I have been wrestling with two very different philosophies on life and growth recently. One was presented to me while reading The Truth About Marissa Mayer: An Unauthorized Biography. According to this piece, whenever she is asked why she joined Google after getting her master's in symbolic systems at Stanford, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer tells her "Laura Beckman story" about the daughter of her middle school piano teacher. I'll let Marissa tell it in her own words:
“Laura tried out for the volleyball team her junior year at high school. At the end of the tryouts, she was given a hard choice: bench on varsity, or start on JV.
“Most people, when they’re faced with this choice, would choose to play - and they'll pick JV. Laura did the opposite. She chose varsity, and she benched the whole season.
“But then an amazing thing happened. Senior year she tried out and she made varsity as a starter, and all the JV starters from the previous year benched their whole senior year.
“I remember asking her: ‘How did you know to choose varsity?’
“And she said, ‘I just knew that if I got to practice with the better players every day, I would become a much better player, even if I didn’t get to play in any of the games.’”
“My quest to find, and be surrounded by, smart people is what brought me to Google,” she said.
The moral of Mayer’s story is that it’s always better to surround yourself with the best and brightest people so they will challenge you to become better. No one can argue with that, right?
Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite authors, does.
I'm reading his new(ish) book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. It explores the ways by which our society has cultured us to believe that only giants can succeed, when so often it is the Davids of the world that really go on to achieve greatness. The concept that seems to be the antithesis of the Laura Beckman story is that of being a Little Fish in a Big Pond vs. a Big Fish in a Little Pond. Gladwell uses interviews with people he's met and examples from history to argue that it is far better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than to be a Little Fish in a Big Pond.
For example, Gladwell says if you have been the star student your entire life and wish to pursue a career in the sciences, your best bet is to choose your second option, not the Ivy League institution. The reason for this is that you are inclined to compare yourself, your test scores and your ranking to the students in your class and program. It doesn't occur to you that beyond your degree program and in the real world of your field, you are still at the top. And for these reasons, it may be easier to become disappointed in your progress or the lack thereof, in your own mind. This increases your chances of changing your degree program and thus, your dream.
Be the Big Fish, says Gladwell, but isn't being a Big Fish in a Little Pond quite like being a starting player on junior varsity? Sure, you may be the star player, but perhaps only for a season. It could be that in the next season or in your next role you find that you aren't as prepared as you feel you should be. Could it be that if you choose to tough it out on Varsity like Laura Beckman and Marissa Mayer, the chances will be greater that you'll be better equipped to handle the next level? That certainly could be it.
From my understanding, Gladwell's argument focuses mainly on the ego and the perception of the self. You are both your own biggest fan and your worst critic so you really are what you think. If you think less of yourself in a situation, that negatively affects our performance or behavior as a result. The same is true for the opposite. In some ways, this theory could be interpreted to mean that we should all receive a pat on the back each step of the way so we know we're headed in the right direction. Others might argue that we should instead be periodically challenged--at times, pushed to our breaking point--to ensure we are constantly chasing self-improvement. I think it's the latter.
In one section of this same book Gladwell, explores how perceived disadvantages like losing a parent at a young age or being dyslexic turned out to be the reason why many heads of companies and organizations were able to rise to the top. He calls them "desirable disadvantages." Having faced and overcome adversity early in life is the greatest preparation for climbing social, political and economic ladders as an adult. These are experiences that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy; yet still, it is because of these disadvantages and not despite of them that some are able to "win."
Back to my point, it is because Marissa Mayer spent time at Google, where she was a Little Fish, that she has risen to where she is in her career today. BUT...are we really willing to bench on Varsity? For a generation that demands instant gratification, delayed success is seemingly torturous. We want our news, our coffee, our shows, our cabs, our dry cleaning, our next big break, our happy ending...all right when we want it. Gone are the days when we appreciated the time it took to achieve our dreams, once called "the journey." These days, if it takes too long to materialize, we lose interest. And that really is a shame. Overnight successes are never overnight successes. Actually, sometimes they are. But the average person can't handle going 0 to 100 real quick. It's the gradual process of building a layer at a time that is the best preparation for sustained success and continued growth. If it's built right, it's built to last.
This is my take. What do you think? Should we bench on Varsity or should we be Big Fish in Little Ponds? Comment with your thoughts!