I want to share with you a theory I have about tall poppies.
What happens to tall poppies? Tall poppies get … cut down.
Tall Poppy Syndrome is a cultural belief in New Zealand, where I now live. There’s a lot of resistance when people see others daring to raise themselves up above the crowd.
The proverb about tall poppies was first given to us by Herodotus, the Ancient Greek historian. He told the story of the emperor Tarquinius, who was read a message from his son which said, “how do we handle all these uppity merchants in the empire? How do we keep them from rising up and causing us problems?”
The emperor didn’t send a message back that said, ‘kill them all.’ What he did was draw his sword, and walked out into the garden, and silently cut down all of the tallest poppies. Then he sent the messenger away, who told the son what he saw, and the son understood this message. Tall poppies get cut down.
This is seen as a virtue where I now live. It’s because in New Zealand, everyone takes care of everyone else. Kiwis make sure that everyone has enough. These are noble virtues, but they can make it tough to stand out in the marketplace.
Marketing yourself is hard enough – it’s even harder when you’re trying to be the same height as everyone else.
Now, I don’t feel that naturally, because I’m an American.
In America we don’t have tall poppy syndrome. In America, the tall poppies are sometimes the only ones who survive.
So I have this theory, that tall poppy syndrome only happens in the nobler cultures, when the ground is even, and things are fair.
If the ground is uneven, there isn’t any tall poppy syndrome.
In egalitarian societies like New Zealand, and Costa Rica, where I raised my children, equality is highly valued. The Ticos in Costa Rica have a similar saying, ‘Cangrejos de cubo’ – a bucket of crabs. When you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, if one of them tries to escape, it’s the other crabs that pull it back.
My theory is that tall poppy syndrome is something you only find in societies that are fair and equal.
In America, there is so much inequality, which is what makes it such a violent and dangerous place. The ground there is so uneven, and people start out at such different elevations, some of us learn that we have to stand out just to survive.
You can’t tell which poppies are taller in an environment like that, because the ground is so uneven. But in places where you can level things out, where you can organize everyone to the same height, tall poppy syndrome becomes a condition in society to keeps everyone neat and tidy.
This makes New Zealand a very orderly place, because there’s so much equality here. But it also creates an artificial ceiling.
In 2015 the University of Canterbury published a paper called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome and its effect on work performance.’ The results indicated that employees working in an environment that favored the fall of tall poppies showed lower decision-making dependability and higher decision-making avoidance.
In the whitepaper ‘The Tallest Poppy‘ published by Women of Influence in Canada, 75%of survey respondents agreed that being tall poppied impacted their productivity at work, and 77.5% said it created a culture of distrust. 60% believed that they would be penalized for being ambitious at work.
- Tall poppy syndrome directly interferes with your marketing, because –
- Marketing requires productivity, and trust, and ambition.
When you doubt yourself, it makes your marketing even harder. There’s already enough challenges in marketing yourself as a personal brand. Adding to those challenges by squeezing yourself into a box, and ducking under your own self-imposed ceiling, is going to make you feel cramped, and inhibit your ability to succeed.
There’s lots of good reasons to be an average-sized poppies. When people chuck rocks, they aim for the most visible.
But something I’ve found in my work, helping experts and entrepreneurs set up smart marketing systems, is this:
Tall poppies can make better decisions, because they can see farther than everyone else.
When you can stand out – maybe by being a taller poppy, or maybe by being a different color – you become visible, even in a crowd. And that visibility increases the attention you control, which can be converted into the other currencies of exchange: time, money, reputation, innovation, and happiness.
This is one of the reasons I wrote my book, Marketing Yourself – to help busy professionals define what makes them different, and share that uniqueness with people who value it.
If you haven’t read my book yet, you can read the first chapter here. Titled Your Personal Statement, this chapter gives you a formula to create a simple, sticky statement that shares who you are, what you do, and why you’re amazing – in a way that can still make you feel humble, if you want.
But if you want to stand out higher, you might find yourself developing a clearer perspective on your environment.
Trust me, I’m a tall poppy, and I can see pretty far.