Is It Better to be a Small Fish in a Big Pond or a Big Fish in a Small Pond?

It’s a pressing question pondered by college seekers, athletes and job seekers alike: would you rather be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? Both arenas can teach us something about ourselves and give us a chance to expand our skills.

Each comes with its own special set of challenges. Neither should be eliminated because of your current level of comfort or confidence.

There are great leadership lessons for each, and I hope you get the chance to be both a big fish and a small fish…then a big fish again and a small fish again. It’s a cycle of viewpoints that increases our development.

Chris Abraham, the President and COO of Abraham Harrison Public Relations, has asked whether you’d rather be the smartest person at your local college or the dumbest person at MIT. His answer? If you want to be in the big pond, then you better have perfect scores. Yes, the big pond is a great place to swim, but beware of getting left behind. That’s right—if you can’t take the heat, then stay out of the kitchen.

So what’s the key to succeeding in the big pond?


Blake Hall, CEO of Troop ID, moved his company to Washington, D.C. so that he could stand out from the crowd. He essentially made his pond small. Jessica Herrin, the founder of Stella & Dot, did the same thing with her soon-to-be-billion-dollar business. She found a niche in the jewelry and personal sales market (a big pond) and made it her own (the pond gets smaller). She made herself the big fish.

What if you’re in the small pond?

Well, any good big fish leaves his or her mark.

Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, presided over the foremost leadership organization for girls. (Talk about a small pond of organizations!) She wasn’t satisfied with just keeping the organization running; she actually overhauled the Girl Scouts and espoused leadership development for all. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work, among other honors. She started the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute after retirement and is now a small fish in the big pond of leadership training.

There are advantages to every pond size

I’ve been both the small fish and the big fish, and I’ve loved and struggled with both.

As a small fish, I enjoy the freedom to be a “freshman” and work on career, leadership and growth at a pace that’s as quick as I can make it. I love having mentors, being able to ask questions and absorbing content from dozens of departments. There’s no pressure to succeed at everything because I’m the small fish!

On the other hand, the big fish is a fun position, too. I set the standards, I do the mentoring. The success or failure of the strategy is on me, and that pressure forces me to get up every day and be great. I have to be self-taught. That’s much different from being taught. But know that both will teach you something.

So go be the big fish… but also enjoy being the small fish. Whichever one you are, know that it’s not the size of the pond that matters; it’s whether you swim with purpose.

How have you been a big fish? A small fish? Tell us in the comments!

This post originally appeared on Levo League, Business Insider, and Brazen Life, May 2013.