Why we should appreciate being the little fish from time to time

One of the most challenging experiences you encounter when taking part in a rotational trainee program is the constant adaptation to new working environments. Every few months you leave an area in which you invested a lot of time and energy to explore and to learn (and in which you have finally overcome the feeling of mental overload) and find yourself in another department dealing with completely different topics – back to square one.

Adding to yourself not having much experience in the new field of work is the realization that you are surrounded by professionals who often have gathered expertise in their professional discipline for several years. When collaborating with and supporting these colleagues, from time to time you feel as though you are being of little help or not really the right person to get the job done. Obviously, you are the little fish in a big pond, together with full-grown conspecifics.

There are days when this perception creates a lot of stress and you see how you are fighting to maintain your self-esteem. Not a perfect situation for your motivational foundation if you look at some of the scientific findings which educational psychologist Herbert W. Marsh has published over the last 30 years: Knowing that there are others around you who – for the moment – are head and shoulders superior in what you are doing can be threatening to your self-concept, which can lead to frustration and ultimately impeding your motivation to improve yourself. Marsh found that therefore it is better for your academic self-concept to be e.g. a gifted student in a regular reference group than to be a gifted student in a gifted reference group (big-fish–little-pond effect).

However, I try to look at this differently: Everybody encounters a topic for the first time in his/her life. There was a moment when Lionel Messi kicked a football for the very first time and, probably, at that point of time a few other kids were more skilled when it comes to scoring goals or fooling defenders. We steadily grow as we spend our time dealing with a specific subject area or face a task for the 2nd, 3rd or 100th time. The biggest progress can be achieved where we have the least previous experience. Therefore, I think it can be very valuable to reshape your self-concept from time to time and to acknowledge and incorporate a “learner role” into it referring to the new topics you come across.

Whenever I face a situation I have not encountered before, I try to embrace the learning opportunity I am offered. Interacting and collaborating with colleagues who already gained significant experience in multiple similar situations brings a huge potential to accelerate my own development. Luckily, in contrast to what can be seen in ocean world documentaries, in the business world (in most cases) the big fish do not try to eat their smaller counterparts. In all my recent roles I experienced a lot of support and willingness to share knowledge whenever I reached out to ask questions or validate my own thoughts. Based on the great role-models I found among my colleagues and stakeholders, I was able to step up my own game.

Seeing how careers at SAP develop over the whole employee life cycle, with regular position changes and an organizational culture promoting fellowships, short-term shadowing opportunities, and peer learning, I am sure we will continue to regularly see and do things for the very first time. Appreciating the development potentials which being the little fish entails, connected with a #keeplearning mindset, hopefully will help to make the most of it.

Let’s swim together.