Big Fish/Small Pond: “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell

The best-selling book “David and Goliath” by author Malcolm Gladwell is about the potential advantage of apparent disadvantages. In the title metaphor, was Goliath's size and skill in hand-to-hand combat an advantage or disadvantage vs. David's mobility and long-range weapon? When can perceived challenges work in your favor?

It is also a promotion of the dynamic of “big fish/small pond”. Gladwell proposes that in choosing a college, it is often better to be a big fish in a small pond than the other way around. “Rarely do we stop and consider whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest”, he writes. “The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them."

Gladwell’s premise is that in a big pond – aka an elite college -- it is easy to get overshadowed. This can cause students to lose confidence and motivation. A top student from high school becomes an average (or worse) student at a top university. After all, even Harvard and MIT have a bottom 25% of their class.

We’ve heard the same argument in favor of being a big fish in a small (college) pond from Frank Bruni in his book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be” which I reviewed here.

The challenge according to Gladwell is what is called "relative deprivation", a term coined by sociologist Samuel Stouffer to describe how we measure ourselves against the people immediately around us. In the big pond of an elite college, a talented student may not feel very smart or capable. But that same student in a school with somewhat lesser competition from classmates could very well shine and lead. It’s similar to how a person can be very well off financially compared to most, yet not feel that way when measuring themselves against their even-wealthier neighbors. It’s not how smart/rich you are, it’s how smart/rich you feel.

Gladwell doesn't say it, but it's important to keep in mind that what is a big pond for one person may be a small pond for another. A given university may be oppressively challenging for one student yet comfortably manageable and nurturing for another. It's all about individual fit.

One shortcoming of the book is Gladwell’s reliance on anecdotes to support his assertions, similar to Bruni’s approach. Gladwell generalizes from one-offs to precarious and sometimes sweeping conclusions. For example, he highlights the story of Caroline Sacks, a talented high school student interested in science who chooses to attend prestigious Brown University over backup University of Maryland. Lagging behind her classmates at Brown and done in by organic chemistry, she abandons her dream of science and switches majors.

Gladwell speculates that had Caroline gone to Maryland she would have stuck with a career in science, and blames her experience at Brown for depriving the world of a future scientist. He states that “Large numbers of would­‐be STEM majors end up switching into the arts, where academic standards are less demanding and the coursework less competitive. That's the major reason that there is such a shortage of qualified American-educated scientists and engineers in the United States.”

Gladwell makes some very valid observations about the potential advantages of succeeding as a big fish. At the same time, surely there are opportunities for people to learn and grow by challenging themselves, even (or especially) in a big pond. If you don't achieve all that you wanted, at least you tried. As suggested in a Wall Street Journal review of Gladwell’s book, “Perhaps tough competition gives students a more realistic view of their own strengths and weaknesses”.

Questions raised by Gladwell's assertions:

  • Is it a disservice for a qualified student to attend an elite college unless they’ll be at the top of the class? And how will they know where they stack up before they even get to campus?

  • When is it appropriate to avoid a tough challenge? What about reaching for the stars?

  • Was Caroline Sacks destined for a degree in science, or did she encounter a mountain she wasn’t equipped to climb and redirected to an alternate -- and better suited -- career path?

  • Extrapolating Gladwell's premise, should college graduates avoid going to work for top companies like Google, Goldman or McKinsey that attract the cream of the crop, if it means they may no longer stand out among their peers?

If you find yourself in a small pond, by all means be the big fish. But don't avoid all the big ponds in your life.


Gladwell shares a story that a former dean of admissions at Harvard supposedly acknowledged the dilemma of “relative deprivation” among students at an elite university. As reported by Gladwell, the dean's response was to relax admissions standards for athletes, rationalizing that it would be better for everyone if the bottom of the class academically had an alternate source of personal fulfillment from their accomplishments in sports.

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