Why you should be a big fish in a little pond

Malcolm Gladwell seems to think attending an elite college or working for a famous company could kill your dreams.

The popular author lays out his argument for being a big fish in a little pond in his latest book, "David and Goliath," a work that aims to overturn conventional notions about what makes for a disadvantage and who should be considered an underdog.

Gladwell's basically against anyone attending a famous university just for the name, or really doing anything for the sake of prestige. To choose something elite is, more often than not, to choose being a little fish in a big pond, he says, since only a select few will shine among the best. He believes people are generally better off choosing to be part of a lesser known organization where they have a greater chance of standing out.

The concept Gladwell draws on is called "relative deprivation." It was coined by Samuel Stouffer, a sociologist, during World War II to describe how we measure ourselves against the people immediately around us. Our successes are always compared to their successes, as are our failures.

Relative deprivation is why Gladwell takes issue with the belief that elite schools are automatically better. He cites the example of one student, under the pseudonym "Caroline Sacks," who was determined to go into science until attending Brown University. There, she earned mediocre grades and felt generally stupid compared to her straight-A classmates, though according to Gladwell she was likely still in the 99th percentile worldwide. She eventually quit science.

Gladwell chalks this up to relative deprivation. The worst STEM students at Harvard, he claims, may be as smart as the top third at a lower ranked college. But Harvard students compare themselves to their Harvard peers, and that's bound to make those in the bottom third feel stupid and unsuccessful. Better to have gone to a non-elite institution, he says — to have been a big fish in a little pond — than have had your dreams and confidence crushed.

Gladwell focuses his analysis on higher education, but his claims have obvious implications for career as well. If you're a programmer, for example, is it better to take a chance on a small startup or to take that job with Google? Should aspiring bankers aim for Goldman Sachs or start at a boutique municipal bond company?

Based on his logic in "David and Goliath," Gladwell's answer would almost definitely be to go small. "Rarely do we stop and consider," he writes, "whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest." In academia particularly, he says, "The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them."

Gladwell's claims are striking and, as he frames them, compelling. Yet they also radically oversimplify the issue. In the case of Caroline Sacks, for example, there's no way to prove that she would still be in science had she attended a less prestigious university. She might have simply staked her future hopes on a subject she wasn't cut out for, switched her field of study, and graduated without the benefit of an Ivy League reputation.

And in career terms, is fear of being mediocre at Google sufficient reason to turn down an offer from the Internet giant? Should getting lost in the scramble at Goldman Sachs push you toward a smaller firm? You might not shine at either, but you can use your solid experience to get a higher-level job at a smaller company later on.


Post a Comment