The following excerpt is a condensed version of Chapter 6 in How to Become Successful Without Becoming a Man.
The Parable of Phoebe Fish
Phoebe was one of the biggest fish to ever hatch in Fieldhouse pond. She was not only big, she was bright, too. The brightest blue fish anyone had ever seen. Her fins were large and her scales were shiny. She swam with confidence, just the way big fish do. Phoebe quickly learned about her many responsibilities in the pond. Big fish were responsible for keeping the pond clean and safe. Big fish were responsible for watching the water levels in the pond, and big fish were responsible for making sure there was enough food for all the little fish. Big fish were also responsible for teaching the little fish the rules of the pond:
Rule #1 – Get along well with the other fish.
Rule #2 – Do not swim near the surface of the pond where the water is dangerous and choppy. (At least that is the explanation the big fish give the little fish to keep them down near the bottom of the pond.)
Rule #3 – Do not question a big fish’s explanations.
In return for all her hard work, Phoebe got to swim at the surface of the water. Only the big fish had that privilege. The surface water was generally warm and sunny and uninterrupted by the splashing of little fish. Sometimes, the water at the surface did get a little choppy, but the big fish had lots of experience in navigating choppy water.
If there is one thing Phoebe loved the most about Fieldhouse pond, it was being at the surface of the water when the farmer came around. The farmer brought oatmeal that he would sprinkle into the water now and again, when he wanted to watch the big fish jump. He never brought more than a small cup of oatmeal with him, but the big fish went crazy with delight every time the special treat was sprinkled into the water. The big fish made a contest out of seeing who could get the biggest piece of oatmeal and they carried it around with pride showing it off to the other big fish.
The oatmeal never trickled down far enough to reach the little fish in the lower layers of the pond. Phoebe felt bad about that. She secretly hoped that the little fish did not know about the oatmeal so that she did not have to feel guilty about not sharing it with them.
Life was wonderful at Fieldhouse pond. Phoebe never wanted to leave. Then one day, a truck pulled up next to the pond and a farmer that they’d never seen before came up to the water’s edge. He dipped a bucket into the pond and filled it up with fish including Phoebe. He filled several buckets, loaded them onto the back of his truck and drove away.
Phoebe’s adventures take her to a bigger pond where she meets much bigger fish and quickly learns that being a big fish in a little pond does not mean you’ll remain a big fish once you move to a bigger pond. Phoebe meets Franny the little fish who teaches her the benefits and drawbacks of life in the middle of the pond.
Determined to swim at the surface again, Phoebe sets out to become a big fish in the big pond. Unsuccessful, Phoebe solicits Franny’s help. Franny introduces her to Fletcher the fish-in-the-know who takes her to the underground streams that connects all the ponds. Empowered with the knowledge that she can choose to leave the big pond, Phoebe swims away in search of happiness once again as a big fish in a little pond.
THE POND ITSELF
The pond in the story obviously represents the organization in which you work. The size of a pond is not entirely dependent on the number of people it employs, although that is a factor.
The most significant factor in determining the size of a pond is financial performance. Big ponds generate big revenue and little ponds generate smaller revenue. No other single factor is as important in determining the size of the pond.
With that said, the size of the pond is relative based on your experience and your perspective. A company with $200 million dollars in annual revenue feels big to the person who works for a $20 million dollar company. The same $200 million dollar company feels small to the person who works for a company that generates $2 billion dollars in annual revenue.
THE THEORY BEHIND THE POND
The underlying concept in the parable of Phoebe fish is the big-fish-little-pond effect introduced by educational psychologist Dr. Herbert W. Marsh. Extrapolating Marsh’s theory to the business world, he tells us that a person’s accomplishments have a greater chance of looking impressive when there is a smaller group on which to compare them. Simply stated, a person has a better chance of becoming a big fish if she is in a little pond.
THE MOST IMPORTANT TAKE-AWAY MESSAGE
There are many different messages that you can take away from this parable, but there is one message that I feel most strongly about. It is this: Every woman has power and influence over her own life, even if she lacks power in the organization that she works for.
As women, we are inherently loyal to our bosses, our teams, and our organizations. In general, I see this as a good thing. However, when we are not happy in our jobs, we can become trapped by our loyalty. We can be selfless to a fault. We often forget that we have the power to make things better for ourselves. We are not trapped in any particular job or any particular pond, but we are often trapped by our own insecurities and our inaccurate thinking.
All too often, we forget to take charge of our own careers. We leave our future in the hands of other people rather than taking charge of it ourselves. We ignore the underground streams that could take us to other ponds, or we are too afraid or guilt-ridden to explore them. We forget that we have free will.
I fully recognize that not all women aspire to be a big fish, and not all women want to swim in a big pond. That’s good because a pond’s survival depends on the productivity of a lot of satisfied little fish. There is nothing wrong with being a happy little fish in a cozy little pond or a comfortable big pond. Being a big fish is not for everyone. One size does not fit all.
The challenge embedded in the parable is to examine your own career ambition and to reflect on your authentic self.
- What size fish do you really want to be?
- What size pond is ideal for you?