The Big Man Complex

25 Oct


We are all familiar with the “Little Man Complex,” a term used to describe a short man who is overly aggressive or ambitious to compensate for his height. But you don’t hear a lot about the “Big Man Complex,” which is just as prevalent and can teach us a lot about how and why we put limits on ourselves. Let me start with an example.

Wilt chamberlain is considered one of the most dominant athletes of the modern era. He was over 7 feet tall and, when he was playing with the Lakers, was over 300 pounds of muscle and agility. Yet, despite his enormous size and power, he consistently lost to his rival, Bill Russell, who was significantly smaller. Why? Well, obviously the teams around them had something to do with it, but I’d like to suggest that one of Wilt’s primary weaknesses as a player was simply that he was afraid of his own power.

Here is what Wilt had to say in this candid 1997 interview (feel free to watch the first two minutes, but I’ve got the important part below).


Bob Costas: They used to say about you, though you were by far the biggest and strongest man in the league, uncommonly skilled for a Center, that you did not have a “killer instinct.” And I don’t mean that competitively…you could have hurt guys. You could have slammed guys to the floor. You could have looked to pick fights. You didn’t do that.

Bill Russell: That was one of the saving things about playing against the guy that physically imposing… is that I cannot recall even hearing anything about him trying to hurt anybody.

Wilt Chamberlain: That’s good and bad though. You know what I mean?

Bill: You know you could wrap him up and he wasn’t going to hurt you.

Wilt: That’s good and bad though.

Bob: Did you need more killer instinct?

Wilt: Yeah, you know….it could be said (nods)…it could be said…but also remember that when you’re my size, you know, and you try and figure out…also there was a little bit of emotional stuff going on there…because I knew I was bigger and stronger than everybody else, I wanted to also show them that I was skillful. I wasn’t out there to really try to show that I could just knock people over and whatever…

Bob: And you didn’t just want to play into the image of brute strength.

Wilt: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

The takeaway message is….who can’t relate to what Wilt is saying here!? He doesn’t want to get pigeon-holed. He doesn’t want to play into the stereotype of this dominant physical player. Sure, in his given profession, he can completely dominate everyone around him, but that doesn’t make them feel very good. And it isn’t in keeping with the true spirit of the game. And yet, from a basketball perspective, you have to use every advantage you have. He had a huge advantage that he didn’t exploit. He had put a speed limit on himself. He couldn’t beat Bill because he felt like his power was a liability.

Now, you might be thinking, “why in the world would someone do that?” (or you’re thinking, “oh, I see where you’re going here…”), but either way, I’m going to share a little story of my own that hints at an answer. When I was growing up, me and my friends were really into fighting games. Street Fighter 2 was our game of choice and we enjoyed countless hours competing against each other.


There was a problem though. I started practicing more and more and eventually I got to be really good. I quickly learned that this wasn’t a good thing. At least not if I wanted to hang out with my friends. If I won too many matches or if I won too convincingly, they would complain and eventually quit playing all together. So, I learned that if I was too good at something, then I needed to find a way to hide it…or at least balance it just enough so that I wouldn’t disrupt the relationships around me. I learned that being good at something can make other people feel bad. And when you make other people feel bad, they don’t want to spend time with you. I have a hunch that Wilt experienced the same thing in basketball.

So, what does all of this mean? Well, I think the “big man complex” is simply when you hide your natural gifts because its makes other people uncomfortable. You downplay who you are and what you can do because you’re smart enough to recognize that while the world may recognize and reward greatness in general, when it’s someone they know, the world is much more likely to get pissed off and walk away.


So, what can we do about this big man complex? Well, I can share my experience. I think there are two things you can do. First, get some new friends. Seriously. No, really. I’m being completely serious. Get some friends who will genuinely take pride in your accomplishments and will support you when you are struggling. Families aren’t always great at that, but it’s easier to change your social group than it is your family, so I would start there. How, you ask? Go to, facebook, linkedin, etc. and go to some meetings and events. Meet some new people who are into the same things and have the same passion. Trust me, if you’re passionate about being awesome at something, then it won’t take long to find others who are too.


Second, I would stop buying into your own bullshit. I mean seriously. We can be amazing if we want to be. And I’m not pushing that same old generation Y BS that says “you’re already amazing no matter what you do,” I’m saying that if you dedicate yourself to something then the only limits on you will be your own. Sure people won’t like it. That’s natural, but that’s not your business. That is their business. Those are just their own limits and fears bubbling to the surface and being thrown at you. If you really want to stop this cycle, then make a conscious effort to take pride in what others accomplish. How many compliments or congratulations did you give out this week? It doesn’t matter. Do it more. And don’t forget to include yourself.

I think that the big man complex is actually something we all struggle with. Obviously, the little man complex is there too. We are just as likely to hide our insecurities with bold claims and aggression, but we need to remember the subtle forces that work against us as well. Sure there are people out there who will read this and think, “yeah, see everyone is just a hater. I’m going to make it!!” even though they have done absolutely nothing and still haven’t realized that it’s the process not the outcome. But I’m hoping there are at least a few people who can relate to this. I’ll leave you with a far more eloquent version of my thesis. If you know this quote, then I hope it’s a good reminder. If you’ve never heard it before, I hope it’s a wake-up call.


– Marianne Williamson

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