The adage that it’s better to be a big frog in a small pond than a small frog in a big pond can seem universal. In Spanish, it's better to be “the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion.” In Italian, it’s “the head of an eel than the tail of a sturgeon.” Translated into Silicon-Valley–speak, it might go “it’s better to lead a start-up than to work as a drone at Google.
But not everyone follows this folk wisdom when it comes to their own decisions. In a recent paper published with my colleagues Stephen Garcia, at the University of Michigan, and Shirli Kopelman, at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, we asked European American and East-Asian American students: metaphorically, would you rather be a small frog in a big pond or a big frog in a small pond? 75 percent of the Asian Americans chose the big pond, compared to 59 percent of their non-Asian counterparts.
We also asked adults in the U.S. and mainland China if they would rather attend a National Top 10 college where they’d be below average or a National Top 100 one where they’d be above-average. Fifty-eight percent of the Chinese opted for the Top 10 college, compared to just 29 percent of the Americans.
What about the choice of workplace? There it is again: More Chinese preferred to join a Global Top 10 company even if they’d flounder below average.
THE GEOGRAPHY OF SUCCESS
Why do cultures chart different paths to their decisions? East Asian countries share what psychologists call a “face culture,” wherein each person can have a certain amount of face, or respectability, by virtue of fulfilling his or her position in the social hierarchy. There is just one problem: because face is socially conferred, how you think about yourself does not gain you face. In a stable hierarchy, you can only claim as much respect and status as others are willing to accord.
In contrast, mainstream American culture is a “dignity culture.” To have dignity is to hold the conviction that each individual is born with a level of inherent worth equal to everyone else. Your self-worth is intrinsic, inalienable, and independent of others’ judgments and approval.
Think about what this means for success. The big pond is prestigious. But in a culture of dignity, it does not define who you are. No matter what your aunt might think, going to a second-tier college does not make you a failure. Going to Harvard does not warrant definitive success.
Things are different in a culture based on face. If success and failure are seen through the eyes of others, coming from a big pond can say a lot about who you are—or rather, who others think you are. It’s not that being the big frog is less important. It’s that not going for the big pond incurs a steep social cost: a missing stamp of approval, a lost chance at what is consensually extolled. In a culture of face where the mere mention of Harvard sends an unequivocal signal of your social worth, not choosing it seems inconceivable.
THE PERILOUS BIG POND AND A CAUTION ABOUT THE BIG FROG
The big pond comes with a wealth of benefits: a big name, vast resources, rich connections. But the allure of prestige belies a grueling reality. In 1966, sociologist James A. Davis noticed a peculiar phenomenon: Take two students who are equally intelligent. One attends an elite institution but struggles in a sea of competition. The other goes to a mediocre place but stands out as the star. As it turns out, the latter—the “big frog in a small pond”—tends to fare better.
This is literally known as the “frog-pond effect.” Among students and athletes, it’s how well you perform relative to your peers that fosters self-competence, more than where you come from. All things being equal, institutional prestige does not guarantee future success or career aspiration. Nor does it make up for a lackluster GPA or modest work performance. If anything, it can make you feel lost and incapable, lagging behind your high-achieving peers: the small frog in a prestigious big pond, entrapped in a shroud of ineptitude the big pond is thought to prevent against in the first place.
Indeed, the blind pursuit of the big pond carries dangerous consequences, especially for people living in face cultures. Over the past decade, U.S. colleges witnessed a dramatic 85 percent increase of international students, a third of whom hail from China. So comes an ever-growing frenzy of getting into elite universities. What is culturally normative in China may not be so in the West. As a mass exodus of Chinese students vies for the Ivies, an eruption of ghost SAT testers and cheating scandals ensues, along with a proliferation of Chinese consulting agencies manufacturing application essays and the emergence of a lucrative industry grooming children for an education overseas at an age as early as nine. Even a $200,000 multiyear college prep program in China cannot prepare the big pond hopefuls for the silent struggles to come: cultural shock, language difficulties, mental illness, loneliness and alienation.
But the caution against the extreme pursuit of a prestigious pond does not necessitate the heedless pursuit of its opposite. In 2011, the New York Times featured the career saga of Rona Economou, a former lawyer at a prestigious Manhattan law firm who left the big pond after the recession to start a Greek food stall business. Now the big frog in a small pond, Rona led a healthier life with the kind of career enthusiasm she had hoped for and the freedom of time she had dreamed of.
But soon, reality set in. Rona had to wake up before dawn, six days a week. The mountain of administrative and physical labor, the emotional exhaustion and the lack of security crowded out the passion and fulfillment she once fantasized. She made less money and worked longer hours than she did as a lawyer, struggling day-to-day to keep her small business afloat.
Rona’s story is increasingly common among white-collar workers who quit the 9-to-5 corporate grind to head a career of passion. In dignity cultures, the decision to leave the big pond and follow your dream is widely lauded as a straightforward triumph. But for the one big frog in a small pond that soared to success, how many Ronas are there?
BEYOND THE FROG-POND TRADE-OFF
Of course, the real world is not made up of such dichotomous choices. To navigate the intricacies of decision-making through the prism of frog-pond hypotheticals is a feat too ambitious. To tout the benefits of being the “big frog” regardless of circumstance is a solution too facile. Even in the U.S., there are certain career fields in which big frogs in small ponds fail to show promise. When it comes to academic faculty hiring, for example, high-prestige doctoral programs confer advantages with which low-prestige ones can hardly compete. One study found Top 10 U.S. universities generate astonishingly three times as many tenure-tracked professors as Top 20 ones. Sometimes, it’s your experience in the big pond more than your own productivity that lands you the job.
Insofar as folk wisdom does not provide a guide to everyday decision-making, the frog-pond paradigm alone does not offer a prescription for the right way to choose. It nevertheless illuminates the diverse cultural propensity in how we approach the trade-off. It may be disheartening to acknowledge that neither choice guarantees success, but it may be comforting to realize that one is not confined to a singular path to success.
Interestingly, the frog-pond adage has an Asian corollary: “it’s better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix,” a seeming corrective to an insatiable hunger for a prestigious habitat to which we seek to belong. But perhaps underneath the adamant assertion lies a quiet recognition of human ambition, a probe at the nebulous mystery of success and aspiration. Perhaps someday, the frogs and ponds and the chickens and phoenixes will fade into our past existence, and we will come to recognize success as being about far more than one-upmanship or a glamorous affiliation.