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Big fish in small pond syndrome

Hello Lucio,

you wrote this great article some time ago. I would like to have a conversation on this topic. Here is the context:

In my town, 300'000 people live. It's one of the largest cities in Switzerland but a town by global standards. In medicine, this is the golden path to success: after your specialist title (orthopedic surgeon, etc.). You go abroad: the US, Canada, UK where you see more cases and more advanced stuff as they are bigger countries. After a fellowship (advanced training), MD, MD-PhD or specialized work experience, you come back to my town. From there, you can hope to become part of the executive team of a university hospital as most people will stay in Switzerland: you become a big fish in a small pond. You acquire status.

From this very concrete example, what would be your strategy? As I said earlier I don't project myself in Switzerland for the same reason as above: predictibility and narrow-mindedness. As you know my plan is to go abroad and these days Canada is on my radar as it is where a lot of swiss people go for training opportunities. I've already been in Montreal and I like the liberal mindsets in general. Plus, they have tons of nature. I would miss Europe as I love Europe. Also, in Canada, they are more focussed on the training and learning for residents than the paperwork or the clinical work. You are a learner and it's the executives who are doing the paperwork. So it's upside down from where I'm from. I don't want to go to the US as I think they are too crazy for me there (I lived there for a year in New England). I love the US but the violence, racism and poverty is too much for me. I like inclusive societies.

Anyway, I'm digressing. I'm trying to understand the whole concept. Let's say I go to a large university hospital in Canada: I would be a small fish in a big pond. But then what would be next?

I'm trying to understand what this strategy means concretely in this case for instance. I understand the risk of complacency. I'm making my choice based on the acquisition of skills as they are the one which will help me to reach my goal of being one of the greatest pediatrician of all times. First, I have to find my specialty and then I can choose the center which will help me to acquire great skills.

I know I'm rambling a bit. However, I think you see my point: I'm doing my best to map this life strategy on my own life. However, it's challenging for me to understand all the ramifications of this idea.

What do you think?

Hey John,

Interesting you found that post as it's more on the theoretical side and many people skip it.

The big fish in a small pond syndrome is more about mindsets and personality than the actual size of the pond.

There is some relation to the size of the pond since it's easier to become -and feel, which is what matters most here- big in a smaller pond.

But people with the wrong mindsets and values can end up in their own self-made smaller ponds anywhere.
One guy can be working at the head office of  Toyota in Tokyo -the largest and one of the most crowded city I'm aware of in terms of inhabitants-, and still find his smaller pond if he allows the department he works for to become his whole life, and his sole source of emotional fulfillment / validation.

As a matter of fact, we might argue that big cities can easily make people feel more lonely, and hence more dependent on a single source of fulfillment / validation.

And then you can have the guy in a 50k inhabitants town, who has achieved great things at work, but also has different social circles, a good relationship, a couple of good close friends, a couple of different hobbies, an online community he's active in, travels around when he's on holidays, keep his mind open, and of course he's also built an antifragile ego and a growth mindset.

This second guy is not dependent on any single source of validation / fulfillment, and even if one of his different "social ponds" were to stop, he'd still have the others.
Plus, he's got the mindsets right, so even if all ponds were to dry up at once -very unlikely-, he knows he can rebuild them.

So, personally, at this time, I don't think the big fish in a small pond syndrome is something that should enter your computation on where to go or where to settle down.

Happy to also hear other opinions on this.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Hello Lucio,

thanks a lot, I understand better now: it's a mindset. Thanks for the explanation and advice!


Yeah, exactly.

To be more accurate, it's mainly a question of mindsets, yes, including:

  • Antifragile / fragile ego = I am my good work results / my social status, or whatever", VS "I do my best no matter where I stand"
  • Identities = "I am my social circle" VS "I'm a human being / world citizen"


  • A way of structuring one's life (one single source of validation VS several)
  • A set of skills (being able to find new jobs / social circles)
  • General mental resilience & elasticity, including the ability to pick oneself up
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?


BTW, I just understood what the misunderstanding around “extreme ownership” and “doing your best” is.

As I told earlier, extreme ownership is about taking 100% responsibility for one’s life, including results.

That being said, it does not say anything about how you should feel about it.

You were saying in the past that thinking that you “did your best” prevented you from feeling bad in case of failure.

So here how I would break it down now:

1. Failure is an information to course-correct, it is merely information of what did not work.

2. Tom Bilyeu values himself for the “sincere pursuit” of his goals (aka doing his best).

3. Tom also punishes himself emotionally when he failed to do what he says he would do.

4. Tom says that you should steer by your results (otherwise you never reach your goals)

5. TB: “only be ashamed of inaction”

6. TB : only do and believe what moves you towards your goals

I would say that without extreme ownership but only doing your best the trap is to think: “I did my best so it’s all good”.

All the points above summarized:

1. Failing to reach a goal should not make you feel bad about who you are. However, you can decide to punish yourself emotionally if it’s useful to help you reach your goals. If it’s not useful, don’t do it.

2. Taking responsibility for your results actually helps you get closer to your goals.

what do you think?