  I see as the the highlights of my work life – from my childhood obsession with generating money for the poor, through my brief stint in the military, to working with the disabled, to taking on ethical battles in journalism, to coaching young staff, to my role as father to my daughter.

I also know there were periods in my life in which I ignored the call of that theme. I took on jobs that were not difficult. Or I accepted a role that didn’t involve helping anyone. The money was usually great; the jobs were often glamorous. But I was miserable.

Thus for me it’s important to know … and to remember … what my passion is. Because it holds the final key to knowing whether or not a particular Small Pond is the right Small Pond for me.

– by Paul Conley

Roots of the Big Fish approach: Chris Brogan

As I’ve noted before, I spent a very long time letting my ideas about being a Big Fish in a Small Pond fester before I actually launched this site.

And from time to time I’ll write here about some of the thinkers, writers and others that influenced me during that formative period.

And one of the key influences during that time was Chris Brogan’s latest book, “The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth.

Chris’ book is a look at a new style of entrepreneurship … one that requires a level of focus on specific, small communities and which emphasizes service to the members of that community. On page 169, Chris sort of sums up his entire approach like this:

“Throughout this book, we’ve talked about serving a community being the key to business. …We exist to serve our community.  That’s the most important mind-set to maintain. In this one detail, you can do the work you want to do and build the business you want to build, provided you’ve done the work we talked about before to identify the right community to serve.”

If you’ve been reading ABigFishinaSmallPond for awhile now, you’ll quickly note the similarities between Chris’ approach and my call to find a ‘community (a Small Pond) that you wish to serve because because you’re part of the community?

Chris has a long history of looking with favor upon specialization, serving a small community, and generally saying “Hooray for Small Ponds.

And I’ve been reading him for quite some time, filing things away as I developed the Big Fish approach.

Amtrak's Acela train. Photo by Flickr user Cliff1066
Amtrak’s Acela train. Photo by Flickr user Cliff1066

And then, earlier this year, I found myself on an Amtrak train to Boston reading Chris’ “Freaks.” And by the time I had arrived in Beantown, I knew the time was right for me to launch ABigFishinaSmallPond.

Here’s why. Chris’ book is full of advice worth listening to and tactics worth trying. Every page is filed with useful takeaways. But on page 100, there was section that seemed to scream at me as Chris debated the pros and cons of working for big companies versus working for yourself.

…Being a cog in a machine is far less interesting than being the head of something smaller. I have friends who love working for the big guy. It’s just not going to happen for me. I can’t do it…Left to my own devices, I’d rather captain the pirate ship than be part of the fleet. The fleet has its advantages, but I always find that having the ability to maneuver quickly is most important to me. I’ll take that over firepower.

When I got on that train I was several weeks into a job working for someone else. And I was hating it.  I had next-to-no respect for the folks in charge, and everything I wanted to do required endless conversations with them.  Nothing was ever decided. Nothing, really, ever happened. It was the perfect job for someone who wanted to coast, to take thing easily, and to collect a check while preserving the status quo.

And when I got off the train, I knew I would leave the job.

I knew, too, that it was time to launch this site and learn if there were other folks out there like me who preferred maneuverability to firepower, preferred serving communities to working for companies, and preferred small ponds to big.

To read about some other work that influenced the Big Fish approach, check out this post on “Shop Class as Soulcraft” and this post on Malcolm Gladwell’s theories on elite institutions. 

– by Paul Conley


Marcus Aurelius

A father’s duty

Today is Father’s Day (actually, I’m writing this on the day before Father’s Day…but it will be posted on the holiday itself while I’m out celebrating with my family.) And there is no better day in the year than this to discuss one of the key facets of the Big Fish approach: parental duty.

Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius. Photo by Sebastien Bertrand

If you’re a parent, then you’ll recognize that your family is the primary Small Pond in your life.  And if you’re a parent then the part of your life that gives you the most joy and satisfaction is almost certainly your family.  Families aren’t perfect, but they are — in fundamental ways — the structures we are built for. They are our fate, in the same way that a hive must be the center of a bee’s life.

In fact, as I developed my “unconventional approach to work, life and happiness,” I came to realize that what I was advocating people do was to choose to spend as much of life as possible in situations in which their role was parental in nature, if not in fact.

If you’ve been reading ABigFishinaSmallPond for awhile now, you understand what I mean. If you’re new to the approach, you may want to read the About section. For there you’ll see that the three key factors in choosing the right Small Pond are to find places where

  • where your authority is clear, even when you are not the sole authority or the leading authority
  • where you lead more often than follow,
  • and where you are responsible for others, but seldom responsible to others.

And those three factors can also be used to describe the role of a parent.

Certainly there are differences between how a successful parent interacts with his children and how a successful manager or entrepreneur interacts with his staff. The tactics one takes with toddlers must be different from those you take with adults. But the Big Fish approach calls for a fundamentally similar attitude in how a Big Fish approaches the other residents of any of his small ponds.

And that attitude must be parental, i.e., concerned primarily with the success of others and dedicated to executing those duties that allow others to succeed. A Big Fish — whether at home, the office, church, or the community group — has the same duties that  a parent has.

And what are those duties?

  • To provide for others
  • To protect others
  • To ensure that others prosper
  • To work to extinguish behaviors in others that will prevent them from succeeding
  • To prepare others to assume a parental role when their time comes

And so, on this Father’s Day, I’m going to ask all of you … particularly the fathers … to ponder the nature of such duties.  And to help in that, I offer the following quote from Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome. He was the proverbial Big Fish in a Big Pond. But his words are of value to anyone who would seek success and happiness. For he understood that the fulfillment of duty is the path to such goals.

Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. For what task, then, were you yourself created? A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.



– by Paul Conley

Roots of the Big Fish approach: Malcolm Gladwell and elite institutions

As I’ve noted before, I spent years thinking about the Big Fish approach long before I started writing about it on this blog. During those years I consumed information and allowed it to fester … coming back to the information I’d collected, reviewing it,  and then collecting more … because that’s sort of how I think.

During that time of festering I came across several key ideas, events, books, and thinkers that all seemed to point in the same direction … toward what I was coming to think of as the Big Fish approach to work, life and happiness.

One key figure in the festering period was the writer Malcolm Gladwell. If you haven’t read Gladwell’s work, I’d suggest that you do. Few writers are as capable of unearthing and then explaining the mechanisms that drive people. Gladwell is a journalist, like I am.  And journalists by nature are explainers. We notice that something is, and then we work to find out why.

Gladwell is a controversial writer. He has a tendency to pronounce that he has found the “why “when he’s not yet done any such thing. In other words, he unearths questions, but he writes as if he as found answers.

That’s fine. I adore his wok. And the questions he uncovers tend to be the sort that fascinate me.

Consider Gladwell’s best-selling, but poorly reviewed, book “David and Goliath.”

The book is full of references to a number of social-science concepts such as relative deprivation, which Gladwell uses to back his argument that choosing to attend an elite college or work at a top-tier company is a bad idea.

Essentially Gladwell says that choosing to spend your time with the “best and the brightest” has a depressing effect.  Attend Harvard or MIT, he says, and you’ll tend to feel inferior to your peers. That will have  a debilitating effect on your performance.  This phenomenon was dubbed the Big-fish-little-pond-effect, by Oxford professor Herbert Marsh.

As Gladwell said in a speech he made at Google’s headquarters (video below),  as human beings we are drawn toward elite institutions, but “we dramatically underestimate the cost of being at the bottom of a hierarchy.

And that is what I think Gladwell gets right.

In the Big Fish approach we’re developing on this site, I say that the key to success is to spend as much of life as possible in “small ponds,” i.e. situations :

The key is to avoid being at the the bottom of hierarchies as much as is possible.

College students and many professionals — the groups that Gladwell is speaking of — will be at the bottom of some hierarchies some of the time.

But I would argue success and happiness will come for such people when they limit their time at the bottom.

There’s nothing about attending Harvard or working at Google per se that makes it impossible to take the Big Fish approach. Just as there is nothing about attending Tiny Liberal Arts College of Smallville or working at Search Engine Optimizers of Rural America that ensures that you are taking the Big Fish approach.

I’ve worked at a number of “elite” institutions such as CNN and Bloomberg. I also attended one of the “elite” schools in the journalism world — the University of Missouri-Columbia. I learned much from those experiences, and in hindsight I can say that those elite institutions worked for me when I could find areas within them where I could wield authority, lead and take responsibility for others.

So if you’re a freshman at Harvard or an engineer at Google, here’s my advice: don’t quit, but don’t accept the role of small fish either. Look instead for a Small Pond or two on the edge of the big pond. Join a club, start an initiative, launch a product, organize a group, do something so that you’re spending as much of your time as possible in Small Ponds where you have authority, are a leader, and are responsible for others.

– by Paul Conley

Suddenly and unexpectedly famous

To succeed as a Big Fish in a Small Pond you need to do to two things. But I didn’t know that when I first became a Big Fish. Rather, I just sort of woke up one day and realized, much to my surprise, that I was a Big Fish in my industry. I’d done those two things (I’ll tell you what they are in a moment), but I hadn’t known to do them and hadn’t realized that I’d done them.

As I’ve mentioned before, my career took off 10 years ago when — on the spur of the moment I started a blog covering B2B media. I was just a guy with some strongly held opinions and an ego sufficiently large enough that I thought folks might be interested in those opinions. I felt passionately about something (that B2B publishing was changing and that this offered tremendous opportunities to journalists.) So I blogged.

A year or so passed, my site attracted some attention, and people posted comments. Things were going along quite well.

Then one day, I attended a media-industry conference here in New York.  It was a conference I’d been to a bunch of times before. I knew a few folks who attended this thing regularly — they were journalists like I am. And I knew the names of the folks who were on the podium — they were the high-level executives and owners of publishing companies for whom we worked.

I was sitting next to a buddy, listening to some old fool on the stage complain about something, when a complete stranger walked over and said “You’re Paul Conley. I love what you’re doing for us!”

Another stranger sitting nearby apparently heard what this first person said and spun around in his chair and said, “You’re Paul Conley? Thanks for writing what you write. You’re famous!”

Both of those strangers — working journalists in B2B media — wanted to thank me for starting a series of fights online about journalism ethics in B2B. There was a lot of pressure coming from the executive suites in those days for journalists to cut ethical corners. That infuriated me. And I said so in posts like this one and this one.

I hadn’t started the blog to start fights. But over time it became clear that fights needed to happen.  So I started fighting.

What was so remarkable about meeting those two strangers wasn’t so much that anyone thought I was famous. This was in 2006. And the Web was already known as the place where everyone was famous to 15 people.

What was remarkable  – what was wonderful and perfect and delightful — was that two people I had never met understood something even my friends and family seemed not to understand: My blog wasn’t  so much about B2B media as it was for the people who worked in it.

The tag line of that blog is “A blog for those who toil in the most specialized, and perhaps the least glamorous, area in the press — trade journalism.”  I had chosen that line carefully. I wanted to write for the journalists, not for the executives. I wanted to create something that was for people, not for companies.

Those two strangers and other folks like them were the reason I had started the blog. And, when it became clear to me that journalism ethics were under siege, those folks were the reason I started fighting with executives and industry “leaders” about ethics.

I wrote for my peers and on behalf of my peers because I felt passionately about the profession in which we worked.  And in doing so, I had somehow begun to win both love and gratitude in return.

I’d found success as a Big Fish in a Small Pond because I’d stumbled on to the two things that you need to do to succeed as a Big Fish in a Small Pond:

1.  I’d found the right pond. In particular, I found a community I wanted to serve because I was part of the community.

2. I acted like a Big Fish. In particular, I’d become willing to pick a fight with other Big Fish who threatened the pond.

– by Paul Conley

When a Big Fish has a boss

Not all Big Fish are entrepreneurs.

The Web is full of advice on how to launch your own company and be your own boss. Lots of Big Fish take that route.  But the difficult truth is that not  everyone has the skills or the attitude to run their own business.

If you don’t own a business — and don’t intend to — you’re not doomed to being a small fish in someone else’s pond. Everything about the Big Fish approach we’re developing on this site will work whether you’re the owner or an employee.

The key is this:  be responsible for your boss, not to your boss.

One of the key tenets of the Big Fish approach is to choose to spend as much of life as possible in “small ponds,” i.e. situations … where you are often responsible for others, but seldom responsible to others.

A Big Fish has responsibilities to the pond. And one of those responsibilities is to ensure that the boss succeeds.  But a Big Fish does more than try to make the boss look good – any talented sycophant can make the boss look good even as the pond stagnates.  And the corporate world is full of dimwitted bosses and their obsequious supporters.

A Big Fish does what is needed to ensure that the entire pond prospers.  Sometimes that means following orders. But sometimes it means disagreeing with the boss — perhaps vehemently.

The problem, of course, is that not every boss sees things this way.  Some bosses have difficulty with accepting feedback, sharing authority, considering alternative viewpoints, valuing the expertise of others, etc.

And here’s the thing — you already know what type of boss you have. Everyone knows. It’s not a complicated question and it doesn’t take very long on a job to figure out what the boss is like.

If you want to take the Big Fish approach to your job, you need a boss who takes a Big Fish approach to his/her job.

Remember:  another key tenet to the Big Fish approach is to live as much of life as possible in situations where “where your authority is clear, even when you are not the sole authority or the leading authority.

If your boss agrees with that concept, you’re fine. If your boss thinks that’s nuts, you need to leave.

– by Paul Conley

shop class as soulcraft

Roots of the Big Fish approach: “Shop Class as Soulcraft”

I’ve been working on the Big Fish approach for many years. Or, to put it more accurately, I’ve been thinking about the approach for years: pondering the ideas, keeping notes, doing research, paying attention to things that seemed related to the ideas, then doing more research and scribbling down more notes, etc.

But thinking sort of is how I work.

My model for this is Sir Isaac Newton.  After he published his Principia Mathematica, which gave us the concept of universal gravitation, someone asked him how he managed to come up with such a remarkable idea. He answered, “By thinking on it continually.”

I certainly don’t think as well as Newton, nor as deeply. But I do apparently share one trait with him — I like to let ideas fester.

From time to time on this blog I’ll write about some of the books, ideas, articles and events that I consumed during the festering period that led to the Big Fish in a Small Pond approach.

And to start, I want to write a bit about “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”

If you haven’t reashop class as soulcraftd the book by Matthew Crawford, I would highly recommend it. In brief, it’s a a book of philosophy that is structured as a defense of manual labor. Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic. And he found value in that trade that he could not find in his previous career at a “think tank” in Washington, D.C.

I first came across Crawford’s work in an essay in 2006 that would become the basis of his book three years later.

I fell in love with his ideas instantly …. which might strike anyone who knows me as strange, given that my skills in manual labor are nearly nonexistent. But Crawford seemed to speak to a yearning I had — a yearning that millions of us in the modern world have — to avoid being caught in something too big, too unmanageable, too non-human, in our working lives.

At the end of the essay, Crawford suggests that the development of manual skills is a solution for those of us who wish to avoid being a cog in someone else’s machine.

… the physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers, and auto mechanics vary too much for them to be executed by idiots; they require circumspection and adaptability. One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine. The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction, but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life. This is the stoic ideal.

So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.

I found those two paragraphs both inspiring and affirming. The specifics of Crawford’s solution wouldn’t work for me — I’m neither skilled in nor attracted to manual crafts. But the specifics of his complaints spoke to me.  I, too, yearned for a “natural home” in which I could live by my own powers, free of “the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life.” I, too, was attracted to a life as “an independent,” and I, too, believed deeply in the idea of approaching education in”the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences.”

What Crawford saw as the advantages of pursing life as an independent tradesman seemed remarkably similar to the advantages I saw in pursuing life as a Big Fish in a Small Pond. At the most basic level both of us were suggesting that the wisest course of action in the modern world is to step outside the expectations of that world, and instead seek independence and expertise so that you can build a career

– by Paul Conley