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Teaching your Kids: Be a Big Fish in a Small Pond

The kind of goals that people consider worthy varies over time and across cultures. In Asia, for example, setting lofty goals and falling short of them might not be what most parents wish for their children. In fact, there's an ancient Chinese saying that it's "better to be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion." Let's look at how that value might play out in someone's life.

Junichi Endo grew up in Japan, about twenty miles north of Tokyo. Like every other student, when he entered Junior High, he was encouraged to join one of the extracurricular clubs on campus. Junichi loved baseball in elementary school, so that's what he signed up for. And it's important to understand that in Japan, baseball was the most popular sport among boys his age. So it attracted the best athletes in the school. The good news was that thirty boys were allowed to join the team, including Junichi. But since only nine can play at any given time, earning a starting position would be difficult. The other thing he discovered was that the first-year players had to collect the senior players' balls and equipment after practice—something of an initiation ritual.

By the middle of his first season, Junichi had racked up lots of time running drills and picking up after the other players. But he hadn't seen any actual playing time. That honor went to boys who were bigger and could hit and throw the ball farther. That left Junichi in a quandary. He loved baseball, but he didn't relish the idea of two more years of sitting on the bench.

He was also painfully conscious that in Japan, it was considered shameful to quit anything in the middle once you'd decided to do it. He talked to his coach and one of his teachers about his dilemma, and both encouraged him to stay on the team. Despite that guidance, Junichi decided to quit baseball and join the tennis team.

Okay, why tennis. And the reason was that tennis wasn't as popular as baseball, the tennis team only had about ten players. And relative to the baseball team, as Junichi described it, "its performance was quite weak." And since tennis required more technique and skill than it did power, it suited him better, and his skill grew quickly.

In his second year, he was even elected captain of the team. In that position, he was able to influence the practice routine and tournament schedule. He made adjustments to the training schedule to make the team stronger and added several practice tournaments.

By his third year, his team advanced all the way to the final round in the city tournament and won second place. That meant that for the first time in the school's history, the tennis team had earned a berth in the district-wide tournament. As for the baseball team that year, in their city tournament, "they lost in the first round."

For Junichi, his time on the tennis team was the greatest experience of leadership he'd had at that point in his life. And it was one he would have almost certainly not had if he'd stayed on the baseball team. That leadership lesson was to become one of many that stayed with Junichi in the decades since and helped lead to many successes.

In 2005 he became the youngest senior vice president in the history of Nissan Motors. And now he is the president and CEO of NMKV, a joint venture between Nissan and Mitsubishi, two of the largest and most prestigious Japanese firms today.

It turned out that spending time as the head of a dog in junior high school tennis helped Junichi today become the CEO of a lion.

Okay, when you're having discussions with your child about extracurricular activities, that would be a great time to share this story and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Do you agree or disagree with the advice that it's better to be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion? Why or why not?

  2. Would you rather be the best player on the worst team in your soccer league or the worst player on the team that wins first place?

  3. Do you think Junichi did the right thing by switching from baseball to tennis?

  4. What opportunities do you have to be the head of a dog right now in your life?

  5. What opportunities do you have to be the tail of a lion?

Okay, in the next lesson, we'll talk about setting your own success criteria.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith