How to be a little fish in a big pond

My first week at NPR, I was wildly intimidated.

It began with the shiny new building. I’ve never been at a journalism organization that, first of all, has the money to build state-of-the-art offices for its employees — and, second of all, actually invests that money into building it. I’m used to journalism organizations that make employees pay for their own coffee.

This is asking for a great light-in-the-darkness metaphor about journalism, but I'll spare you this time.

This is asking for a great light-in-the-darkness metaphor about journalism, but I’ll spare you. This time.

Then, it was the brilliance of my coworkers and editors. They are all so knowledgable and creative and have Ivy League degrees — well, most of them don’t actually have Ivy League degrees, but that’s how it felt to me. For the first time, I was self-conscious of my state-school alma mater and unranked journalism school.

I wanted to impress my coworkers but didn’t know how, and I didn’t want to come off as cocky. So I constantly humbled myself, to the point where I no longer felt confident.

I was a little fish in a big pond, and I didn’t know how to handle that.

For several years, I’ve been of the philosophy that one can be as big of a fish as one wants, in any sized pond. Even at a university of 32,000, I held leadership positions, ranked at the top of my class, and knew people everywhere. By senior year, it seemed effortless.

But that wasn’t always my aspiration, I remember. My freshman year of college, when I was disappointed that I wasn’t attending a smaller and more elite university, I decided not to push myself to do well. Being the best and brightest at an Ivy was one thing — but why rush to the top at a place without that much glamour?

Ironically, that is what made my successes feel so effortless three years later. I pushed myself to achieve when I genuinely wanted to, and I held back when it didn’t matter so much. Maybe I could have accomplished more, I don’t know, but I’m damn proud of whatever I did accomplish because my successes were not only by me but also for me.

So, after about a week of small-fish insecurities, I decided to try my early college tactic again. Here’s what I told myself: I do not have to impress anyone in the first week. Or the first month. Or ever, really. All I have to do is be competent, which I know I can do, and use my time there to learn as much as I can. And if an opportunity arises that excites me, I’ll try to take it.

My motivation as a journalist is to help create a more enlightened society through my work. Although I wouldn’t say no to a Pulitzer, I generally stopped making glamour and prestige my goal after I didn’t get into that small, elite, first-choice college — and have been happier for it. So why start again now?


NPR internship in review

The stories I’ve written for so far:

  1. Why Spying On Our Kids To Solve Cyberbullying Might Not Work, Sept. 17
  2. The Promises And Pitfalls Of Social Media — For Police, Sept. 22
  3. Weekly Innovation: Pampering Your Pooch From Afar, Sept. 25
  4. Ancient Jewish Tradition Meets Contemporary Design, Sept. 25
  5. This Law Wants To Save Teens’ Reputations, But Probably Won’t, Sept. 27

And if you want to read something that is not by me (as if!), my pick of the week is: A Nightly Dinner Out That’s Like Therapy, by Corey Gilgannon for the New York Times.

2 thoughts on “How to be a little fish in a big pond”

  1. A lot of things you write about UofI stuck with me. Being in TFA (which has a TON of Ivy League people) I feel like I can relate in a small way.
    “For the first time, I was self-conscious of my state-school alma mater and unranked (insert major here) school.” – Too true.

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