The Sizes of Fish and Ponds

Written on December 13th, 2016

When I was in high school I was often told that I was a “big fish in a little pond”. My experience with secondary education was a good one, full of AP classes and reasonably good grades and not too much stress, all things considered. From an early age I was regarded by my peers and instructors as one of the “smart” students (if you want to know why I don’t love that word in quotations, have a read of this article).

While it felt good to be successful, I often looked towards the future with a sort of nervousness because I was told that one day I would be in a bigger pond surrounded by other big fish and that things would be harder for me. I am not ignorant of my privilege and my blessings; I know that I am fortunate to have a quick mind and that my parents stressed the importance of learning from a young age. I know that some things came more easily to me in high school than they did to other students. I know that that’s not necessarily fair.

But I also know that the reason I was successful at good ol’ DC Everest High was not just because I was born a “big fish”. It’s because I worked hard, every single day from the time I could talk, to grow larger.

When I arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I feared that I might have a moment where all of a sudden my new pond would seem too expansive and my new peers too big. I had heard that I would struggle and no longer be at the top of the exam curve. As someone who defined herself by her academic performance for far too many years of her life, and as someone who still struggles to remember her value in other things, these thoughts were terrifying.

But guess what? It never happened.

I still feel like a “big fish in a little pond”, for lack of a better term. Part of that is because I work even harder now than I ever did before; I study for hours, complete all of my homework, prioritize classes and assignments and meetings effectively. I am proud of my work ethic, yes. I am thankful for my inherent intellectual capacity. But mostly, the reason I still feel like I can handle myself in this pond is because I stopped defining the size of a fish by its ability to perform in a traditional academic setting.

This is a concept that I reiterate frequently because it is one deeply personal and important to me: academics aren’t everything.

I was constantly told in high school that I was a big fish because I was “smart”. But you know what? I’d rather be a big fish for a million other reasons.

I know people who are big fishes because they are creative. I know people who are big fishes because they are adaptive. I know people who are big fishes because they are kind, caring, thoughtful, brave, encouraging… not just because they are “smart”. Not just because they get good grades. And certainly not just because outperform their classmates in an academic context.

I am determined to continue being a big fish. I am also convinced that every single person has the opportunity to be a big fish in myriad different ways. And most importantly, I am absolutely positive that your size does not depend on the sizes of the people around you; there is no such thing as being “the biggest fish in the pond”. You’re not necessarily bigger, you’re just differently proportioned – because you’re differently talented.

As I reach the halfway point of my college career, I realize that so many of my most important experiences have had nothing to do with classes and everything to do with interpersonal development. I realize that though I have performed well academically, I am more concerned with how I have performed as a friend.

I realize that despite growing up surrounded by this “big fish” mantra, I don’t believe a word of it. I do not want to be a shark and eat those around me. I do not want to be mere food for someone larger. No, I want to be a part of something grand and connected and beautiful, a piece of countless lives, a meaningful strand of this enormous web of students and staff and dreamers.

We are all big fish. And it’s not about your size, anyway – it’s about how passionately you learn to swim.