Big Fish, Small Ponds and the Minimalism Movement

In the Big Fish in a Small Pond approach, there’s no such thing as an independent, standalone pond.

The idea is to be a “Big Fish” by putting the majority of your efforts in life into “Small Ponds,” i.e.

  • 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

The idea is not to be the only fish in a pond. Because that’s largely impossible.

For example, it’s probably a pretty safe bet that this blog is the only blog on earth where someone shares his harebrained ideas about using the principles he learned in business publishing as a guide to life. That makes this blog a perfect example of a small pond, and makes me the perfect definition of the big fish therein.

But this blog, this small pond, exists in relation to other small ponds. Small ponds are like that. They can be subsets of larger ponds. They can adjoin other small ponds.  There is overlap between and among small ponds.

In that sense, The Big Fish in a Small Pond blog is best understood in relation to other ponds. You can think of BFSP as part of the media blogosphere, where people talk about subsets of the publishing world. You can think of BFSP as connected to the lifehacking movement or the larger world of personal-finance writers too. And of course both those worlds are full of Big Fish who have carved out their own niches.

But in my mind, the ponds that feel most related to BFSP are those of the minimalism movement, such as The Minimalists, Becoming Minimalist, Cheapsters, et al.

Minimalism can be hard to explain. But in a nutshell it involves the adoption of a less-is-more, anti-consumerism, freedom-first approach to life.  Reducing clutter and debt are key. Tiny homes and Zen aesthetics  are factors.

Perhaps the connections between minimalism and BFSP are clear only to me. But I see both of them as lifestyle approaches aimed at increasing happiness by removing things that tend to control us. Self-sufficiency and self-esteem are aims of both. Success in the personal sense, rather than worldly sense, is the goal. The strategies in both require maximizing the authority, independence and leadership you wield by not getting trapped by those things (debt, soul-crushing jobs and an obsession with wealth accumulation in particular)  that can take authority over us, make us grow dependent upon them, and lead us by the nose to places we would not choose to go of our own accord.

As you consider whether the BFSP approach would work for you, it’s wise to remember this concept of connected ponds. It’s unlikely you’ll find many places in your life where you’re the only authority, where you always lead, and where you’re never responsible to anyone else but you.  No man is an island. Nor should he wish to be. But everyone can be a big fish in a small pond.

If you’re interested in learning about minimalism feel free to read this article I wrote for Policy Genius about minimalism and personal finance. Or subscribe to the Big Fish in a Small Pond newsletter.

— Paul Conley


Thank you for the “Thank You”

I received some photos by email the other day that gladdened my heart.

They also proved the point  once again that taking the Big Fish approach to any endeavor is always likely to gladden my heart.

Let me explain.

The email was from a pre-K teacher I have never met. The photos were of drawings her students created in a classroom I have never visited. That teacher  took the time to send me an extraordinarily sweet note and those photos as way of saying “thank you” for a modest gift I had given through Donors Choose.

Donors Choose, in case you’re not familiar with it, is an online system in which teachers list small-scale projects for which they need money.  Folks who want to help can select specific projects that appeal to them, and then donate just to those causes.

Mrs. Brown, the pre-K teacher, had requested art supplies for her classroom. I, and eight other people, liked her idea and made donations.

For me, Donors Choose is the perfect format to use when taking a Big Fish approach to charity. I’ve used the system to contribute to a few projects  — each of which was small and manageable, where a positive outcome was easily measured, and where my modest gift could have a significant impact.

Unlike, for example, making a donation to the American Cancer Society or the United Way, Donors Choose gives me authority in choosing how my money is used. I’m not just a guy on a mailing list, I’m a Big Fish who has the ability to solve a problem and serve a community.

There’s nothing wrong with the big, national charities. Nor is there anything wrong with alumni associations, non-profit hospital fundraising drives, or political action committees. But I’m not a Big Fish in any of those groups.  Any money I give to those groups may be appreciated, but it’s never significant enough to influence policy.

I prefer to donate to situations where my money, even when it’s not much, carries some weight. I prefer to give to people who will use my money in specific ways that I can influence, or at least track.

So I’ve helped a few teachers through Donors Choose because I liked what they wanted to do, I knew it could be done, and I knew that my monetary help would be of actual help in getting it done.

I’ve made similar, Big Fish donations to other Small Pond organizations where I can see the impact of my gift. There’s a Catholic parish I like that helps immigrant families adjust to life in this country, there’s an inn in Colorado that offers housing to families who have children  being treated for cancer, there’s a church that runs a tiny homeless shelter at night in a school gymnasium. When I give money to those groups, I can see the influence I have.  I can weigh in on policy; I can choose exactly how I want my money spent; I can see results.

And those things are key to the Big Fish approach. Because being a Big Fish requires that we choose to spend as much time as possible in situations where our influence and authority are clear.

Because Big Fish know that results, not effort or intention, are what counts.

And Big Fish also like the occasional, heartfelt “thank you” note.

— by Paul Conley