Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Fish and the Pond

Three times this week, I've heard (directly or indirectly) about people consciously choosing a smaller pond to swim in. Here are the three cases:

** First, as I was reading "Den of Thieves" by James Stewart (this is a tale of insider trading and Wall Street corruption in the mid-1980s) he talks about Martin Siegel's decision to work for Kidder, Peabody, even though he was being courted at the time by several other firms with higher name-brand cachet. Siegel's reasoning behind the decision was that since Kidder, Peabody was both smaller in size and stature, he'd have more room to become involved more quickly and ascend to a leadership position than he would have at, say, Goldman Sachs.

** Second, my dad was telling me about a former co-worker of his who lived in Bayonne despite the fact that he could have easily lived in a place like Greenwich. When asked why he chose to live in Bayonne, the guy always said, "Well, I'm a big deal in Bayonne, and I love it. In Greenwich, I'd just be the next guy down the block." The guy had become a fairly serious philanthropist in the Bayonne community and greatly enjoyed the respect this conferred on him.

** Third, I was talking to a guy I work with who I'll call "Jack Bauer." This is a guy who is qualified as a no-kidding submarine-driving nuclear engineer yet also has a Navy Diver qualification, an Airborne qualification (gold jump wings) and recently graduated from Military Freefall School in Arizona. When I asked Jack Bauer why he didn't just go all the way with it and become a SEAL, the answer came quickly (I'm sure I wasn't the first to ever ask): "I'm one of only three people in the entire Navy with my qualification set. Against other sub guys, this makes me really stand out. If I were a SEAL, I'd just be competing against other SEALs, and I'd be lucky to even be considered 'one of the pack.'"

There's something I love about all three answers, because they're very matter-of-factly self-conscious/self-aware.

For all the oft-cited and repeated cliches about "Know Thyself," and being true to oneself that appear in works of philosophy ranging across many cultures and eras, how many people really stop and try to tailor their life around their personal vision of how they want to live?

That wasn't a rhetorical question -- I really have no idea, and perhaps many people already do this.

I know I wrote this in a previous post, but I think that if your goal is to establish yourself somewhere as part of a community, the best place to do it is in a small- or medium-sized city. The beauty of a city with anywhere from 40,000-200,000 people is that it's large enough that it will have several distinct niches and opportunities to become involved, yet it's not so big as to be impersonal.

New England is replete with examples of cities like this -- Manchester, Providence, Worcester, New Haven, Portland, Burlington, and, of course, Lowell.


Matt said...

An important subset of this is to hang out with people not in your occupational field. Because something I've learned is that no matter how far you go career-wise, if you hang out mostly with people in your industry no one will ever be impressed or curious about you -- you'll never have that small pond feeling.

For instance, among Andrea's doctor friends no one really gives a shit that she is a radiologist -- yet all my artist friends think it's amazing and want to know a million things about what being a doctor is really like. Just like my writer friends don't find movie-writing that fascinating, but when I hang out with doctors, all they want to know about is my wack-a-doo job.

Having other people curious about you is, I think, a very important part of feeling happy and confident, and again, that is why it is so good to live in a smaller, more diverse area than a larger, more "company town" (e.g. L.A., D.C., etc.)

The New Englander said...


PHENOMENAL point. Megadittoes.

I like the main point because I've come from a true company town where being in the military -- even having served overseas in the war and having been decorated for it -- is neutral at best (Norfolk) to somewhere where people are very curious/surprised/interested to talk to someone who has been over to Iraq mainly because it's that much rarer (Lowell). Even at the VFW here, Iraq or Afghanistan experience is rare enough that it piques peoples' interest.

And as much as I admire and respect military folk, I'd rather talk to a radiologist or a screenwriter if I had to make an either-or decision in a social setting -- simply because it's more of a novelty.

But the part I liked best was the first part of the third paragraph -- the point about happiness and confidence springing from others' interest in who you are/what you do. It's near-universally true with myriad applications for peoples' decision-making, but not something most people would recognize, much less admit.

I know that in my case, I'm not 100% sure what my next couple steps will be, but I am certain of one thing -- anonymity is the one sure-fire way that I could "undersell" myself.