Stumbling into a Small Pond

I’d like to be able to say that I invented my Big Fish in a Small Pond approach after years of careful research and thoughtful analysis.

But that would be a lie.

The truth is that I sort of stumbled onto the idea after stumbling in and out of various “ponds” of various sizes. With time, I learned that some ponds seemed to fit me, whereas others did not.  And the nature of the pond had little to do with how comfortable I felt there. It was the size, not the substance, that mattered.

Thus I had held, and then gave up, a number of prestigious jobs at wonderful companies in my chosen profession (journalism.) I was able to land jobs that other folks could only dream of …. I was a producer at CNNfn, the predecessor of I was a vice president at Primedia, a massive publishing conglomerate with hundreds of titles and brands. I was an editor at Bloomberg News.

But those jobs didn’t work for me.

But other less prestigious and less remunerative jobs that I’d held over the years — Midwest bureau chief for the Journal of Commerce (an historic, but less-than-well-known brand covering transportation and trade); editorial director at tiny MBT Media, which covers innovations in banking; running the one-man bureau in Lexington, North Carolina, for the Winston-Salem Journal newspaper; senior writer for Vance Publishing’s The Packer newspaper, which covers the fruit and vegetable industry; etc.  — those jobs resonated with me.

In those small ponds, I fared well. But in the big ponds of journalism, I did poorly.  There were exceptions. But even those exceptions supported, rather than undermined, my theories on being A Big Fish in a Small Pond.

I took a job once at a small publisher covering a small section of the petroleum business. It appeared to be a perfect Big Fish gig at Small Pond company.  But it was a terrible fit.  A few years ago I took on a job managing the editorial team of a small brand covering  industrial metals. It too seemed like a perfect Big Fish gig. But it wasn’t.

Both of those jobs failed to meet the core requirements for being a Big Fish in a Small Pond role. In both jobs I reported to people who wanted to run things in a manner quite different from how I wanted to run things. I could just say that those people were micromanagers. And that would be true. I could also say that I found them to be … and I struggle to find a diplomatic phrase here … less than brilliant. That would also be true.  But the real problem with micromanagers and knuckleheads is that they turn small ponds into bureaucratic quagmires.

Because for a job (or anything else) to qualify as a “small pond” it must be a place:

  • 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 if you’re reporting to someone(s) whose primary concern is maintaining the status quo and his/her own authority,  you’re in a swamp, not a “small pond.”

Not that any of this has always been clear to me. Rather, as I said at the start of this post, I’ve stumbled on to the insights that led me to stumble on to the Big Fish approach.

And the most important of those stumbles was in late 2004 when, on a whim, I started a blog that made me “Internet famous” in the very small pond of business-to-business journalism.

That blog led me to stumble into consulting. And it was as a consultant to publishers that I found myself moving from pond to pond, from brand to brand, across much of the business press. For the first time I started to notice what sort of work environments tended to have happy, successful people. I noticed too what sort of place was filled with sullen, frightened and angry workers.  I learned what type of brand I liked to work with, what type of people I liked to meet with, and what companies I liked to help.

By contrast, I also learned what type of brand, staff and ownership structure wore away at my soul.

In an upcoming post I’ll write what Big Fish strategies were the basis of my first blog, how they led to the creation of a consulting business, and what I learned about Fish and Ponds as a consultant.

— by Paul Conley

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 read 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

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 the industries where I make my living (business journalism and content marketing).

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

Discovering the Big Fish in a Small Pond idea

What if one day you noticed a theme running through your life?

It had always been there … like a guidepost or a sort of pervasive sensibility … telling you how to be. But somehow it was only in retrospect that its message was clear.  What if you looked back over your life and realized that each time you followed that guide, things worked out.  You were happy and successful. You had that extraordinary feeling of “doing what I’m supposed to do.” And you had that feeling whenever you adhered to the theme.  It worked in business, health, career, relationships. It worked in everything and it worked every time.

What if the opposite was also true? What if you looked back at every failure in your life — every bad job, poor investment, awful business decision, poor relationship — and realized that every one them had one thing in common: they  didn’t adhere to the theme.

What if there was a guidepost, and when you followed it, you were fine? It offered an answer to the big questions about career, community, people. What if you realized that this thing worked, and that nothing else in your life really had? What if you realized that you had discovered the secret of what made you happy and that it might work for other people too?

If you were me, you’d start this blog.