What Size Pond Do You Want For Your Fish-Metaphored Life?

This post topic has been on my radar to do for quite a while now, as it’s been something that I’ve thought about quite a few times in my life, moving different places, meeting new folks from different backgrounds, etc.

What am I talking about here? Well, it relates to the very common metaphorical question that we’ve no doubt all heard at one point in our lives – “Would you rather be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond? 

Essentially, it is the idea that how successful we perceive our lives to be is based more on how we compare ourselves relatively to people around us vs. the absolute value of our outputs on a global scale.

A great money-based example of this metaphor is the age-old question of rather you would prefer to make $50,000 per year when all your friends are only making $30,000 per year, or if you would rather be making $200,000 per year, but all your friends make $1 MM per year?

More specifically, I am interested in how this metaphor applies to a person’s schooling, career, and personal finances throughout various life stages. Assuming that you are a “big” fish, I want to explore answers to the following questions:

  • Is it better to attend an undergraduate college that is a “big” pond or a “little” pond?
  • Is it better to attend a graduate school that is a “big” pond or a “little” pond?
  • Should the first few years of your career experience be in a “big” or little” pond?
  • Should the later/more senior years of your career be in a “big” or “little” pond?
  • Should you physically live in a “big” or “little” pond?
    • Or, perhaps for these various stages, there is a happy “medium” size pond that is just right…. 

Let’s take a look at each of these life stages and examine some of the advantages and disadvantages presented by being in the different pond sizes at that specific time in life. I’ll start off by describing the working definition I’ll use for a big pond and little pond in each specific set of circumstances.


Undergraduate College Degree

Definition of big and little pond sizes in this context: For the context of undergraduate college degrees, I will define a big pond as a school which requires top-of-the-line entrance testing scores and grades to get in and is also very selective in the ratio of applicants vs. accepted for admittance. In other words, a school where pretty much all students are STELLAR. A little pond would be on the opposite end of this spectrum.

Advantages of a Big Pond

  • As you can imagine, there are many benefits of attending a top-tier school for your undergraduate degree.
    • You will be surrounded by incredibly smart student-colleagues and world-renowned professors from which you can learn countless valuable things.
    • In addition, you will have a much easier time than your little pond contemporaries in finding a job and/or internship, as many high quality/high paying companies will likely be recruiting directly from your door stop. All you will have to do is saunter on down to the career fair at your school with your resume in hand!
    • Along these same lines, it has been my experience that several specific types of jobs pretty much unofficially “require” you to have attended a top-tier undergrad school in order to land the job. Investment banking is one type of job that comes to mind where this is more or less the case.

Advantages of a Small Pond / Disadvantages of a Big Pond

One of the key things that sparked my curiosity/motivation in finally writing this article was a recent newspaper column covering the entrance statistics of the Fall 2013 entering class (the one graduating in 2017) of a public Ivy undergrad school, which is ranked approximately 2nd in public undergrad schools in the US according to World News. This article stated that, “The Class of 2017 averages an SAT math and verbal score of 1349, keeping close with the Class of 2016’s 1350. Ninety-two percent of incoming students were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.”

Now, I’m not sure how you all did in high school and on your college entrance testing, but I would be very below average (a TINY fish) in the midst of the standards of this BIG pond grouping of undergrads.

Being a graduate student at this institution and having been through undergrad teaching assistant orientation, I also have been told that the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and usage of the psychological counseling services are higher at this school than other schools in the same state. One of the reasons the orientation teachers offered was that the undergrads that come here are often top notch students in high school, but then come to college and are simply average or below average because of the high caliber of the overall student population.

Overall, I do think it is a very good thing to surround yourself with other top notch people at least once (or even multiple times) in your life. However, the aforementioned example brings up the following question – since your personality/self-confidence/sense of individuality is not yet fully formed at the fragile age of 18 when you start undergrad, would it not be better to delay the likely possibility of feeling of below average until later in life when you are a little more sure of yourself? In other words, by putting yourself in a smaller pond at such a young age, you can allow your self-confidence to develop on its own.

Furthermore, if you put yourself in a smaller pond during undergrad, it is possible to temporarily immerse yourself in a big pond through a competitive/challenging internship, during the summer or a single semester.

From a personal finance perspective, another disadvantage of a big pond undergraduate degree is that you are more likely to end up with additional student loan debt since the amount of scholarships they give out/that you will be eligible for will likely be less than at a smaller pond where the school desires your big fish talent.


Graduate School and/or The First Few Years of Your Working Career

Definition of big and little pond sizes in this context: 

  • For the context of graduate school, I will use the same definition of a big pond and little pond as for the undergraduate section above, except that the entrance scores and other criteria would be shifted to fit the graduate school setting.
  • However, the definitions in the context of a career will be slightly different.
    • A big pond in the case of a job setting will be defined as working at a company/organization that is considered one of the best in the world, often termed a “name brand” employer (one that is recognized by everyone).
    • Their ratio of people hired / total job applicants is much less than 10%, and they can only hire from very selective target schools if they so desired.

Advantages of a Big Pond

Similar to what I discussed above with big pond undergraduate schools, swimming in a big pond for your first job or for graduate school will allow you to be surrounded by top-notch talent and smart people. You will be able to connect, network, and make friends with big-time current and future generation influencers that will benefit your career for years to come.  Perhaps even more importantly, you will learn how to do things THE RIGHT WAY (ie the way that the best in the world do it), so that you can elevate your career “game” and skill set to match. Lastly, having the widely-recognized big pond employer on your resume will be easily recognized by future employers as a common meter of the caliber of your talent.

Advantages of a Small Pond / Disadvantages of a Big Pond

A potential pitfall of being in a big pond for your first job, on the other hand, is that you run the risk of potentially not standing out from the crowd and being recognized for your talent. In other words, even if you are a big fish, you’re in a big pond, and your complete talent set may not be leveraged if you are surrounded by other stellar people. The opposite would be true of a small pond career/grad school setting.

However, even if you were to be only “below average” in a big pond, in theory by this time in your personal development, you will have enough self confidence to not let this bother you, and simply accept that you’re doing your best and that it’s OK to be mediocre when surrounded by other top notch people.


Later Working Years of Your Career

Using the same working definitions of a little and big pond as we employed in the above jobs section, let’s analyze how the pond size might play a role when your career is a little more mature. For this thought experiment, we will assume that you have been successful in your career and have still emerged/remained as a big fish!

Advantages of a Big Pond

As a top notch, senior-level big fish, what advantages are there of teaming up with a big pond organization/company?

  • First, I think that it would likely make your job as a supervisor/boss a little easier. Assuming that you can recruit top notch talent, you theoretically will be able to find people to execute your ideas and follow your strategical plans more easily.
  • As a result, this might make the absolute amount of projects you accomplish higher than if you were in a little pond.
  • Second, the big pond organization will likely pay you more since they theoretically would have more money to obtain/keep your big-fish, top-notch talent.

Advantages of a Small Pond / Disadvantages of a Big Pond

One clear advantage of working in a small pond environment later in your career is that your contributions will likely have a greater breadth of impact across an entire organization versus in a big pond where you will have a large impact, but in a very specific area of the company. For example, if you are a top-notch senior engineer at a big pond company, you might be perfectly qualified to perform as a Vice President or CEO of a smaller, start-up company.


Living Location

The big pond vs. little pond decision when it comes to location is one of my favorites to think about.

Essentially, what I’m talking about here is if you are moving to a new city and money is not much of a consideration (because after all, you are a big fish, remember!), is it better to live in a neighborhood where you’re surrounded by normal, everyday folks (little pond), or is it better to live in a subdivision where your McMansion is only 1 out of 100 the same size and everyone around you is successful (big pond)?

On one hand, in the big pond location, you will likely be surrounded by very smart, successful people that can become your friends, help you in the future, etc. In addition, the school system in the area may be better since the property tax base is higher. However, a negative would be that in this setting, you likely would be more inclined to increase your spending. After all, you can’t be seen in a Honda Civic when your neighbors have the Porsche, right?! This of course wouldn’t be an issue in the little pond setting.



In the interest of wrapping this post up, I was trying incorporate my usual personal tie-in where I state how I will  apply this topic to my personal life. However, I became somewhat stumped on this one. As such, I have unfortunately concluded that I am not yet sure what type of pond size, big or little, I want for my various future life stages. I’ll have to let time play out to help me figure out what is best I think.

How about you all? Were you in a “big pond” or a “little pond” for your undergraduate, graduate, first real job, senior career, and/or physical location life stages?

If you could do it over again, would you do anything differently?

Are there specific life stages when it’s generally better to be in a big pond vs. a little pond?

Share your experiences by commenting below! 

***Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/wildlife_encounters/8024090659/sizes/m/in