Tall Poppy Problems

Australia is very much a land of the “everyman.” Everyone created equal, no one is better than anyone else, and fitting into the pack is respected much more than separating oneself.

In business, this translates into Tall Poppy Syndrome. If you are American, you may be unfamiliar with this term, so here’s the Wikipedia for you: a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.

In the US, this only applies if you lack one crucial element from the above sentence: genuine merit. And so much of the struggle to succeed revolves around developing that merit, growing it, and celebrating its growth as it happens. One of my biggest professional struggles since my move has been exactly this – being resented for being willing to push what I think is right, even if it diverts from “authority.” In the US, challenging the status quo is seen as way everyone keeps themselves sharp. But here, it’s frequently seen as a personal attack, most often from people more senior than myself. It’s always a bit of a shock to my entrepreneurial and capitalist system when someone takes a small shot at me for having a better idea than they did. Americans spend their entire childhoods being indoctrinated to reach for personal excellence. Our Army’s slogan is “Be All You Can Be,” but that phrase might as well be plastered on the walls of every college and white collar boardroom in the nation.

Trying to adapt to such a fundamental and deep-rooted shift in perspective is a tough one. I’m fortunate to (now) work in an environment where this isn’t the norm. But every once in a while when things are going well and recognition is coming in from multiple sources, a small kick in shins comes my way to remind me that I’m just like everybody else (because you know, my giant inflated head can’t figure it out on my own), and the wind of achievement lessens within your sails just a bit.

Hopefully I’ll be able to retain my Americanness this regard as much as possible, because it would be a shame to come back to the American workforce indoctrinated with this negative perspective on success. It’s one small and strange way the Australian culture really rubs against the grain of my native culture, and frankly (I’m a little biased though) I think it’s +1 point for the USA.

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