Years ago, I came across this question: ‘Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?’ It framed goal setting in terms of hierarchy and status and puzzled me for many years. I felt sure that something was wrong with question, but I didn’t know what it was. Then I read a piece in The Australian by Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of New South Wales. He wrote about human systems organised two different ways: witch’s hats and ice cream cones.

Podium Goal: First, second or third place
Competition Goal: Be Number One

Goal setting in the Witch’s Hat Model

In this model, many people compete for one prize. The goal is to reach the top. As people advance, more and more competitors fall away because the cone is getting smaller. Finally, at the pinnacle, there is only one winner, working hard to stay there as long as possible before being knocked off.

Crossley was concerned that education in Australia is becoming too competitive. Are his concerns warranted, considering many Asians migrate to Australia so that their children can enjoy less competitive schooling? From my experience, the minimum standard of expected student achievement in Australia is lower than in many Asian countries. At the top end, however, competition in Australia is keen. Students compete for scholarships, selective schools places and entry into high-demand university courses such as medicine. It doesn’t end with graduation. Academics compete for tenure, grants, and publication in respected journals.

My father told me this story about his Engineering post-graduate studies in Manchester. After a lecture, his good friend ran to the library and found copies of the paper recommended by the lecturer. He took one for himself, gave one to my father, and hid the rest. ‘Why do you do that?’ my father asked, astonished. ‘So that other students won’t have a chance to read it,’ his friend replied. My father thought to himself that in highly competitive societies, people do all sorts of things just to survive. Clearly, competition beyond a certain point becomes counter productive and nasty.

Goal setting in the Ice Cream Cone Model

Invert the witch’s hat and you get an ice cream cone. In the ice cream cone model, the diameter widens as people climb upwards and specialise. The goal is to develop a niche in your industry. The economic pie grows as innovative people come up with novel ideas. Ice cream drips down. There is enough for everyone, and more to share as people climb higher.

Crossley suggests that there must be a balance of competition and collaboration in all human systems. Education systems can avoid becoming overly competitive by diversifying. For example, different schools can focus on different areas: music, sport, academics. And we can lessen the stress in education by recognising that tertiary education is not for everyone. For some, vocational training may be a a better fit. In Australia, many roads can lead to happiness.

Goal setting for me

Last week, Arts South Australia released the short-list for the 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. My warmest congratulations and best wishes to all contenders. As a writer, I was once advised to make it my goal to collect at least 100 rejection slips in the year ahead. Writing is hard and making the shortlist is definitely a cause for a very, very big celebration.

My manuscript did not make the shortlist for the unpublished manuscript awards. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. Suppose I eventually land a publishing deal, I’ve been told that there are 1,000 books competing for every slot on a bookshop shelf. How disheartening.

I’d surely have fallen off the witch’s hat by now if not for my Writer’s Group. We meet once a month to celebrate, commiserate and critique each other’s work. I feel they understand my professional pain like no others do. They’ve given me the confidence to keep pursuing my writing goals. I am also part of other groups such as the Problogger online community. In their closed Facebook group, bloggers ask questions, provide solutions and share tips. Groups like these are driven by the belief is that there is enough work in the wide online world for everyone.

Goal setting for the creative types

The night after the Caleb awards for Christian literature, chaplain Jenny Glazebrook urge us to celebrate each other’s successes. As with any awards, there are winners and there are the rest. Jenny asked us to celebrate each other’s successes because when one of us wins, we all win. Was she right? This may not be true in a literal sense, but I believe it is true collectively and it is true in the long run.

Disappointments are part of life, ever more so as we grow older. Competition may be a necessary part of life but collaboration helps us get further than we could go on our own. A collaborative spirit help us deal with disappointments because it enables us to celebrate each other’s success.

My one decision is to stop pegging my success to a publication deal, and to pursue various avenues and diversify my skill set. I’ve taken up the social media responsibility for the 2018 Stories of Life competition. It’s a competition with a difference. Judges not only select winners, but they also select entries to be published in an anthology, a nice melding of competition and collaboration.

Goal setting for the traveller

To be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? This is a pertinent question for a citizen of the world and potential migrant. Is it better to relocate for improved job/study prospects (and its associated risks) or to stay put and never know what could have been?

Hayles Lake Macquarie ICG

Being a mother of a gymnast, I’ve sat through many gymnastics competitions. The better the competition – or the bigger the pond – the less likely my child will win and get a medal. A higher overall standard, however, usually translates to more skilled gymnasts in the long run, even if medal chances are diminished. When a cohort does well, standards are raised, and each individual stands to benefit, as long as the individual embraces growth opportunities.

I realised now that the problem with the fish-and-pond question is that it assumes that the fish size and the pond size are fixed. So the only choice available to the fish is which pond to swim in. But what if the fish can change the size of the pond? The belief that the size of the pond can grow drives collaborative communities.

This is hugely encouraging for those of us who have relocated, but not for ourselves; we might have moved for a better education for our children, or for a promotion for our spouse. The difficult thing about moving as a family is that the relocation seldom benefits all members equally. The idea that the pond size can grow at least gives hope that wherever I am, I can always work towards better things as long as success is defined not only by what I achieve, but also by how I help others to achieve.

What is goal setting like where you live or work? Would love to hear about how you get the best out of yourself and those around you.

In January, I will post updated versions of ‘The Best of The Curious Scribbler’ every Friday. Brand new posts from February onwards. I look forward to journeying far and wide through stores in 2018.


    2 replies to "Goal setting: competitive vs collaborative"

    • Oern lene

      Happy new year
      Love your blog – and your ideas
      Looking forward to next year

      • May Kuan Lim

        So very nice to hear from you, Lene. Wishing you and your family all the best in the new year.

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