Ever suck at what you’re doing?
Of course you do. We all do! We sign up for things we don’t start. We start things we don’t finish. We end up somewhere and look around with no idea how we got there.
Maybe you moved to a neighborhood where everybody is way richer than you and has a fancier car. You took a job at a company where everybody speaks in codes you don’t understand.
You got married and had a child with someone you’re not sure you like. We make mistakes. Part of living is putting ourselves in new situations but sometimes these situations are wildly uncomfortable or end badly. Sometimes you just want to press the eject button and blast off to Mars.
That’s how I felt for much of my time at Harvard. I respected the school, I was wowed by the professors, I loved my classmates, but I just didn’t relate to the careers I saw grads heading toward.
Why would I want to sit in a windowless boardroom helping a rich company get richer by telling them how to fire ten thousand people? Why would I want to help two companies merge just to satisfy some billionaire CEO’s ego? Why would I want to slave away on a marketing team desperate to sell the world more air fresheners?
These jobs made no sense!
But then again... they paid so much money. If the world is built on gears and cranks, a lot of these jobs were spinning them.
I felt I wanted the lifestyle the school was leading me toward but at the same time it didn’t make sense to me.
This is the context when I heard a story from Dean John McArthur that resonated deeply and which I think about every time I’m trying to get stronger.
Let me share it now.
The life-changing story from the dean
When I got into Harvard Business School they asked to see my tax returns from the past three years to assess me for financial aid. So I gathered all the paperwork. And my income added up to less than $50,000... total... for three years.
Well, I’d scored a doughnut three years earlier because I was still a college student. And I’d scored another doughnut when I was running my restaurant and couldn’t afford to take a salary.
And between those two goose eggs was my Procter & Gamble salary of $51,000 plus bonus. Or at least part of it, since I hadn’t made it through a full year there.
I was embarrassed sending in the numbers to Harvard but delighted a couple months later when I got a letter in the mail saying “Congratulations! You are so poor we are going to pay for you to come here!”
Finding out I suddenly didn’t need $70,000 of student loans felt like I’d just won the Powerball. But I’d received a lot of phone calls offering me free Caribbean cruises over the years so I read the letter again to make sure it was legit.
Turns out it was legit.
Turns out me and many other Canadian students were recipients of the John H. McArthur Canadian Fellowship.
John McArthur was the dean of Harvard Business School from 1980 to 1995 and, a Canadian himself, he established a fellowship to pay tuition for any Canadian who got into the school and wasn’t sitting on wads of cash.
I felt an incredible swell of love for this random old man who I had never met, so when I got to Harvard I spent an entire night writing a five page thank-you letter sharing my life story, my failures, everything that had led me to this point, and everything I wanted to do afterward.
Before I could second guess whether he wanted a super-long letter from a total stranger, I sealed it with a kiss and dropped it in a mailbox in Harvard Square.
A few weeks later I got a phone call from John McArthur’s office inviting me to lunch with the sugar daddy himself!
I must have sounded nervous on the phone because the assistant had to calm me down. “Don’t worry,” she said. “He’d just like to meet you.” Then she whispered, “We don’t get many five-page thank-you letters.”
So between classes a couple weeks later, I found John McArthur’s office behind tall oak trees in a vine-covered building in a corner of campus.
I was escorted in. He swiveled around on his desk chair, smiled, got up, and shook my hand.
“Neil, have a seat,” he said, and gestured toward the circular table in the middle of the room, where two boxed sandwiches were sitting.
“Hope you like tuna.”
He patiently waited for me to choose from the many chairs to sit on and then picked the chair right beside me. He was wearing a casual button-up cardigan and thick glasses that wobbled on his nose. And he smiled so warmly, like an old friend—humble, gracious, down to earth.
I found this especially amazing as there seemed to be an incredibly famous painting on the wall behind him. Was that a Picasso?
He caught me looking at it. “Oh, that,” he said. “Some foreign leader gave it to us as a present. We couldn’t put it up in the dean’s residence on account of the, uh...”
I stared at the picture as his voice trailed off and noticed it looked like a painting of a bull sporting a gigantic blue boner.
I laughed and we started chatting.
“So, how’s school going so far?” he asked.
“Oh, you know, stressful. We started classes a few weeks ago, and I’m up past midnight every night reading cases and preparing for them. And the companies have already started visiting campus. Everybody wants to work at the same five places, so we’re chugging beers with millionaire consultants and bankers with black bags under their eyes hoping we can become millionaire consultants and bankers with black bags under our eyes, too.”
He raised his eyebrows and laughed.
There was a pause.
And then he told me a story that changed my life and, looking back, was worth more to me than all the tuition he was so generously covering for me.
So get off the beach
“Neil, right now you’re just an eager guy standing outside the beach,” he began. “You’re standing at the fence looking in. The beach is closed, but it’s opening soon. You can see the sand, you can smell the ocean, you can see a half-dozen beautiful people sunbathing in bathing suits. But you know who’s beside you at the fence? A thousand other eager folks just like you. They’re all eager. They’re all gripping that fence. They all want on that beach. And when the door to the fence opens, they’re all running on to the hot sand and trying to seduce the same few sunbathers. Your odds of winning any of them over are so low.”
I nodded. I had been through campus recruiting at Queen’s.
It was painful. Hundreds of hours researching companies, tailoring resumes, writing cover letters, filling out online applications, doing practice interviews, buying clothes for interviews, researching all the interviewers before I met them, writing and sending thank-you notes, and then the giant stress of waiting weeks or months for replies.
“So get off the beach,” he said.
“Let the thousand other folks run in and fight each other. Let them bite and claw and scratch each other. And sure, let a few of them win over one of those few sunbathers. But it’s much better to get off the beach. Because even if you happen to win, do you know what you would be doing the whole time on that beach? Looking over your shoulder. Seeing who else is going to stake their claim and send you packing. You probably won’t win in any case. But if you do, you win a life full of stress.”
I was in a state of permanent anxiety on campus. I was anxious about classes because I was anxious about grades and I was anxious about grades because I was anxious about jobs and I was anxious about jobs because I was anxious about money.
And here was this man offering relief.
“But if I don’t land one of those jobs,” I said, “I’ll be broke. I got your fellowship because I didn’t have any money. I was hoping to correct that problem.”
“You’ll be fine. It’s simple economics. There are far more problems and opportunities in the world than there are talented and hard-working people to solve them. The world needs talent and hard work to solve its problems so people with talent who are hard workers will have endless opportunities.”
His words felt like calamine lotion rubbed on the bright red burn itching at the center of my soul. What he was saying was... different.
“So,” I asked him, cautiously furthering the metaphor, “if I leave the beach, where do I go?”
“What do you think you offer?” he asked. “You’re young. You have little experience. But you’re learning. You’re passionate. You give people energy and ideas. And who needs that? Not the fancy companies flying here in private jets. It’s the broken companies. The bankrupt companies. The ones losing money. The ones struggling. They need you. The last thing they’re doing is flying teams to Harvard recruiting sessions. But if you knock on their doors and if you get inside, then they will listen to your ideas, give you big jobs with lots of learning, and they’ll take you seriously. You’ll participate in meetings instead of just taking notes. You’ll learn faster, gain experience quicker, and make changes to help a place that actually needs help.”
There was a long pause as I digested what I was actually hearing.
Think about this for a second.
Harvard Business School had an army of people dedicated to planning, executing, and guiding students through campus recruiting. It was a giant department. Career visioning workshops. Job posting boards. Information sessions. Beer nights and company dinners. First, second, third round interviews on campus. And here I was sitting in front of the Dean who was telling me to set a match to it all. Ignore it completely and call up a pile of broken and bankrupt places. I left that lunch and never applied for another job through the school again. Not a single info session, not a single job posting, not a single interview. I just went back to my apartment and made an Excel spreadsheet. I filled it with a list of all the broken, beaten down companies I could think of. Places that were doing something interesting but had fallen on hard times. A big oil spill. A plummeting stock price. A massive layoff. A failed launch. A big PR problem.
Reputation in the toilet.
I came up with about a hundred company names. I then wrote up a 30-second cold call script saying I was a student studying leadership and would love to ask a couple questions to a leader in Human Resources. I cold called all hundred companies.
I got in the door with maybe half of them and then followed up with them to say thank you, share a couple articles, and ask to meet for coffee or lunch. About a dozen took me up on the offer.
And after those dozen conversations, I wrote thank you letters and followed up asking for a summer job.
I got five offers.
And all five were from companies off the beach.
I took a job at Walmart and found I was the only person with a master’s degree... in an office of over a thousand people.
Dean McArthur’s advice paid off. I was suddenly a big fish in a small pond. All my peers from Harvard were long gone. They were crunching Excel spreadsheets in glass towers. I was sitting on ripped chairs beside piles of old cardboard boxes in a low-rise building in the burbs.
But I loved it. I had work to do. I had real problems to solve.
At Walmart I found I was one of a handful of people quoting fresh research and case studies since I’d just read and reviewed so much at school. There was a ton I didn’t know. I had no retail experience! No store operations experience! No Walmart experience! But the things I did know were different from what my colleagues knew.
And different is better than better.
I spent the summer designing, planning, and running the first internal leadership conference at the company.
It was a hit.
Then, on my last day of the summer job, the head of HR handed me a full-time job offer with a primo starting salary pasted on top.
I was way off the beach.
And it felt great.
What’s wrong with the $5 million condo?
What did I learn from Dean McArthur’s beach story?
Find the small ponds so you can be the big fish. When I was at Harvard Business School I was below average in everything. Grades, class participation, whatever you were measuring, I was in the bottom half. I was a little fish in a big pond of high achievers from around the world. I never felt great about what I was accomplishing there. I was always on the low end of the totem pole. I think about this a lot when I see ads on the inside covers of fancy magazines advertising new Manhattan condos starting at $5 million. That’s a little fish in a big pond right there! $5 million means you have the worst condo in the entire building. No view, no prestige, no nothing. Who would drop money on that kind of pain when $5 million could buy you a penthouse suite almost anywhere else?
When I started at Walmart, I was different. And different really is better than better.
My degree wasn’t immediately neutralized by being rounded by tables of people with fancy degrees. At Walmart, I was worth something. So my confidence went up. My “I can do this!” feeling rose and rose and rose.
Don’t start swimming in the biggest pond you can find. Start in the smallest. Don’t chase the hot guy or hot girl at the beach. Find the nerd at the library. Find the broken company.
Find the place nobody wants to be.
And start there.
Dean McArthur’s advice worked so well for me I started using it in other areas of my life, too.
Sometimes it was conscious.
Sometimes it wasn’t.
But it always worked.
When I began doing paid keynote speeches, my speaking agency suggested a starting fee range that seemed super high to me.
“Summarize everything you’ve learned from your research and experiences in an hour, fly wherever people want you to be, deliver it all live in front of a thousand people, and make sure you’re entertaining, educational, and empowering. It’s a hard job! You should be paid well for it.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That seems too high. Who else is in that range?”
They listed a slew of people. New York Times bestselling authors, gold medal–winning Olympians, rock star professors. I’d heard of them all.
“Hmm,” I said. “What about half that price?”
They listed a bunch of people I’d never heard of before.
“And what about half that?” I asked.
“There is no half that,” they said. “That’s the lowest range. It doesn’t make sense for us to work for months and spend hours on conference calls and manage all logistics for commissions on speeches below a certain level.”
“Okay,” I said. “Start me at your lowest range, please.”
The agency didn’t love it but by giving speeches at a lower price I got booked for smaller conferences and events. I was in local boardrooms with fifty people instead of Vegas casinos with a thousand. My confidence went up. And it stayed up as I moved onto bigger stages.
I looked into the research underpinning the small pond line of thinking, and it turns out it’s only thirty years old. Back in 1984 a study by Herb Marsh and John W. Parker appeared in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It asked a very simple and incisive question: “Is it better to be a relatively large fish in a small pond even if you don’t learn to swim as well?”
The research in the study provided the clear answer.
That study was the lead domino in a slew of studies around the globe that confirmed the same incredible result.
Regardless of age, socioeconomic background, nationality, or cultural upbringing, when you’re in a smaller pond, your opinion of yourself what’s called “academic self-concept”—goes up. And importantly, it stays up even after you leave the pond. This is because two opposing forces present themselves: fitting into the group you’re with and a contrasting belief of feeling “better than this group.” Our brains like that second feeling, and it sticks with us as we realize “Hey, I can do this” or “Hey, I can maybe do better than this.”
What’s another way to think about it?
Ask yourself one key question.
Would you rather be a 5 in a group of 9s, a 9 in a group of 9s, or a 9 in a group of 5s?
The most impressive results of these studies say that being a 9 in a group of 5s increases your positive academic self-concept even ten years after you leave the group.
Put yourself in a situation where you think you’re a big deal.
Guess what? You’ll think you’re a big deal for a long, long time.
And the studies saw these results across a wide range of countries in both individual and collectivist cultures around the globe.
So I say there’s no shame putting yourself in situations where you feel really good about yourself. Should you downgrade yourself? No! Definitely no. But there’s nothing wrong with entering the marathon in the slowest category. Playing in the house league instead of the rep league. Teeing off from the tee closest to the pin.
You know what you’re doing?
Setting yourself up for success.
You’ll move up because you believe in yourself.
Now, is there a danger here? Can you think you’re such a big a deal that you damage relationships or hurt others? Yes! That’s the fire we’re playing with. Do you ever wonder why so many celebrities get divorced after they first become famous? Maybe it’s because their academic self-concept skyrocketed! They think they’re a huge fish! And suddenly the small pond marriage they’re in feels way too small. So they jump into a bigger pond and date a superstar.
Why do I mention this? Because it’s about self awareness.
We have to be aware of which pond we’re swimming in and be kind as we swim. Finding small ponds isn’t an excuse to act arrogantly and feel boastful. We’re not trying to spike volleyballs into kindergarten foreheads here.
We’re using a proven science-backed way to be kind to ourselves, swim in the shallows, and help ourselves slowly, slowly, slowly get all the way up to awesome.
Find small ponds.
This article is an excerpt from my new book You Are Awesome