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Tall Poppy Syndrome: How to (Not) Cope With Success

Tall Poppy Syndrome is a severe condition common in Australia. It befalls mainly Australian citizens, though permanent residents seem to be in the risk group, too. Its symptoms are mild to severe envy, jealousy and attempts to discredit a fellow ‘Strayan who made it to notable success. Success of any kind can trigger it: achievements in sports, accumulation of wealth, or reaching celebrity status. In other words, if you grow too tall of a flower, you are to be cut down.

The Origins of Tall Poppy Syndrome

The idea of cutting down metaphorical poppies goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. Here it started off as a figurative instruction to deal with those who had become too powerful. This idea seems to have fallen on particularly fertile ground in Australia. It’s recorded that a single book, Susan Mitchell’s 1984 Tall Poppies, popularised the syndrome in Australia to the point where it became a cultural phenomenon. Today, it’s arguably as Australian as the Sydney Opera House, the Outback, or Tim Tams.

Tall Poppy Syndrome
Rod Laver AC MBE

Anyone spending any meaningful amount of time Down Under will eventually come in contact with Tall Poppy Syndrome. In one form or another. Usually, by means of an Australian who name-drops the term like a drop bear whenever it smells like success, which is kind of how the disease is transmitted. Once injected with a decent amount of paranoia, anyone can spot it, though.

An Australian Legend

I noticed how Australian I had become while strolling down Melbourne Park. This is where The Tennis, that is The Australian Open is held. Beneath Rod Laver Arena towers the statue of an Aussie legend, Rod Laver himself. The plaque of the monument lists an unfathomable number of titles and achievements, the likes of which the world had never seen. It concludes:

Belying his mighty achievements, Laver remains an unassuming champion, an inspiration to his fellow Australians and a national treasure.

Perusing these carefully engraved words made me feel unsettled yet strangely comforted. As if someone had injected me with a virus and the antidote at the same time. I became highly suspicious of Rodney George Laver AC MBE’s grandeur while feeling consoled by the Rocket’s stubborn unassumingness. My fever dropped, convinced that Rod was a decent bloke, a magnificent poppy albeit of average height. For now.

Tall Poppy Syndrome in the Workplace

It should be noted that Tall Poppy Syndrome isn’t limited to celebrity high-achievers. And it’s usually not so easy to get away with your achievements. In 2019, an Australian human resources site ran a piece that identified Tall Poppy Syndrome (abbreviated as TPS) as a serious workplace issue, keeping productivity down and destroying office morale (strangely enough based on a Canadian study).[1] Whenever HR latches onto something, gives it an acronym and declares your national pet peeve a workplace issue, you know it must be serious.

In fact, friends of mine had such an experience years ago when they were working in a Sydney toy factory during their backpacker days. Fueled by German efficiency, they soon became the fastest toy packers the company had ever seen. Only to be pulled aside by an Aussie co-worker: “What do you think you’re doing? Stop working so fast, you’re making us look slow.” The underlying message was clear: Cut yourself down or we will do it for you.

Tall Poppy Counter Culture

Meanwhile, somewhere else in the country, the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS) took a rather tongue-in-cheek approach. For around two decades, they’ve been recognising up-and-coming scientists with their annual Young Tall Poppy Science Awards. Here, the courageous underlying message is: You’ve achieved a target. Now, do you mind turning around so we can put it on your back?

As far as I can tell, this mindset is part of a wider defiant counter-culture in Australian workplaces. A counter-movement of the successful and unsuccessful alike. Boss didn’t promote you? Tall Poppy Syndrome. People look at you funny after the promotion? Tall Poppy Syndrome. TPS seems to have become a convenient shorthand explanation for personal setbacks, too.

The Purpose of Tall Poppy Syndrome

It’s hard to say what made Australia so susceptible to the ancient metaphor. Maybe it goes as deep as the core beliefs of our nation. Where the United States has the ideal of the American Dream, Australia has the much more low-key ethos of mateship and everyone deserving a fair go. So, what is there to gain from Tall Poppy Syndrome?

  • In a pessimistic scenario, Tall Poppy Syndrome works as a form of compelled self-deprecation, a societal pressure policing arrogance. It may function as a way of forced mediocrity. Or at least being forced to pretend to be average. As a result, people may be reluctant to strive for greatness or spend an awful amount of energy on downplaying and hiding their successes.
  • In an optimistic scenario, Tall Poppy Syndrome could be seen as a way to preserve the trademark Aussie laid-backness in the face of inevitable progress and inequality of outcomes. It would function as a gentle tongue-in-cheek reminder not to fly too high if you made the most out of your fair go. In effect, it wouldn’t keep Aussies from striving for greatness but encourage them not to lose touch with society at large.

At the end of the day, it’s probably a bit of both. The promotion of decency by way of discrediting others relative to one’s own success.

Closing Thoughts

Perhaps Tall Poppy Syndrome is indeed best seen as an Aussie legend, a semi-true mental shortcut or intuitive trap set by Australia’s fair dinkum mentality. Envy, resentment, hubris and arrogance are obviously universal human vices, which all seem to play into Tall Poppy Syndrome. What’s interesting, though, is that Australia has somehow managed to give these phenomena a label and special place in its national psyche.

It’s entirely possible that the cure for Tall Poppy Syndrome lies in its classification as a disease. In fact, it seems to be one we’re all carrying by virtue of being human. A disease nobody can diagnose reliably — unless it suits our narrative. Putting legs on a snake is a wonderful saying that may apply here. We tend to make things worse by caring too much about them. What if we took the metaphorical legs off the proverbial snake? What if we distilled Tall Poppy Syndrome down to a universal, very Australian, yet highly sophisticated rule of thumb: Don‘t be a dickhead.

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