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How to Be a Big Fish

Once upon a time in Paris, there was a group of young men who met often at a favorite café. They were friends and colleagues, and they shared a passion and a frustration. Their passion was painting; they were driven to push the accepted boundaries of the medium. Their frustration was that they were finding it nearly impossible to sell their art.

It wasn’t that people weren’t buying art - in 19th century Paris people did that - it was that the art they were buying was from artists whose work had been displayed at Salon. Salon was a 200 year-old annual event at the Académie des Beau-Arts in Paris and was considered the greatest annual art event in the Western World.

Every artist wanted their work displayed there. But in order for an artist’s work to be displayed, it had to be selected.

The problem for our young mavericks was that theirs was not the sort of art selected to be displayed at Salon. Works displayed there were familiar to people, both in subject and technique. That is not what our boys were doing.

Their stuff was new and different. They were small fish in a big pond. The wrong pond.

So they bitched and they starved. They longed to be in the big pond. Until the day they decided to create their own pond.

They used the studio of a photographer friend to create their own exhibition, and opened it to the public. Some people appreciated their work, some laughed or criticized. But they got attention, they sold paintings, and were encouraged to exhibit seven more times.

The names of some of those small fish who created their own pond – one in which they could be the fish they knew they could be – were Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Cézanne, and Degas. Today, the paintings from that first exhibit in 1874 are valued at over a billion dollars.


From time to time I’ve suggested to talented students and friends that they start their own youtube channel. Typically, they laugh or brush that aside. I’m not at all attached to youtube; the core of my message to them is this:

Dig your own pond.

If you’re not being recognized, or having success, in the thing you’re pursuing, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should give up. Maybe first you should look at the pond you’re in, and the fish with whom you’re swimming, and decide if that’s really where you want to be.

Perhaps it’s just where you think you should be. Or simply where you ended up.

You may not be thrilled, or even confident, about moving to a smaller pond. But you may find that you like being a bigger fish.

Acknowledgement: Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

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