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 all that time 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 work. 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

Finding the right small pond for you

More than 12 years ago I sat on the couch with my laptop and did something that would change my career and my life.

I started a blog.

In particular, I started a blog about a small sliver of the media world: business-to-business journalism. I wasn’t the first person to blog about journalism. I wasn’t even the first person to blog about B2B journalism. But I was the first person to blog exclusively about B2B journalism.

In the years after I launched the blog, loads of people asked me why I chose to focus on such a narrow part of the media world. I answered honestly that I wanted to write about something small enough that it would be possible to “master” the subject, rather than just cover it.

Some of those people, mostly the ones without a highly developed sense of diplomacy, also asked why I chose to focus on such an unglamorous part of the media. I answered honestly that I wanted to write for an audience that other people ignored. There might turn out to be nothing of value in what I wrote, I said, but I wanted to tell the folks who worked in B2B that they, themselves, were valuable. I chose to write about B2B as a way to say that B2B was worth writing about.

And the least diplomatic of my friends and associates asked some version or another of the following question: But isn’t B2B sort of boring? And I answered, honestly, that it was no such thing to me. I loved B2B. I thought B2B was exciting. And I loved the idea that there might be other people who loved what I loved.

Now, all these years later, I know why the B2B media niche worked for me. And I know how my answers to those questions that my friends asked can serve as the basis of choosing any Small Pond in which to work, live or play.

To follow the Big Fish approach, consider these three questions when choosing a pond:

  1. Is it possible for you to “master” this pond? Is this a place (an industry, a department of a company, a parish, a neighborhood, etc.) where it’s possible for you to become truly knowledgeable about what matters to others in the pond? You don’t necessarily need to be the top source of knowledge. Nor do you need to know everything there is to know. But the possibility that you could become that person must exist. If you don’t understand math, for example, you can’t be a Big Fish in the accounting department.
  2. Do you see a “value” in this pond that others do not? And is this a place where you could contribute additional value? Could that contribution then increase the value of the pond? And would the value of the pond then increase the value of your contribution? is there something about this pond that makes it possible that 1+1 really does = 3?
  3. Do you “love” this pond? And I don’t mean that you love the potential of the pond or love what it could do for you. I mean do you love this pond in the way that parents love their children, the way some soldiers love the Army, the way athletes sometimes love their team? In other words, do you think of this pond as a community you want to serve because you’re part of the community?

When you know the answers to those questions, you’ll know if you’ve found the right Small Pond for you.

In an upcoming post I’ll talk about what it was like to realize that, suddenly and unexpectedly, I’d become a Big Fish in the Small Pond of B2B media.

In the meantime, if you’re new to this blog, you may want to read this brief overview of the Big Fish approach.

— by Paul Conley