I will define “Small Pond Syndrome” the effort and emotional investment that people spend to defend and enhance their social status within a determined social group.
The “(social) pond” refers to specific and limited social settings, such as workplace, class or a team. Usually the efforts at social status increase include posturing, social aggression and defense, backstabbing, rumors spreading and of course all types of social climbing.
Examples of Small Pond Men
Men with Small Pond Syndrome:
- Use social ponds as major ego validation
- Tie a big chunk of their identities to small pond exploits
- Spend time and effort in their ponds
A few examples of Small Pond Men include: inebriated birthday party men, young companies’ rising stars, street gang hustlers and popular high schoolers.
Don’t get me wrong though, this article is not a small pond bashing. If approached well, small pond domination can be great fun and give you lots of benefits.
Look for example at Henry from the Goodfellas when he takes out his date in his pond:
Or look at John Travolta, the king of the small pond club:
Small Pond Man Definition:
Everyone who’s a big fish in a specific environment but has not developed himself to be a big fish in most environments.
Note the accent is on “specific” VS “most”.
As you might guess from this definition then, small pond-hood status comes with quite a few shortcomings:
Shortcomings Of Small Pond Status
Most people who approach the social small value do so as if that was the most important things in the world. And fail to realize a few intrinsic shortcoming of the small pond social environment:
1. Scope & Time Limitation
Social status is almost always limited in time and scope. It’s limited in scope to the group it refers to and it’s limited in time for as long as the group exists.
In short, as you soon as you step out of that social circle, you’re a no fuc*ing body.
For example you can be the life of the party one night when you’re drunk, talking to everyone, buying people drinks and having guys and girls come to you for some handouts.
The day after though the group doesn’t exist anymore and you’re back to where you were. Plus a headache and minus a few hundred bills.
2. Enclave Limitations
Some groups might be more long lived. Like your university class or your local night scene. In those cases you can spend years building a good reputation and being considered “a cool guy” for quite some time and quite a few people. It’s great. It feels like you’re living on the fringes of the real world. You inhabit a cool place of endless pleasures and status.
But the real world looms outside. It’s only a respite, you can’t escape for ever.
Indeed when you graduate or stop partying because it only makes you empty, and all that social status vaporizes into thin air.
You might meet again some of those people again, and they might think you’re cool, but without the full enclave it only makes you sadder remembering of how it was like.
3. Social Limitations
Since small pond big fishes depend fully on their pond, they are also extermely limited in the breadth of their movement. If the group is conservative, they can’t be too libertine. If the group is aggressively open minded, he can’t say or do anything conservative.
In spite he’s a big shot, or even the leader of a group, he depends on the group to stay in his position. If the group should one day decide to dethrone him -and it happens- he’s screwed.
4. Limited Skillset
The problem with being a big fish in a small pond indeed is its replicability. The company rising stars who wants to quit the company might actually be stuck there because he can’t replica his success.
The high school prom queen who starts modeling is suddenly not so special among a thousand other hot women -her look only based status is not a guaranteed of status-.
And the club promoter is a nobody when he hangs his party boots and joins a local wine tasting -alcohol being the only constant in his new life-.
It’s a very interesting trip into human psychology wen that pond dries up:
When The Pond Dries
Now when that pond the big fish used to dominate dries up, a funny thing happens. Many big fishes come to define their identities in relation to their pond.
So they think of themselves as popular, sociable, important. They strut around even outside their pond.. As long as it’s not for too long. In their short excursions outside the pond they can still draw on those big fish feelings and associated testosterone.
They know their pond is still there and they’ll soon go back and be important again.
However that’s a very fragile identity because it’s dependent on external sources you have no full control on (read on how to build a stronger identity instead).
Case in point, when the pond disappears. In that moment the big fish ego is left starved for validation. Who’s gonna think he’s popular now, who’s gonna greet him, who’s gonna move out of his way and high five him?
Uh-oh, that’s when the big fish in a small pond has a small (or big) identity crisis and plunges into a small (or big) depression.
Bruce Springsteen made a song about post-pond depressions. It’s about a former college hottie and a former college jock. They meet after many years and reminisce on their old and gone “glory days”.
Have you seen the previous video from Harry?
Look at him after his social pond disappears. What’s his big complain? It boils down to I was “somebody”, now I’m a nobody“:
The story of Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption is also a sadder, more tragical version of the Small Pond Syndrome. In jail, where he spent decades, Brooks was somebody. Outside of the jail pond, he was a nobody.
And he killed himself:
And my example too:
I’ve been a victim of Small Pond Syndrome too. During my Erasmus months in Eastern Europe it was a continuous, perennial party.
Hundreds of students from all over Europe, free money from the program, zero school challenges, new libertine environment and only one mission: have the time of their life. They were real glory days.
I was known as a cool guy, bit of a quick-witted rebel and successful with the gals (which wasn’t true BTW). I used to walk into the local bars among the greeted by everyone and feeling like the big star of the night.
But Erasmus ends as suddenly as it starts. And I plunged into the abysses of a post-pond emptiness. You might even say I got into a long term relationship with another Erasmus girl in an unconscious effort to hold on to that life.
The Small Pond Mindset Cycle
We don’t join a pond already with a Small Pond Syndrome. We grow a small pond mindset with exposure, initial excitement and growing investment.
Here are the stages:
1. The I don’t Belong in The Pond Days:
Have you ever joined a new company, a new club, or went back to an old social environment after many years, for example going back to your family?
If so, how did you feel when people started sharing rumors, picking on someone or criticizing someone not present in the room?
You probably felt it was petty and you felt “superior”.
2. The Exciting “I’m In” Pond Days
But when you started sticking with that social pond, people automatically start treating you more like an insider. Maybe the complimented you, asked your opinion and made you part of their internal dealings.
You feel like you’re moving ahead in that pond, you’re excited and you want to keep advancing further and further.
The pond becomes a game.
3. The Investment And Identity Days
As time progresses, your identity starts being more and more tied to the pond. In some ponds, like your company’s pond, your life starts hinging more and more on that pond. The pond starts meaning more and more to you and you invest more and more in it.
4. The “No Life Beyond The Pond” Days
The pond starts taking more and more of your time. You spend less and less time outside of the pond… And that’s when the pond becomes your only reality.
5. The “Fuck The Pond” Days
Some people stay stuck in the pond for a lifetime. Many others though get mired in the social climbing games, fall prey of some rumors or power moves and get disillusioned by the whole small pond game.
And move on… Often to the next pond.
The Small Pond Antidote
Avoiding the small pond syndrome is easier than it seems. Here are the steps:
1. Build Antifragile Ego
Build your identities around more controllable, more antifragile identities. When you don’t derive your self esteem from things such “being popular”, “being the life of the party” and “being loved”, then you’re also less vulnerable to the Small Pond Syndrome.
Read here for a blueprint on building an antifragile ego.
2. Switching Different Ponds
This is a bit like putting your eggs into several baskets, and it means you keep your interests wide and varied, which is also great for you.
If you attend 2 different clubs, have one job unconnected to your hobbies and party with a different bunch of people you will naturally not tie your entity and results around a single small pond.
3. Traveling Across Small Ponds
There was an Italian author once who said something I loved about traveling. He said that traveling expands your mind horizons because you leave the stereotypes of your country and you don’t want to take over the stereotypes of your country’s destination.
That’s exactly the same feeling of when you keep joining new social ponds. All those social status climbing effort and backstabbing seem petty and low.
Keep that mindset for as long as you can. Refuse to become one of the social climbers.
4. Develop a Disgust For Ponds
Whenever you see people posturing for small pond status, feel in your guts a repulsion for that behavior. Think it’s petty, silly and even stupid. Think those guys are gonna be stuck there while you keep an open world mentality and keep growing.
You know you’re better than that and you’re not gonna fall for it.
5. Become An Ocean Big Fish
This is the be all and all.
There’s a certain overlap between small pond status and overall value of a person. But it’s far from a full overlap, as all the examples of people falling into depression after their social pond dries show.
Small pond social status is often status that has to be asserted and defended. It’s built upon fear that someone new might come in and steal the show.
It’s often weak and defensive.
But if you become a man who’s able to replicate the social results he attains in a specific pond, then you become an all around high value man who doesn’t need specific ponds. These type of people are deeply confident because they can move from group to group without any fear. They can build anyone up, or take a cool guy’s contact or peel off with a girl and then move somewhere. Without nothing to lose, without being afraid of intruders.
It’s much better being this guy than dropping anchor and focusing all your effort on some ephemeral, shallow social pond.
To get you going on becoming an All-Pond Big Fish, check the Social Mastery Guide.
The Small Pond Syndrome is the direct consequence of a normal human behavior. That behavior is our inborn drive to rise and “matter” in the social arena.
But small Pond Social Climbing is weak because it’s a reflection of a small timer mindset. The mindset of dominating a small social pond instead of focusing on larger -and nobler- pursuits.
The better alternative is to become an all around social master. The kind of person who can walk into any pond and make friends with everyone. Free and unmoored by any restriction.
Be this guy, but an all around big fish.