“You might be a big fish
In a little pond.
Doesn't mean you've won
'Cause along will come
A bigger one.”
- Coldplay - “Lost”
In my past post Limitations, Ladders, & Labyrinths I talked about how your career (and life!) are more like a labyrinth than a ladder, with surprises around every turn and many paths leading to a dead end. This concept not only applies to your career choice, but also to the specific jobs you choose in that career. Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond, or vice versa? And which available positions will allow you to flourish both now and in the future?
Adam Grant’s article Should you Always Strive to Work at the Most “Prestigious” Places? elaborates on this question and provides insight into the answer. He references a 2017 study of professional soccer players in which it proved beneficial for players if their teams were dropped to a lower division, as growth occurred as a result of more playing time and less competition for key positions. Long term, players landed in stronger leagues and earned higher salaries.
On the contrary, he also references research showing that bank executives are more successful in advancing their careers when they come from companies ranked among Fortune’s most admired for operational excellence.
So is it better to be the big fish or the little fish, or does it matter? I argue there is no right answer, as every situation is unique. If you want to be the baddest dude in the ocean, it probably helps to be a shark or a whale. But in a 5-gallon fish tank, not only is there a benefit to being small, being a shark or a whale would prove fatal.
Instead, I offer a different perspective, as I believe that every decision regarding your career (and life!) should be made with your personal and professional growth potential in mind. If this is true, then using Daniel Coyle’s concept of the “sweet spot” for skill development is a good place to start. In summary, the “sweet spot” is:
“that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle.”
That “particular struggle” should be your goal, and it can be found in places where the proper mix of ingredients creates an incubator for your personal and professional development. The pond could be either big or small, but it should contain the following:
Impactful leaders – You are not going to grow alone, and it is critical to find leaders who understand and embrace their role as mentor and coach.
Supportive co-workers – The people around you not only support you, but also motivate and hold you accountable.
Daily work in the “sweet spot” – Your time should be spent stretching your skills, not simply honing your strengths.
Appropriate expectations – The expected quality and quantity of work should align with the “sweet spot” concept…always pushing you to improve.
Searching for the sweet spot,
Michael Mueller, PGA Career Consultant
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