Pursue POWER, Not Status: Big Fish in Litte Pond Syndrome

Are you busy chasing social status, recognition from others, or climbing the corporate ladder…?

If so, it’s all good… We encourage you to keep doing so.

Status is GREAT.

But status ALSO comes with heavy costs that few people are aware of.
And there is an even better option: power is much more empowering than status.

So keep reading… And you’ll learn how to acquire status, without the downsides.

By the end of this article, you will break free of the pond and become a true, free-roaming, high-power eagle.

big fish with king's crown dying in a drying pond

Intro: Why Power Beats Status

Status is great.

But, while power frees you, status comes with (social) chains.

Even academics tell us this much:

since status relies on others, concerns about maintaining one’s status will orient status-holders outward (…) monitoring where they stand
(…)
As such, high-status parties (…) strive to fulfill others’ expectations (Blader and Chen 2012; Ridgeway 1978, 1982)
(…)
This description of the effects of status stands in stark contrast to the effects of power, which liberates people from social and normative pressures (Galinsky et al. 2008; Guinote 2007; Keltner et al. 2003).

Let’s dig deeper:

The Big Fish, Small Pond Syndrome

I define “Small Pond Syndrome” in social contexts as follows:

The behavioral and emotional efforts that people exert to defend and enhance their social status within a specific social group.

The “(social) pond” refers to specific social settings that you frequent 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.

Usually, the efforts at social status increase include posturing, social aggression, backstabbing, rumors spreading, and of course all types of social climbing.

Examples of Small Pond Men

Men with Small Pond Syndrome:

  1. Use social ponds as major ego validation
  2. Tie a big chunk of their identities to small pond exploits
  3. 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 Social Status

Status intrinsically comes with important limitations.

However, those limitations are all the bigger when the social group is:

  1. Small-ish
  2. Time-limited (college, company, etc.)
  3. Lower-value (not many high-quality men, few mating options, etc.)

That’s what the small pond refers to.

However, because seeking status is ingrained in our brains, we apply the same intensity to seeking status in any group.

So seeking status in groups that do little to make you better off is not an exception.
It’s the norm.

People who seek status in the small pond do so as if that were the most important social setting in the world.

And they fail to realize a few intrinsic shortcomings of the small pond social environment:

1. Small Pond Status Is Group-Limited

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.

small pond fish
Stay in the water pal… You’re nothing outside of it!

In short, no matter how big a fish you’ve become in the small pond, as 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’s great.

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 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:

  1. Replicability
  2. Loss of skills

The company’s 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 was 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.

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 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:

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, and 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.

Post-Pond Depressions

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 -but feeling like a nobody outside of it-.
Typical small pond mentality.

The story of Brooks from “The Shawshank Redemption” is an even sadder, more tragic version of the Small Pond Syndrome.
Brooks was somebody in prison. Outside of the prison 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 if you think “those are just movies”, think again.
Storr in his great book The Status Game shares the exact same dynamic as Ben Gunn, an actual convict.
I quote:

On some unconscious level it was deeply disturbing being released. I was sitting on the floor for two weeks rocking back and forth. I could see where I was in prison. I knew who I was and what I wanted to be. Now I’m completely lost. I’m imploding.

And I’m not above it, either.
I’ve been a former big fish in a dried-out pond, too.

Let me share my story then:

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, a 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.

when the big fish get small

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” Stage

Have you ever joined a new company, or a club, or gone back to an old social environment after many years?

If so, how did you feel when people shared gossip, 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 Stage

But when you start 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” Stage

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 the company’s manipulation encourages you to feel part of that pond.

4. The “No Life Beyond The Pond” Stage

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.

Bad boss treats you like shit?
You feel sick (or you plot revenge like your life depended on it).

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 Stage

Many people stay stuck in the pond for a lifetime.

Or they simply move from pond to pond.

Some others get tired of the social climbing games and grow disillusioned when they understand the office power moves.

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 as “being popular”, “being the life of the party” and “being loved”, then you’re also less vulnerable to the Small Pond Syndrome.

Read here to learn more about building an antifragile ego.

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’s 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 efforts 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 play at the bigger league of the world stage.

You know you’re better than the small pond mentality and you’re not gonna fall for it.

5. Become An Ocean Big Fish: Learn to Acquire Status Anywhere

This is the be-all and end-all game.

There’s a certain overlap between small pond status and overall value.
Such as big fishes usually are not low-quality individuals.

Yet, a big fish is also not the same as an overall high-quality man, as the outside-pond failures of former big fishes show.

Why not?

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 of 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, its 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 anything to lose, without being afraid of intruders.

This is what some people refer to as “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, we have Power University.

the personal growth progression with the power moves1. Start as a meek man who can’t get status; 2. start learning the ropes of the game; 3 ready and able to get status; 4. full personal power & transcending the game of status

6. Fly Higher

The ultimate stage is always transcendence.

You:

  1. Learn the game game of status
  2. Learn how to gain status
  3. Achieve your goals and objectives…
  4. And then transcend the game.

Transcending doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t play anymore.
Or that you don’t want or seek the results.

But it always means you don’t need the results anymore. And that your self-esteem and contentedness aren’t tied to the game anymore.

You may want them.
And you know how to achieve them.
But otherwise, you’re content being you, with yourself… Flying higher.

This is also part of coming full circle of the eagle stages of development.

Summary

The Big Fish Small Pond Syndrome is the direct consequence of normal human behavior.

That behavior is our inborn drive to rise 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.

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