April 12, 2019

Tall Poppy Farming

Tall Poppies. If you have grown up in Australia, chances are that you have heard a hypercritical appraisal of a remarkable person, given by a relatively unremarkable person, simply by virtue of the difference in their remarkable-ness. We summarise this colloquial intersection of pettiness and envy as, ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’.

And just like the opiate-rich nectar that drips from poppy flowers of any height, the addiction to criticise those ahead or above the faded beige middle is quite irresistible.

If you are brave enough to get that little bit closer to the sun – and you are Australian – then you had better be ready for the burn that can bring.

We’ve discussed here in the past how the ‘different is dangerous’ mentality is an evolutionary hangover that doesn’t serve us in a modern, globalised economy but how did ‘better’ become ‘bad’?

Surely, the rising tide lifts all boats and we are collectively enriched by the good works and good ideas of those who strive…but, no.

Social comparison theory tells us that once we become aware of our social position In relation to ‘peers’ as opposed to our place in the family – then much of our identity is constructed by measuring, subjectively, the difference between our accomplishments and the accomplishments of our peers.

This means that, if someone in your environment is more successful than you, however, you define it in your tribe, that can have a negative impact on your own identity because you feel less successful as a result of the comparison.

It makes sense. If someone is a much better surfer than you, then you are a less good surfer by comparison. If their example of better surfing didn’t exist, then your talent would be ‘better’ compared to a collectively poorer pool of talent.

Human nature wants to stack the odds in our favour and the best way to do that is to decrease the average. So we tear down the excellent.

It is a real trap for the cult of the individual that we call modern life. There is no ‘normal’ and no traditional expectations anymore – just freedom. What other people achieve with their freedom casts a measure over what we do with ours.

And yet, it’s a flawed game because it forgets about the diverse distribution of talent. Steve might be an excellent surfer but he mightn’t be able to do his own bookkeeping. Distribution of talent is why humans have always found it better to work in teams.

I often reflect on our company and the different people who work in different parts of the real estate service machine.

Did you know that the word ‘company’ is derived from Latin roots and means ‘to share bread’? When the bread was scarce and in that era where people ate both carbs and gluten; we formed companies in armies and in trade idioms because there was an observation that where we worked in co-operation – there was more bread to go around. Tall poppies were once appreciated as bread-winners for the company.

If you find yourself surrounded by an example of excellence, my advice would be, that if you want more bread – use it as an opportunity to grow rather than an opportunity to cut down.