Malcolm Gladwell Makes a Strong 'Impressionist' With His Big Fish-Little Pond Theory

The Impressionists' work was eventually seen by the public (not all rave reviews, by the way), and the rest ishistory. Those same paintings from that exhibit are today now worth more than a billion dollars!
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Malcolm Gladwell, the thought-provoking New York Times bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw, has a new book out called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which features a fresh take on the old Big Fish-Little Pond debate.

Gladwell cites the early years of the Impressionists -- no, they weren't a '60s R&B band -- but rather, the group of famous French painters that included such legends as Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Pierre August-Renoir, and Camille Pissaro.

Do those nom de plumes sound familiar? Surely if you're an art museum lover -- they are household names (in fact, you probably own a calendar, mousepad, or coffee mug with their famous paintings digitized on them), but 150 years ago in 1860's Paris? Not so much. These guys were just a bunch of frustrated struggling artists who hung out at the local neighborhood cafe, worrying if their work would ever be seen and truly appreciated.

Back then, as Gladwell writes, the only way for an artist to break through obscurity was if their artwork was chosen to be exhibited by the Salon (part of the French government-sponsored culture program). At the time, it was the Super Bowl of art shows, the ultimate Big Pond. If you weren't part of the Salon, you were not considered a "real" artist. Rejection was the norm. The Salon often turned down the upstart members of the Impressionists.

However, even if a painter was fortunate enough to have his or her work approved by the Salon's esteemed panel of judges, there were still obstacles. A typical showing at the Salon's huge barn-like exhibition hall, the Palais, would display three or four thousand paintings, so it was easy to get lost in the crowd if your canvas was not given proper placement, and the massive audiences were not always conducive to viewing masterpieces.

Many of the Impressionists would've died to be chosen by the Salon (literally, it seems, as one artist was reported to have actually killed himself after having been rejected), but Gladwell reasons that the group considered the drawbacks -- the placement issue, the cluttered venue, the suffocating crowds -- and opted to do something entirely different to show off their wares.

The Impressionists set up a collective where they would rent building space to exhibit their paintings -- their very own Little Pond where they could control the setting, atmosphere, and ignore the strict rules of the Salon. Their first show presented 165 works of art, and the admission was a single franc. It turned out to be a major success with over 3,500 people attending the showcase. In short, the Impressionists' work was eventually seen by the public (not all rave reviews, by the way), and the rest is art history. Those same paintings from that exhibit are today now worth more than a billion dollars!

Whether or not you subscribe to Gladwell's scientific storytelling, the big takeaway from his tale of the Impressionists is that there are circumstances when it is better to be a Big Fish than a Little Fish, and vice versa. So whatever your art, hobby, or business may be, consider all of your options first before you start dumping loads of time and money into your pursuit.

Personally, I believe that luck plays a much larger role than we know when it comes to success in both life and work, but since there are no quantifiable ways to measure that concept, sometimes you must go out of your way to create your own good fortune. Because let's face it, the cream doesn't always rise to the top -- even if you have a coffee cup with your name on it.

What do you think of Gladwell's Big Fish-Little Pond theory? Were the Impressionists prescient, or just plain lucky? Do you have any examples in your life in which you chose the Big or Little Pond -- or perhaps The Pond Not Taken? Love to hear 'em in the comments below!

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