Best to be a big fish in a small pond

Attending a small university for graduate school gave me the confidence and opportunities I needed to excel in life, compared to what might have been at a more prestigious university.

Best to be a big fish in a small pond by Nancy Knowlton

As I was going through university, I started to imagine what it would be like to go to a prestigious American university for my MBA. I had chosen a very small university for my undergraduate business degree, in fact the one closest to my home. Only a few hundred students were in the whole school, and it lived up to its reputation as offering an intimate university experience. I knew my professors and all of the students in my program. In fact, I must have known and interacted with about three-quarters of the students. I thrived in that environment and loved my time there.

Ivy League interest

One habit that I developed early on was reading Harvard Business Review, and very quickly Harvard University secured the number one position in my mind for business schools. I was naturally very pleased when I was approached by a Harvard recruiter in my final year, wondering if I had ever considered pursuing an MBA there. I hit a number of key factors for Harvard, including female (probably the biggest factor), foreign, top of my class, very high marks on the GMAT (graduate management aptitude test) and athlete. We got very specific very quickly, and I was offered a scholarship. While generous, it fell short of my total needs. Heading to the United States meant that I would no longer qualify for a Quebec student loan or bursary, a critical component of my overall funding sources to date. Try as I might, I could not close the gap and make the numbers work. I passed on the opportunity.

No loss of opportunity

I ultimately pursued an MBA at another small Canadian university. It took me a while to get over thinking that somehow I was shortchanging myself, because had it not been for the scarcity of money, I would have gone to Harvard. Fortunately, I met a couple of professors who had gone to Harvard and graduated second and third in their years, and they had chosen to teach in the MBA program at my university. They both assured me that there would be no loss of opportunity for not having gone to Harvard – that was their personal pledge – not just to me but to all of the students in the recently developed MBA program. At the time I accepted their promise, but I wasn’t totally convinced.

After I graduated, MBA in hand, I simply got on with further studies (for a C.A. designation) and work. I assumed that I could do what I wanted to do and get the opportunities that I sought. For the most part, things have played out well. With the benefit of hindsight I can say that the professors were absolutely right – probably more right than they knew at the time. Opportunity exists everywhere, and it is recognizing it in the first place and then making something of it that really matters.

The school of hard knocks

Opportunity has never checked the credentials of my grad school as I worried that it might. The things that I thought mattered did in some ways, but only for a short time. The thing that has mattered the most regarding education is that it has not stopped at the formal levels that ended in degrees and designations. It is lifelong and sometimes can only be acquired through one school – the school of hard knocks. Actually learning lessons from experiences and knowing what I know as a consequence have been the important things.

Life’s outcomes

It’s hard to know for sure, but I now speculate that I may not have had the same opportunities that I have to this point had I gone to Harvard. With only the best and brightest going there, I might have been middle of the pack or worse still, bottom rung. Malcolm Gladwell, in David and Goliath, noted, “The more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities.” Instead at my smaller school I was in the top 1 or 2 in virtually all subject areas, and that gave me not only attention but also opportunity for special discussions and relationships with my professors. This special attention was invaluable for me and set me on my life’s path.

Instead of building confidence in my knowledge and skills, being a lower-ranked student in the best MBA program (even if I were still learning well) may have changed the confidence that I felt about being able to tackle new challenges. It may have made me cautious and afraid to start and grow a business. I may have been steered to a safer career as a corporate manager or executive instead of becoming a dreamer and business builder. I may have imagined a more confining future, one that was not full of bold and definite steps. Gladwell said it well, “It’s just that the very thing that makes elite schools such wonderful places for those at the top makes them very difficult places for everyone else. … The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them.”

I could have been a small fish in a big pond – in New York, London, Toronto or some other significant global city. I could have had a good career with a global powerhouse or a well-known company. But now that I really know myself, I know that would not have made me happy and it would not have challenged me in the same way that being an entrepreneur creating a global brand and a brand new product category has. I have thrived on the opportunity to paint my own canvas every day, even when things are not as predictable as they are in larger companies.

So for me, it has been far better to be a big fish in a little pond. I suspect that this is likely true for many others as well.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.