Big or Small, We’re All Still Just Fish in The Ocean

This piece was written by Ayush Desai, spechaar’s founder and editor. The text is a version of a speech he delivered in early 2023.

My first real experience with success is a rather regrettable one. It dates back to before I arrived at my current school at the beginning of Grade 11, when I was a student at another smaller, lesser-known school across town. At said school, I worked hard from the beginning of high school in pursuit of my ambitious goal to become the so-called “bulldog” in the litter of Golden Retrievers wherein I found myself. A coach of mine used to warn us not to “bark like bulldogs if we piss like puppies”, and so there I was every morning, trying to gain barking privileges. 

I must confess that whilst I succeeded in this endeavour, and thrilling were the days when I could swim around campus as the proverbial “big fish” of the pond, I reflect back today and feel immense regret. This is because I fell victim to my victories in that I allowed them to mislead me into believing the false notion that school was a simple fish pond in which only the successful “big fish” swim onto greater things in life, whilst the tinier, less successful “small fish” sink to the bottom. 

A few years on, I find myself reflecting back to that time and thinking how it has shaped my journey thus far and the person I am today. Now, as I put pen to paper to deliver my words in this piece, I must beseech all who read this not to fall into the same trap as I did by allowing your achievements in any pond, be it big or small, to mislead you into believing that success in the pond directly translates to success in the ocean of life.

Around a year ago, fresh out of my previous school, arguably my personal public speaking stomping grounds, and brimming with confidence from my previous oratory accolades, I signed up to speak at the 2022 Public Speaking contest at my school. I was new to the school, and I hadn’t yet competed against any one of my peers in any single grade – it was a sure shot at an easy win, and a nice little bullet point to add to the multitude of achievements listed on my CV. Or so I thought. 

That evening, I felt confident and ready to shoot up on stage, speak my words and thereafter easily nab the Top Senior Speaker trophy out of the hands of the plebeians I was competing against. However, the evening proceeded very differently than planned. After floating into the room in a bubble of hubris and disillusionment, in no time, the former plebeians and now masterful princes shot words out of their mouth like arrows from a quiver, and just like that, my bubble popped. By the end of the evening, I had awoken from my hard fall back to Earth only to have my shattered ego served to me on a silver plate. You see, the proud boy who entered this room that night as the extraordinary “bee’s knees” of his previous hive, departed, head hung lower than ever, as nothing more than an ordinary bee with decidedly broken knees and an even more shattered pride.

A week after that fateful evening, I found myself seeking solace and empathy to heal my wounds from my wise headmaster. In his true style, this man did his best to console me and remind me that “we’re all good at different things”. Whilst this statement did nothing but add salt to my wounds, what helped more was what he said to me just as I stepped foot outside his office: “Ayush, at the end of the day, we’re all just fish swimming in the ocean, and like it or not, the size of the fish you are is irrelevant for it’s what you do that matters”. 

With my headmaster’s help, and many a chat with my Mum during those 5pm rides home from school after a long day, it dawned upon me sooner than later that after my inevitable fall from grace that evening, I was suffering bruises caused by the Big-Fish-Little-Pond-Effect, which is a theory prominent in the field of educational psychology, designed by Oxford psychologists in the 80s. As the theory goes, in the context of an academic institution (but really, it’s applicable anywhere), when an individual goes from being a “big fish in a small pond” to “small fish in a big pond”, which means that a young person goes from being a high-achieving student in a high-achieving institution with little competition to the same in an institution with higher standards and way more competition, the student is bound to feel worthless and doubtful of their abilities, even if they are just as capable and talented as their peers. Fast-track to today, whilst through hard work and perseverance, I have grown into a bigger fish in the pond that seemed so drowning to me, that feeling of being less than one’s peers is something I will never forget and would not wish on anyone else. And that brings me to the question of how can we, as stakeholders in the success of our society, do our part to prevent people from feeling like this? 

Well, I have a prominent example that comes to mind and is more relative to my own life, and those with whom I intend to read this piece. In a school like my own, where the calibre and size of our high-achieving student body may make other less-achieving students vulnerable to the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect, specifically when they leave school and enter university – a far larger pond – we need to ensure that from the onset of a person’s career in an academic institution, a place where we learn and grow, they learn to succeed in a system that is not insulated from the reality that the world outside is an enormous ocean, not a big pond, and any sort of success in the school pond, whilst important and deeply celebrate-able,  does not equate to actual success in the greater sea of this life. 

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Sir Winston Churchill

As the former PM of the United Kingdom so eloquently put it: success is not final and failure is not fatal – and might I dare to add, this is especially true in our relatively low-stakes local ponds we swim around in daily.

As I close my remarks, I leave you, dear reader, with this single question: as institutions in a society, academic or not, are we going to blindside people by purporting the notion that the size of the fish in the school (or any other) pond is indicative of that fish’s success or failure in ocean of life? Or, are we going to take action to ensure that every student knows that at the end of the day, we are all just fish swimming in the great ocean of life.