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From an early age, we’re taught to aim for the best – whether it involves the schools, companies, or people we associate with.
But what if “the best” isn’t what we need?
What if, by surrounding ourselves with “prestigious” people, places, and institutions, we’re actually sabotaging our growth?
Let me explain.
Painters in a Parisian Café
It was 1860s Paris. The city was taking the art world by storm. In a café, five artists met to talk.
The young painters – Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille – convened at the Café Guerbois. As usual, they discussed art, life, and philosophy under the guidance of the older Édouard Manet.
Right now though, they needed to talk business. Specifically, the business of getting into the Salon.
The Salon was the ultimate art exhibition. Artists all over Europe submitted their best paintings for consideration by a judges’ panel. Accepted artwork would hang in the exhibition hall for six weeks beginning in May.
At the exhibition, people would crowd around their favorites. The top painters were awarded medals. They became celebrated artists, compensated financially and in reputation.
To an artist, the Salon was everything.
The five painters asked the same question: How to get a painting accepted by the Salon? Time and time again, their paintings were rejected. Without a painting featured in the Salon, they had no fighting chance.
Monet was starving. Renoir had no money to send letters. Nobody was interested in their work. To critics, they were a big joke.
Something had to be done.
The Problem With the Salon
The problem with the Salon was that they were very traditional. Paintings needed to be meticulously created, properly lighted, and feature conventional design. Audiences expected works that centered on soldiers, beautiful women, or animals from mythology or history.
The small group at the Café Guerbois didn’t see things that way. For them, art was about expressing scenes from everyday life. A woman taking a bath. The streets of Paris on a rainy day. Sunset at the waterfront, lined with buildings and docked boats. To them, present day was art.
Unlike the finely manicured paintings that lined the Salon, their work seemed almost…crude. The colors stood apart, and brushstrokes defined rather than melded into the piece. While the artwork showcased real life, the artistic style was anything but realistic.
In 1865, Manet submitted a painting titled Olympia, which featured a nude prostitute. Surprisingly, the Salon accepted it. The response?
It was an absolute scandal. Journalist Antonin Proust wrote: “only the precautions taken by the administration prevented the painting being punctured and torn.” While a nude within a historical setting was acceptable, this was not.
So the group of artists considered their options. Was it better to keep trying at the Salon, or was it time to make their own exhibition? The first option was conventional, but they would likely have to alter their current style. The latter promised artistic freedom, but was littered with uncertainty.
Eventually, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and several other painters decided to set up a small exhibition in 1874. While only around thirty-five hundred people attended, it was more than enough. It was here that they became known as the Impressionists.
Small Fish, Big Pond
In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the things we normally see as disadvantages have hidden strengths, which make them powerful. What is initially perceived as an obstacle can be the secret to victory. In this case, it’s better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond.
We tend to compare ourselves to the people around us to determine how well we’re doing. If our friends are heading off to Tahiti, a camping trip looks mundane. If coworkers are getting salary raises, our stagnant earnings don’t look so great. Our happiness levels take a nosedive when we realize we’re in a pool of sharks.
A problem with the Salon was that acceptance was no guarantee for success. The exhibition hall was a tall building, with paintings lined all the way up to the ceiling. Viewers would only see paintings hung at eye-level near the front.
The Impressionists realized that they needed to find their own way to make an impact.
How to Set Yourself Up to Succeed
Making an impact in a crowded environment can be tricky. But if you can answer these three questions, it’ll help you to create a path to success.
1. How challenging is your environment?
Surrounding yourself with smart, ambitious peers isn’t always the advantage we believe it to be. Gladwell’s research indicates that your chances of earning a STEM degree go down by two percentage points for every 10-point increase in a university’s average SAT score. In other words, the better the school, the more difficult it becomes for you to get that math degree.
Why? Because a school with a higher SAT score has more competitive students, making it harder for you to stand out.
Being in an environment at the opposite end of the spectrum is just as harmful, though. Surrounding yourself with complainers means that you’ll probably fall into similar patterns.
Look at your current situation and whether it’s conducive to what you want to achieve. The best medium is somewhere that challenges you, but not so much that you give up.
2. How much are you growing in your environment?
If you’re struggling to swim in the ocean, move back to the pond. We assume that moving somewhere bigger provides better opportunities. But in doing so, we lose some of the advantages that a smaller place provides.
For instance, a recent grad I knew started her career in a large company. Thousands of applicants competed for a handful of openings at this place. By being in such a position, she was off to a great start, right?
That’s what she believed. But her initial excitement gradually turned to disappointment.
In an office with thousands of employees, she felt like just another entity. Her tasks were menial, and she didn’t get the level of interaction that she had hoped for from her seniors. After about a year, she transferred to a regional firm.
It was an unusual choice to make. If anything, people tended to do the opposite. But was it the right choice?
In the end, she loved it. Her role at the second firm gave her more responsibilities and greater input. These learning experiences set her up nicely for a better position a few years later.
3. How can you differentiate yourself?
While it’s great to be a big fish in a big pond, the reality is that the odds are stacked against you. It’s hard to stand out in a competitive environment simply by being better than the next person at a skill.
Instead, find a way to differentiate yourself. Let’s say that you work in a sales role at a company. Even though your role involves doing client outreach, you might notice that your company lacks a social media presence. Besides your primary role, you take on the additional role of managing the company’s social profiles.
Scott Adams, creator of the comic Dilbert, refers to this as a “talent stack”. In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, he talks about layering a number of modest skills on top of one another to become valuable. Instead of aiming to be the best at one thing, become good at a few things.
In Adam’s case, he layered his artistic skills, writing skills, and business knowledge to create his popular comic. Powerful outcomes happen at the intersection of a few modest skills.
What Happened to the Impressionists?
After the initial 1874 exhibition, there were jeers. There were critics.
But there were others who became interested in their work. The Impressionists’ art began to showcase in New York and London. In 1879, Renoir’s paintings were a success. Several years later, Monet and Pissarro began to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Today, the Impressionist paintings combined are worth over a billion dollars.
Everyone wants to be a big fish in a big pond. But that might mean excelling in the little pond first.
And sometimes, the best opportunities come from making your own pond.
Books referenced in this article:
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams