In his new book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that sometimes conditions traditionally perceived as disadvantageous can actually be advantageous. At first glance a fight between David and Goliath is a no-brainer. Goliath is a giant who can crush the tiny shepherd with nary a thought, right? Maybe not. We initially fail to consider David’s speed, agility, and resourcefulness. The small shepherd used the disparity in size to his advantage – to fight Goliath on his own terms, not the giant’s. The book goes on to ponder the good that can come out of other less than desirable circumstances like large class size, dyslexia, being the underdog going into a game, and even losing a parent. All of Gladwell’s chapters present fascinating data in a new light, but one chapter in particular stayed with me. In this chapter, Gladwell tells the story of a woman, who while growing up, wanted a career in the sciences. Through grade school, middle school, and high school she excelled in math and science, but when college rolled around something interesting happened. She floundered. She registered, attended, and studied for college-level science courses and she could not hold her own. After a few semesters she completely changed her track, dropped the science classes, and ultimately majored and obtained a degree in a completely different field. Why the change? This woman who wanted to be a scientist for as long as she can remember, who admittedly still dreams of what could have been had she stayed the course, succeeded in the field she loves until she got to college and then everything fell apart. The reason for the change, Gladwell theorizes, is this woman’s choice of college. Instead of choosing a large state school, she chose to attend an Ivy League university. And with that choice she went from being a very big (successful) fish in a small pond, to a very small fish in a very big pond. Was she still smart and driven? Sure, but no more so than everyone else around her. She didn’t stand out at Brown or have the feelings of success or accomplishment that she would have enjoyed had she attended a school with a less prestigious student body. When she looked around her organic chemistry class she felt inferior for the first time in her life. Would she be a scientist today if she went to the University of Maryland instead of Brown? Probably. In her case, attending an Ivy League school, something almost all of us think of as being an advantage, turned out to be a disadvantage.
This season, I, like the woman Gladwell introduced to us, went from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a very very big pond. This change was not lost on me. Going into the 2013 season I was quite worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress or the expectations of racing as an elite athlete. My first race as a professional triathlete, the women’s pro field included Leanda Cave, Mirinda Carfrae, ITU superstars, and past Ironman champions. Not only was I worried about my race, I was worried about my performance compared to these women’s performances. I was worried about my swim, my bike, my run, and my ego. Going into 2013, I thought it would be fun to race as a professional for a year – experience the perks, rub shoulders with the big dogs, check the box, and move on with life. Not surprisingly I found myself toward the middle or bottom of many race results. Surprisingly, even though my ego took a hit, my spirit wasn’t dampened. Unlike the woman in Gladwell’s book, as the season went on, I became more emboldened, more motivated. I might have been a small fish, but I was a small fish with big dreams. After competing in nine half ironman distance races and qualifying for Worlds 70.3, I decided to add one more race to the 2013 calendar – Ironman Florida. The last time I did an Ironman I was burnt literally and figuratively. Soon after the race I told my coach that the full distance wasn’t for me and I would never toe the line at one of these races again. But racing my heart out this season as a small fish changed something. I wasn’t going to let anything intimidate me – not a pro start list, not a hurtful comment, not one bad race, and certainly not a race distance. The result? A huge PR. In Florida I covered 140.6 miles in nine hours and thirty-eight minutes. (I am happy with the time but never ever satisfied.)
Changing ponds can be pretty amazing… And this small fish? She’s gettin’ bigger.