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