Are you busy chasing social status, the trappings of power, climbing the corporate ladder…?
If so, it’s all OK… That’s what everyone else is also doing.
But if you are reading here, maybe you are becoming aware of the dangers of the Big Fish, Little Pond Syndrome.
You might be on your way to becoming a free man.
And by the end of this article, you will be ready to break free of the pond and become a true, free-roaming global fish.
- The Big Fish, Small Pond Syndrome
- Examples of Small Pond Men
- Shortcomings Of Small Pond Status
- When The Pond Dries The Fish Dies
- The Big Fish, Small Pond Cycle
- How to Stop Being a Big Fish in Small Pond
The Big Fish, Small Pond Syndrome
I define “Small Pond Syndrome” in social contexts as follows:
The effort, both behavioral and emotional, that people exert to defend and enhance their social status within a specific and circumscribed social group.
The “(social) pond” refers to specific social settings that you frequenting and that have pretty much the same usual people in them.
It can be the workplace, your class, your group of friends, or a sports team.
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
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:
Him: (shows off all his pond power)
Her: (impressed, already falling in love) What do you do? (caresses his hand, she’s sold)
Small pond status can be a very effective strategic power move when you bring outsiders inside the small pond where you’re a king. They see what a big fish you are, and they swoon.
Or look at John Travolta, the king of the small pond club:
Him: (rules the small pond dance floor)
Her: Oh my God, I kissed him (the king of the pond)!
Anyone likes a high-status big fish when they’re in their pond.
And of course, it also works very well with the ladies.
All the ladies in the pond want to mate with the big frog to give an advantage to their spawn.
However, small pond men also have major limitations.
Here is how I define big fish-small pond men:
A Big Fish In A Small Pond is a man who has specialized in a specific and circumscribed environment and has climbed that pond’s hierarchy.
However, that specialization often comes at a price.
Small pond men, even when they achieve big fish status within that pond, have not always developed themselves to function in most other environments.
Small pond men, even when they get good, risk remaining one-trick ponies.
Shortcomings Of Small Pond Status
Most people who seek status in the small pond do so as if that was the most important thing in the world.
And they fail to realize a few intrinsic shortcomings of the small pond social environment:
1. Small Pond Status Is Group-Circumscribed
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 that group exists.
In short, no matter how big a fish you’ve become in the small pond, 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. Small Ponds Are Time-Limited
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 feels like you’re living the life, inhabiting a cool space of endless validation and status.
But the real world looms outside.
It’s only a respite, you can’t escape forever.
Indeed, once you graduate or stop partying you only feel all the emptier.
Your social status vaporizes into thin air, and all you’re left with is reminiscing of cool stories of your glory days (except they’re only cool for you, because nobody else gives a flying F*ck).
3. Small Ponds Limit Your Freedom of Expression
Small ponds, like most social groups, place limitations on their groups.
And, ironically, the higher up you go, the more you need to be careful about staying in the good graces of that group.
If the group is conservative, you can’t be too libertine. If the group is aggressively open-minded, you can’t say or do anything conservative.
That applies to the big fish of that small pond, too.
More often than not, the leader of a group depends on his group more than the group depends on him.
If the group should one day decide to dethrone him -and it happens- he’s screwed.
4. Small Ponds Limit Your Freedom & Power
Another problem with being a big fish in a small pond are:
- Loss of skills
The company rising star is actually dependent on his company to keep his status.
If he quits, how can he replicate his success somewhere else?
The moment you step out, can you quickly rebuild your status?
Often, pond-men cannot.
In part, this is because they grow entitled to status based on their past accomplishments and, by focusing on keeping their status, they lose the skills needed to acquire status (Whitewood, 2020).
The issue is even bigger with big fishes who never earned their position from the ground up, but who were blessed by a wealthy family, a powerful father, or a lucky strike that catapulted them to the top without having to learn power dynamics and political skills (Whitewood 2020, again).
The disempowering effect is sometimes compounded by a big hit on confidence and self-esteem when the big fish loses his old status, an effect that is especially strong with fixed-mindset people -who are more likely to seek status anyway- (Dweck, 2006).
The high school prom queen who starts modeling is suddenly not so special among a thousand other hot women (her looks-only based status is not a guarantee of status).
And the club promoter is a nobody when he hangs his party boots and joins any other group.
And they then enter into a period of sadness and depression.
It’s a very interesting trip into human psychology when that pond dries up:
When The Pond Dries The Fish Dies
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 when you are dependent on external sources you have no full control over yourself (read on how to build a stronger identity instead).
Big Fish Outside Small Pond
And when the pond disappears, the big fish is in trouble.
Left outside his home environment, 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?
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’s “Glory Days” song captures the post-pond depression.
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”.
Well there’s a girl that lives up the block
Back in school she could turn all the boy’s heads
Sometimes on a Friday I’ll stop by
And have a few drinks after she put her kids to bed
Her and her husband Bobby well they split up
I guess it’s two years gone by now
We just sit around talking about the old times,
She says when she feels like crying
She starts laughing thinking about
Have you seen the previous video from Harry?
Look at him after his social pond disappears.
What’s his biggest complaint?
The big fish in a dried-point complaint boils down to “I was “somebody”, now I’m a nobody“:
Here it is:
Henry: And we were treated like movie stars with muscle (…) Today, everything is different. I’m an average nobody.
Being in a gang for Harry meant being “somebody” within the organization/pond. Typical small pond mentality.
The story of Brooks from “The Shawshank Redemption” is an even sadder, more tragic 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 when he left the pond…
… Look at it for yourself:
The Small Pond Effect can be so powerful that some ex-convicts end up missing jail.
And I’m not above it, either.
I’ve been a former big fish in a dried-out pond, too:
During my Erasmus months in Eastern Europe, it was a continuous, perennial party.
Thousands of students from all over Europe, free money from the program, zero school challenges, the most libertine environment, and only one for all mission: have the time of your life.
They were real glory days.
I was known as a cool guy, bit of a quick-witted rebel and rather successful with the gals (not deserved, though).
And I liked that.
I used to walk into the local bars and be greeted by everyone. I’d feel like Harry in the video above.
I’d smile, greet everyone, hug people, and feel 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.
I remember staying in the city when everyone had already left. The same exact city. But I was a nobody, where I used to be somebody.
You might even say I later got into a relationship with a fellow Erasmus girl in an unconscious effort to hold onto those glory days.
The Big Fish, Small Pond 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 club, or went back to an old social environment after many years?
If so, how did you feel when people shared gossips, talked bitterly about others or bragged about their status?
You probably felt it was petty and you felt “superior”.
It’s because the pond hasn’t gotten into you, yet.
But don’t worry… It will.
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 they compliment you, ask your opinion and made you part of their internal dealings.
You feel like you’re moving ahead in that pond, you’re playing the politics, you’re excited and you want to keep advancing further and further.
The pond starts to become your environment and you are excited at your prospects of becoming a bigger and bigger fish in it.
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 for example, 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.
You start calling yourself by your title, maybe.
And you can rest assured that company’s manipulation encourages you to feel part of that pond.
4. The “No Life Beyond The Pond” Days
By now you’ve become a pond-man.
The pond is taking more and more of your mental cycles and your whole life and self-esteem are tied to whatever happens in the pond.
You get passed up for promotions?
It’s the end of the world.
Your company does great?
You are proud, because it reflects well on you.
And that’s when the pond becomes your only reality.
The pond defines you.
4.2. Mo’ Success, Mo’ Pond Addiction
The more successful you become, the more you get addicted to the pond.
As a matter of fact, as long as one has status in the pond, it doesn’t matter how small the pond might be.
Studies show that people like it the best when their status in the pond increased even though the size of the pond decreased (Zell & Lesick, 2020).
Turns out, people love being a huge fish in a puddle.
5. The Pond Sucks Days
Many people stay stuck in the pond for a lifetime.
Or they simply move from pond to pond.
The pond is not the honky dory place it seemed to be. It’s just another f*cked up social environment.
In the best-case scenarios, they will leverage that disillusionment to fuel their own entrepreneurial pursuits.
Here is how to move beyond the pond:
How to Stop Being a Big Fish in Small Pond
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.
2. Join Many Different Ponds
This is a bit like putting your eggs into several baskets.
It means you keep your interests wide and varied among many different ponds.
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 identity around a single small pond.
3. Travel 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 Small Pond Syndrome
If you want to get rid of small pond syndrome for good.. You must hate small pond syndrome.
Whenever you see people jostling 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 small pond mentality and you’re not gonna fall for it.
5. Become An Ocean Big Fish
This is the be-all and end-all game.
Yet, a big fish is also not the same of an overall high quality man, as the outside-pond failures of former big-fishes show.
For several reasons.
One of them is that acquiring small pond status gets small-pond fishes in a small-time mindset.
A big fish in a small pond, no matter how good, is inherently different than a blue-ocean, all-world player.
Let me explain.
Small pond social status is a type status that often needs to be asserted and defended within that pond.
It’s built upon social jostling, constant small-time social warfare and, often, it’s warfare fueled by the fear that someone new might come in and steal the show.
And that’s inherently weak and defensive.
But if you become a man who’s able to replicate the social results he attains in a specific pond in any pond, then you become an all-around high value man.
You become the type of man who doesn’t need any specific pond.
These types of people are deeply confident because they can move from group to group without any fear.
They can walk in, get some status, 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.
This is what some people refer to “omega man”.
I’m not a big fan of that label, but however you wanna call it, it’s much better being this guy than dropping anchor and focusing all your effort on some ephemeral, shallow small pond.
To get you going on becoming an All-Pond Big Fish, check this website’s main course.
The Big Fish Small Pond Syndrome is the direct consequence of normal human behavior.
That behavior is our inborn drive to rising and “matter”.
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 from any restriction.
Be this guy, become a blue ocean shark.