Tall Poppy Syndrome is Coming to America

There are tons of things I miss about my home country of Australia. Yes, there are the obvious aspects such as Sydney’s beaches, Melbourne’s cafes, Queenslanders’ misguided belief that they're good at football.

And then there are the smaller, endearing things. The quirky way we ask questions by stating an opposite assumption, "you don’t want another coffee...?”. Or the chocolate sprinkles that baristas copiously add on top of cappuccinos. Or meetings conducted in cafes drinking said cappuccinos (you can guess what’s on my mind).

One thing I don’t miss is the cultural phenomenon we call tall poppy syndrome. Simply, when someone gets too big, we cut them down like a tall poppy -- a colorful flower, shooting for the sun.

Our cultural disposition is to criticize those who give it their all and start rising up. We then mock as they begin their downward trajectory. 



There’s the promising politician who wants to drive change and is suddenly met with public resistance and brought down. The promising tennis prodigy who is criticized for her appearance, her family members, and scorned for every mistake made on the court. The rugby league star plucked from Australia to play in the NFL, who struggled and subsequently was ridiculed back home. The visionary CEO chosen to transform one of our largest public companies and then racially caricatured on the front page of our newspapers.

I could go on.

More insidiously, tall poppy syndrome is ingrained in everyday life. Aussies love to play extreme-devil’s advocate with friends who have an idea and a vision. We convince them to stop trying so hard. Or we immediately “take the piss” -- i.e., have fun at their expense. 

I’ve got an idea for a business. It’s been done before, mate.

I’d love to learn to how to sing. OK big shot, I’ll see you on Australian Idol.

I think I’m going to start a restaurant. Who do you think you are, Jamie Oliver?

From schoolyards to pubs to boardrooms, this happens daily.

The “Aussie battler” is an endearing colloquialism for a struggling proletarian. We encourage the battler to “have a go" -- however, what we really mean is to aim for average. Not to really try. 

We also expect this from our business leaders, politicians and entertainers. The only exception is sport. We demand that our national sportsmen and women be the best in the world. They’re our national folk heroes. Until they make a mistake.

Australia has one of the lowest numbers of Fortune Global 500 headquarters per capita in the G20. I wonder if tall Poppy Syndrome has anything to do with this.

When I moved to New York six years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the open ambition of my new friends and colleagues. I immediately loved my adopted country, a culture where drive and determination are revered. When a buddy of mine said he was moving interstate to train to be a commercial pilot, we supported him. When another friend openly declared the goal of growing his startup big enough to get acquired, we all encouraged him.

Folk heroes are the entrepreneurs with big vision and guts. America has a disproportionally high number of Fortune Global 500 headquarters per capita. I wonder if this has anything to do with it.

This week I was dismayed by the keyboard warriors criticizing the tepid growth of mobile video-streaming service Quibi. They openly mocked Quibi’s executives. They accused them of being out-of-touch millionaires, making poor decisions, getting what they deserved, being unintelligent. If the platform took off, these same armchair-thought leaders would be the first to declare how brilliant Quibi’s strategy and vision is.

I’m not here to defend Quibi -- that’s not my point. I could have used any American company, executive or politician that has been mercilessly criticized for struggling, failing, or simply not being flawless.

My response back to the armchair critics is best summarized with a line from my favorite movie, "Sing Street." When the local school bully mocked the protagonist for starting a band, he replied, “You only have the power to stop things, but not to create."

Instead of bringing Tall Poppy Syndrome to America, let’s create a Growing Poppy Culture. Let’s celebrate those who have the vision, the ambition and the guts to give it a proper go.

As my adopted countrymen and women often like to say, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take."

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