What motivates me to go on daily is the constant fear of failure — I’m afraid to be and remain ordinary.
Some people care about succeeding and excelling.
I fear being at the end of the foodchain, settling for what’s been given and always waiting for the next big thing.
There’s the Small Pond, Big Pond Theory.
A lot of people are content in swimming in a small pond.
For example, one climber acquaintance KL kicks ass in the wallclimbing gym. Whenever someone gives him a problem to solve, he does it, and impresses everyone with his fancy moves.
KL operates and thrives in the small pond — in the Taipei climbing gym, he is king, and he acts like it. Once I asked him to help belay me, and he scoffed on how poorly I climbed. His rope was so loose that I thought what’s the use of even asking him to help me out.
However, in the bigger pond, KL works as a regular employee at a prestigious British automobile company. When you bump into him in the office halls, you probably won’t remember him. He is just a small fish in a big pond.
And yet, in the climbing gym, he’s the biggest kingpin of this small pond.
Some people like smaller ponds — they’re comfortable, can excel at their own pace and can easily get recognition for work that for them requires less effort.
Who’s crazy enough to attempt bigger ponds?
Bigger ponds are scary — you have no clue what to expect next, you’re always bullied by bigger fishes and you’re just a small fish amongst all the little fishes. Nobody recognizes your excellence and the truth is, nobody cares.
I personally experienced this after I graduated high school — I got in one of the premier universities in Manila, while my dad wanted me to go to the college next door, literally just a 5-minute walk from home.
Not only was our next-door college so close, but it was also a school exclusively for women, which was great for my oh-so-conservative dad.
“In next-door school, you can succeed. You can be the queen of everyone and no need to work too hard for your success,” my dad explained. “I know you can be very good at (name of next-door school), and it’s very convenient. Close to the house.”
I remember feeling my heart drop after hearing my dad’s tirade. I thought about it long and hard, then finally used his friends to persuade him otherwise.
Ultimately, I attended the premier university, but not after having his best friends call him, his business partners tell him how great it is that I can attend such a good school, and the icing on the cake, me writing him a long letter why he should let me attend the bigger university.
Promptly a C+ on my GPA for my freshman year.
Grades were a challenge for me — whereas I was one of the bigger fishes back in my small-pond high schools, here in the top university, I was nothing. Everybody else were big fishes in high school as well. Finally, I was surrounded by people who were smarter, faster and more beautiful than me.
It was intimidating.
So whereas success came to me easily in high school, I would instead spend most of my time in the library poring over books and trying to give my best in whatever class am taking. Sure enough, I got a C in English, my best subject in high school.
WHAT THE F*CK?
In high school, we learnt about grammar and structure.
In university, we were thought to analyze metaphors and understand the underlying meaning of the text.
Guess why I failed miserably?
I learned that I still had a lot to go into in the literature department, and by golly, I cannot be a writer when I grow up. By looking at others who were way more talented than I am and could write kick-ass essays 30 minutes after class, I realized my own weaknesses and boy, were they blows to my ego.
Who cares if you were queen in high school? University’s a bigger arena and by golly, you are now being judged with higher standards, and girlie, you just realized what your limitations were.
A lot of people would just give up and realize that it’s a futile cause and cower to a smaller school.
I looked at my freshmen year grades with sadness but refused to be bullied by the tough environment. If anything, that first year taught me to tough it out.
How to get good grades?
Just do what you can.
How to be a bigger fish?
Just do your best.
As I got used to the system, my grades started improving. Sure, I had to take refresher classes in Calculus, and though I’ll never be Einstein, life was a lot better. I became more active extra-curriculary as well and was at one point officer at 5-6 university organizations in a given year.
I was fortunate enough to break into the Dean’s List a few times, and in the last two years, I managed to get an almost perfect GPA score a time or two, and in my final year became president of one of my university’s biggest and most dynamic organizations.
Sure, my final 2-year GPA could never compensate for my subpar grades during my lower years, but it at least showed that I wasn’t the complete idiot that I once thought I was. Seeing the improvement was more than enough to satisfy.
In addition, I’ve managed to create a niche for myself in this big pond — sure, I wasn’t the university batch president, nor was I the editor in chief of our award-winning newspaper, but then again, I was successful in my own right and people respected that. In my final year, I was nominated one of the best student leaders in my entire batch, and my club won best organization in their category.
So what are my thoughts on the Big Pond, Small Pond Theory?
Small ponds are great boost to the ego — you don’t have to give much effort and still remain on top of the social food chain. Who wouldn’t want to operate in an environment where people are constantly praising your abilities and thinking you’re god?
Big ponds however destroy what ego you may have — whereas the world used to revolve around you, in a bigger platform, people just don’t care. They only care if you can contribute to the bottom line growth and if you cannot, you will be mercilessly cut off.
If you can’t wing it, you can’t cut it — and no one at the big pond will have patience. One more go and that’s it, you’re done.
I look at my life — it seems that historically, I thrive in constantly operating in bigger ponds.
Taiwan for example was a bigger, untouched pond for me wherein I started from nothing. When I got here in Taipei, I had two suitcases and one box of instant noodles, and no home, no money, no friends and no Mandarin linguistic skills to even think of.
Luckily, I was too young to be too afraid. For me, if I failed, then I could always go back to the Philippines. He who is young can afford wild failures.
Even then, imagine, I was borrowing from my aunt for my day-to-day activities, knew no one and couldn’t even order food!
Taiwan is indeed the big pond I have been talking about.
Nonetheless, I trudged on — if I had a mere year to spend, then by golly I will make the most out of it.
Hence, I enrolled in Mandarin classes in Shida, and a year later when I realized that my scholarship just won’t wing it, I applied for a marketing job at one of the well-known Taiwanese companies who’s made a name for themselves globally.
For some insane reason, I got the job.
Hello corporate world.
I also became more active socially and took the lead in organizing several peer events, and fortunately was able to bump into a few great people who mattered. Suddenly, I realized that I was no longer as friendless as I used to think, and there were a lot of people here in Taipei that one should know.
Hello social life.
Fast forward few years later, I’m still operating the same way.
I find myself immersing in bigger ponds all the time.
Regardless on whether I know anybody at a party or if I have any clue what to do in a project, I’d still grab the chance to go and do it. Sure, I don’t have a big idea on what to do or expect, but it sure is a lot better than my small pond.
Often times, it’s a humbling experience.
I realized that I am not the smartest or most talented person as I used to think. In fact, everybody ELSE is smarter and more talented than I am!
It frustrated me to tears — despite my best efforts, I cannot keep up with their intellectual genius and talents. By operating with those who are the best of class, I realized as well my own limitations and that does wonders in breaking your pride.
And yet, working with people who are better than you constantly motivates you to be better, to do better. When I start being complacent in my life, God throws at me an impossible challenge and I realize that I need to shape up in order to finish it, or go back home to the Philippines.
But the fact that you raise the bar oh-so-often allow you to improve as well. I look at myself 6 years ago when I first arrived to what I’ve become now. There’s eyebags and wrinkles but also hopefully, a bit of wisdom as well. Despite my many faults, I think I’ve improved life-wise from when I first started.
At the very least, I can actually order food now in Mandarin, have a few wonderful friends by my side, and a bit of shopping money when necessary.
What’s more, once my big pond starts feeling small, I am on an immediate lookout for a bigger challenge. My former boss was sad that I had to leave my first company, but realized that she couldn’t hold me back and gave me the blessing to work in a bigger firm with more overtime. It was that bigger pond environment that I’ve always wanted, and they knew it was something they can no longer provide.
Which is how one can improve.
If I’m happy to be king of a small pond, that’s just fine and dandy.
But it’s this constant hunger for bigger ponds that allows us to push ourselves to the limit and do more than what is expected. We constantly raise the bar for ourselves and even though we often fall flat on our face, we do at least have that chance to step into a higher level.
As a Filipino saying say, “If you reach for the moon, you may not get it but at least you can touch the stars.”
I like touching stars… do you as well?
Have a great weekend!