Playing small and choosing small

3 min readOct 14, 2019
Picture courtesy — Daniel for Unsplash

Remaining small shouldn’t be confused with playing small. That is a whole different ballgame.

Sisto Malaspina was one of the co-owners of Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar in Melbourne. Going by the reviews, the restaurant is quite an institution and was run by Sisto and his partner Nino Pangrazio. They were both Italian immigrants who bought the restaurant from its original owners in 1974.

In November 2018, Sisto Malaspina was tragically killed in a terrorist attack. Numerous tributes were paid to the beloved slain co-owner who had left his indelible mark on the city. In recognition of his services and the impact he had on the culinary culture of the place, he was accorded a state funeral. Imagine an immigrant chef being accorded a state funeral.

Pellegrini’s wasn’t a chain. It was a single restaurant that became an institution because of the love and passion that Sisto and Nino brought to their jobs.

Closer home, one of my favorite restaurants is Brahmin’s cafe. Tucked away in a bylane in Basvangudi in South Bangalore, it’s another institution. Its menu is limited — idli, vada, upma, kesari bath, and coffee. On weekends, the crowd spills over onto the road and there are long serpentine queues. Just FYI — there are many restaurants that use the word ‘Brahmin’s’ in their name. None of them are a part of the original Brahmin’s cafe. It looks like no one can trademark ‘Brahmin’s’ as it also happens to be a caste. The original ‘Brahmin’s cafe’ is run by a family and I have seen more or less the same people behind the counter ever since I have been going there.

Why don’t Pelligrini’s or Brahmin’s cafe expand? I’m sure they have been asked and numerous people would have offered to invest in taking their name across locations and geographies.

I have not spoken to either of them but ostensibly, they have chosen to remain small to make it easier for them to maintain quality. They want to greet their customers, build relationships and become an institution, as opposed to growing massive, diluting the quality and losing the personal rapport they have with their customers.


they are scared of growing.

But if you see the success they have enjoyed and continue to enjoy, you wouldn’t think they are playing small. Rather, you will come to the conclusion that they have chosen to remain small.

It’s hard to believe but:

some people choose to remain small.

Remaining small shouldn’t be confused with playing small. That is a whole different ballgame.

The burned-out cubicle worker who fantasizes about starting a business but is forever stalling.

The entrepreneur who constantly undercuts and undersells their services.

The last bencher who never raises their hand for the fear of being ridiculed.

The leader who hides in their cabin.

The person who spends more time curating their social media profile instead of actually meeting people.

The entrepreneur who wants to expand but is held back by fear.

The employee not stepping up and taking charge.

The executive hiding behind power points and petty games instead of upskilling and unlearning old habits.

The talented creative browbeaten by indifference and lethargy.

Anybody and everybody who is stalling somewhere are playing small. That includes all of us at some point.

The reasons for playing small are numerous — self-doubt, feat, self-esteem, failure, anxiety, imagining catastrophe, bad experiences, wrong stories…. the list is endless.

Choosing to play small means you are not fulfilling what you’re capable of.

Playing small means undermining your own capabilities and abilities to contribute, make a difference.

By playing small, you think you’re playing safe but it only ensues in more frustration. Because someone you know has broken off their shackles and is doing the thing you’re dreaming of.

There is a fundamental difference in playing small and remaining small.

One results in misery and frustration and the other results in peace of mind.

It’s a question worth asking yourself — are you playing small, or have you gladly chosen to remain small?