Just keep swimming

Last year, I got my first job in hospitality at a café. It was a busy café with friendly staff but lots of customers and lots of tasks for me to do. Despite being familiar with how a kitchen worked and finding it easy to serve people, I made many mistakes. I often couldn’t find a certain menu item for the till, I spilt coffee whilst taking it to customers and I smashed a few glasses and plates. 

Luckily for me, I had a patient boss and other workers who understood that I was learning the ropes. But it still felt pathetic that a girl who could memorise dozens of quotes for English and History essays always forgot whether or not the powdered chocolate went on top of the iced coffee.


I was a small fish in a big pond and it was a very humbling experience.


We feel this so often in the competitive nature of life at work, at school or uni, in social circles and life in general. Other people seem to have their whole life together whilst we’re keeping ours in place with a strip of duct tape. We often use the standards set by others to measure our worth. 

But even when we manage to tick one box of “success”, we can never achieve it all.

Whether it be through placing in sport, achieving certain grades, receiving a certain amount of likes on social media or having the attention of the group in a social situation – we all know these “measures of importance” are false and don’t define our dignity or value as a person. 

But we still want to strive and be recognised for our efforts. 

That’s when being the small fish can be exhausting. We swim against a strong current or we seem invisible amongst those that are bigger than us. It hurts to not be noticed or to try and not succeed. But it’s in these moments we receive the greatest opportunity to grow. 


Accepting this allows us to not be afraid of admitting we need help or that we simply don’t know the answer. The more I asked my friends at work whether or not the chocolate powder went on the iced coffee, the more frequently I began remembering. The more I made myself available to carry a coffee out to a customer, the steadier my hand became.

Acknowledging we aren’t all-knowing opens the door to knowledge. If we don’t ask, we don’t get an answer. And this requires more humility for some than others.

Sometimes it requires us to ask someone we don’t like to help us. Sometimes it requires us to ask someone who will not be happy to help us. Both times, our pride more than anything else is hurt, but only if we allow our worth to be measured by success and not the fact that we are an individual with our own strengths and weaknesses. 


One of my favourite quotes is: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”.

When we are the small fish, there are others that are far ahead of us and, yes, better than us at something. When we are new to something – or even when we have been doing it for a long time – we can’t always be the best in the room. But we can be the one who works the hardest and has the honesty to put our hand up and say, “I don’t know”.

When I was unsure at the cafe, I could have kept quiet and made a guess at whether or not to put on the chocolate or I could have hid out the back and made someone else serve the coffee. None of these would have made me better at my job.


Today, I’m a small fish in a big pond yet again in Medical school. I’m not the best in my class, I’ll probably never be the best doctor, but something that will help me strive to be a good doctor – something that makes us good people – is the humility to admit weaknesses and cooperate with those who know better. No patient will ever care if I can make a good iced coffee, but they will care that I admit if I’m uncertain about my ability to help them. 


Lives aren’t always on the line when we are unsure or lack experience, but our character is. Our virtue is. Inexperience isn’t an excuse for making a mistake when we know we should have asked for help. 

We are all a little fish at some stage in our lives. Remember, it’s an opportunity for growth, not a definition of our worth. All we can do when we don’t know something is take the chance to become better and “just keep swimming”.


Elise Drum

Elise is a first year Medical student in Sydney from rural NSW who enjoys a variety of sports and being outdoors. She also loves food but when it comes to cooking – she burns water.

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