Tall Poppy Syndrome

Tall Poppy Syndrome

“There is unevenness, you know, when some objects rise conspicuous above others,” Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic.

 

I’m pretty fascinated with a concept that is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome and is often strongly expressed in Australia and New Zealand (so I understand – I haven’t been there myself to experience the culture fist hand). The idea is this:

 

A tall poppy that rises higher than the rest, that stand out above the others, is more likely to be decapitated than any other poppy. The poppy that is taller than the rest is not an admirable and praiseworthy poppy, it is risking itself and is likely to become a target. It is the first to be cut down because it is the most visible and easiest to see. An average poppy among a sea of poppies is likely to be left untouched and unbothered while the towering poppy next door is likely to have its top chopped off.

 

The idea is a warning against our ego and an argument in support of modesty. It is a polar opposite of current conceptions of the American Dream. Rather than standing out, boasting successful achievements, and always trying to have more, Tall Poppy Syndrome sends a message that it is better to do well, but not to do too well. As Seneca says, when some objects conspicuously rise above others, they create unevenness.

 

The potential of unevenness, or inequality, is an argument in favor of Tall Poppy Syndrome. The United States has never embraced a Tall Poppy Syndrome mindset, and instead we have developed a culture that tells us it is best to standout in all that we do. Have bright, fashionable clothing. Drive a fancy sports car. Own a big home to show your wealth and success. Inequality is a feature, not a bug, within the American system.

 

Today that inequality is reaching boiling points. Racial inequality (particularly within in policing and opportunity for advancement) is fueling protests. Increases in economic inequality has heightened tensions in the United States since the 2008 financial crisis. And as long as I can remember, social cohesion has clashed with our desire to stand out and be ourselves, producing visible and difficult cultural conflicts over gay marriage, free speech, and whether it is acceptable to wear baggie jeans.

 

There may be times where Tall Poppy Syndrome is limiting and reduces innovation and GDP growth. But its absence, and an all out push to stand out as an individual, can have its own consequences. Donald Trump doesn’t become president in a society that strongly discourages status seeking behavior via Tall Poppy Syndrome. In a culture that is all about economic success, bragging about attention and popularity, and ostentatious wealth, Trump and everything he represents, can rise to the top without fear of being cut down and outcast.

 

I don’t think Tall Poppy Syndrome is a perfect solution to the challenges America faces today, but I do think we need to limit the extent to which we worship the eccentric, ego driven entrepreneurs who have developed some of our best tools and technologies, and who to this point have represented the pinnacle of American success. Encouraging more settling at a certain point, more efforts to create a rising tide to lift all boats, rather than encouraging the tall poppy, might be necessary for our country to move forward on more even footing.
Our Few Years on Earth - Joe Abittan

Our Few Years on Earth

Human beings are not always good at planning for the long term, but in general, we do expect to have a long term. I know that in my own life I have always assumed I would live to be at least 100, though I know life expectancy in the United States is not 100 years old and though I know many people who have died in their 70s, 80s, or even much younger from accidents, rare diseases, or from other serious problems. We expect to have a long number of years ahead of us and can make investments to plan for that long future, but we should remember that it is never a guarantee. 

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.” 

 

This is not to suggest that we should live in paranoia, afraid that we might die at any moment. Instead it is a reminder that the long term plans we hope to live out might not come to pass. It is a reminder to make our lives what we want them to be today, rather than assuming that we have a long future to achieve our desired goals. 

 

The wrong response to the message is the modern day (though kinda dying out) idea of YOLO. The idea, “you only live once,” has been used to justify a lifestyle of partying, of short term thinking, and of extravagant opulence. It almost ignores all long term planning in focus of short term pleasure, but it doesn’t really help us to be ready for death as Seneca suggests. 

 

Another wrong response to the ideas from Seneca is to be overly ambitious and push too hard to for achievements. We don’t have to push our bodies to be perfect physical specimens today. We don’t have to push too hard for the C suit in corporate America before age 40. We don’t have to be ruthless in our pursuit of money, wealth, and things to show how successful we are today. That too doesn’t actually prepare us for death. 

 

What we should learn from Seneca is that it is important to plan ahead, but to remember that our plans may never have an opportunity to come to pass. We should make our lives meaningful and do things today that we can take pride in. This means building real and lasting relationships, focusing our daily lives on things that truly matter, so that if we depart today, we have been focusing in the right direction, and would be satisfied with where we leave the Earth. We cannot procrastinate and assume that we will eventually have time to do meaningful things in our lives. We can’t use our potentially short time to simply puff up our own ego. We have to pause, to  think about a meaningful life, and continually adjust our course so that we are living well, and ready to depart at any unfortunate moment.

Arguing for Importance

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie shares a story about a tax consultant and an argument that the consultant had with a government auditor. The two were in a heated debate over a relatively small sum of money and whether it was assessed and taxed properly. A shouting match ensued with both parties being a bit arrogant and ego driven. In the end, the tax consultant realized that the debate was no longer about the facts of tax law or the money in question, the government auditor was arguing for his own importance.

 

The consultant, Mr. Parsons, decided that continuing the debate was not worthwhile and shifted the conversation, complimenting the auditor for the difficult work and decisions he had to make on a daily basis, often in the face of recalcitrant individuals defending questionable financial practices. He didn’t provide the tax inspector with empty flattery but acknowledged that his job was difficult, yet important in a democracy. Carnegie writes about what he learned from this story:

 

“This tax inspector was demonstrating the most common of human frailties. He wanted a feeling of importance; and as long as Mr. Parsons argued with him, he got his feeling of importance by loudly asserting his authority. But as soon as his importance was admitted and the argument stopped and he was permitted to expand his ego, he became a sympathetic and kindly human being.”

 

My wife is a human development specialist, and while she typically works with little ones from 0 to 3, her studies have provided her insights into childhood and adolescent development through early adulthood. She has talked to me about the ways that children and teenagers will seek negative attention, behaving badly and acting out, because even negative attention is a form of attention. Negative attention is still a recognition of the importance of another individual, and childish as it may be, even fully grown and professional adults may from time to time seek negative attention via conflict and arguments.

 

The tax collector in the story wanted to be recognized and wanted his authority respected. It may have been petty, he may have been on an ego and power trip, but nevertheless, becoming angry and indignant didn’t help to reduce his ego and make him a more reasonable person. What it took to get him to be more flexible and cooperative was kindness, not criticism. Positive attention may not have been 100% deserved, but honest praise (as opposed to empty flattery) provided him with a sense of importance and acknowledgement and allowed him to be comfortable with being more cooperative.

 

We should be aware of both sides of this story. We should try to recognize in ourselves how often we are making a power play, not adding much real value to the argument, discussion, market, or opinion that we are advocating for, but simply trying to be an important player. When we see that we are driven by ego and a desire to feel important, we should step back and ask if it is truly necessary, if we will really make things better for ourselves and others, or if we are just being a burden. At the same time, we should try to see this in others and avoid criticizing them for having a human desire that we share and often fall victim to ourselves. We don’t have to provide them with undue flattery, but we can adopt their perspective, recognize the positive aspects of their viewpoint, and try to provide them with recognition and acknowledgement so that we can start to cooperate and work together in a more reasoned and sensible manner.

Egocentric Bias

I was reading an political science paper in an academic journal last night and came across a sentence that really stood out to me. The paper focused on the staffers who work for members of congress and whether they held accurate views of the constituents represented by the member of congress that they worked for. The paper finds that congressional staffers routinely misinterpret the views of their constituents, particularly overestimating just how conservative their constituents tend to be.

 

One reason given for the misinterpretation of constituent views was the opinions and ideology of the staffers themselves. In particular, egocentric bias may be pushing the staffers to see the views of their constituents in a warped light. The authors write, “Egocentric bias is a consistent finding in psychology that suggests individuals use  their own beliefs as a heuristic for estimating the beliefs and opinions of others.” In other words, we believe that people are like us and think the way we do.

 

In political science and in a democracy the implications of egocentric bias are huge. Our representatives could totally misinterpret what we think is good or bad, could totally fail to see what issues are important to us, and could support (or oppose) legislation thinking they were doing what we, their constituents, wanted. But really our representatives might end up acting against the wishes of a majority of the people they represent.

 

In our own lives, egocentric bias can also play a huge role. It may not seem like a big deal if we play some music from a speaker while hiking, if we don’t wipe down the machine at the gym, or if we wear that shirt with a funny yet provocative saying on it. After all, we are not bothered with these things and if we assume most people are like us then no one will really care too much. Unfortunately, other people (possibly a plurality or majority of others) may see our behaviors as reprehensible and deeply upsetting. We made an assumption that things we like are things that others like and that things that bother us are things that bother others. We adapted our behavior around our own interests and just assumed everyone else would understand and go with the flow. We bought in to egocentric behavior and acted in ways that could really upset or offend other people.

 

Egocentric bias is something we should work to recognize and move beyond. When we assume everyone is like us, we become less considerate, and that will show in how we behave. If instead we recognize that people are not all like us, we can start to see our world and our actions through new perspectives. This can open up new possibilities for our lives and help us to behave in ways that are more helpful toward others rather than in ways that are more likely to upset other people. What we will find is that we are able to have better connections with people around us and develop better relationships with people because we are more considerate and better able to view the world as they may see it, rather than just assuming that everyone sees the world how we do.

Ryan Holiday’s Anti-Ego Mantra

Ryan Holiday includes three sentences in his book Ego is the Enemy which he calls a mantra, “Not to aspire or seek out of ego. To have success without ego. To push  through failure with strength, not ego.” Holiday reads a lot, and this mantra that he has developed comes from the lessons he has learned from truly great men and women. He explains that everyone faces challenges and great difficulties in their lives, and that without checking ones ego, no one can rise to the top or become the best that they can be.

 

Aspiring and seeking out of ego is the drive to be better than others and the drive to be recognized for selfish reasons. There is a difference between being great at a what we do and pursuing greatness because we want to fully apply ourselves and bring the best version of ourselves to our lives versus trying to be great to show off. When we recognize that the praise of others is hollow and that our value as a person is based on more than what we accomplish and what awards other people give us, we can be more authentic, build a life based on relationships, and find more fulfillment.

 

For the ego, success is defined by what other people want and what other people think is impressive. The ego clamors for attention and status, constantly trying to one-up everyone else. The ego wants to be the best, to show off the best car, to show off the biggest house, and to flaunt what one has achieved. For the ego, what brings success is not as important as the attention and adulation that success brings. Achieving success without ego requires that we focus on solving problems in our lives and in the lives of others. We may become financially well off, but that is never the purpose and is not what defines our success. Great people find success by aligning themselves and their mission so that they can perform their best and make a meaningful impact wherever they are.

 

The ego fears failure because anything less than a perfect outcome takes away from the legitimacy of the ego. Any imperfection, flaw, or vulnerability is a potential crack in the shell of the ego, and as a result those who become successful with their ego will deflect all criticism and place the blame for failure elsewhere, so that it cannot damage the ego. If you do not bring ego with you on your journey, then you can embrace failure in a way that helps you learn, grow, and become stronger. The ego is fearful of mistakes and of being seen making mistakes, but when we push the ego aside we actually look closely to identify even our small mistakes to see opportunities where we can make improvements and grow.

 

Holiday’s mantra is a quick guide to finding a balanced pathway toward success. At each step the ego throws us off and opens us up to exploitation, fear, and distortion. We cannot aim toward a future driven by what we think will impress others, unless we want to live in a world where we never feel fulfilled. We cannot bring ego with us on our quest for success, or we will only find a finish line that continually moves back as we approach it and an appetite to show off that can never be satisfied. When we do fail, which we will at some point, our ego will deflect the failure from ourselves and undoubtedly damage relationships and the organizations we have been using as vessels for success. This is why recognizing and abandoning the ego (or at least trying to keep it from being our main driver) is important if we wish to have a fulfilling life that makes a difference in the world.

Make an Investment in Yourself

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday encourages us to push back against the idea of fake it ’til you make it, something that is said from time to time by those trying to become successful and trying to prove their value and skill. Fake it ’till you make it, Holiday argues, is something that is driven by our ego and our desire to be recognized as important. Fake it ’til you make it is not, however, a practical way to develop the skills and abilities that one needs to truly become the things that we present to the world when we are faking it.

 

In his book, Holiday writes about the marshmallow test, a famous psychology test where children were given the option to eat one marshmallow now, or wait in a room with the marshmallow for a few minutes and get a second one if they can delay gratification. For many of us in our own lives, delaying gratification is as hard as it might be for a child alone with a sweet treat. We know we can wait to make a purchase and have money to pay it off in full, but our fake it ’til you make it culture tells us to buy thing on credit, which leads to payments we sometimes can’t afford and we end up paying more overall than we would have if we had waited. The alternative to this mindset according to Holiday is a work ethic that is driven by delaying gratification. (On a side note, it is my understanding that the famous Marsh-mellow Test has had reproducibility problems within psychology research. Maybe be skeptical about the authenticity of the results of that original study but understand what it was trying to say about us.) 

 

Holiday writes, “Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego.”

 

Fake it ’til you make it pumps up our image of who we are without adding any substance to ourselves and our abilities. It is impulsive and tells us that we need certain things to be part of the right group, to play the part we want, and to feel successful. Hard work on the other hand is often quiet, out of the way, and not immediately satisfying. Purchasing a new sports car to look the part of a successful person feels good, whereas driving a worn out car and arriving early to get some extra focus work done is just exhausting and sometimes frustrating. In the end however, the sports car doesn’t make you any better at what you do (not that the beat up car does), but the hard work you put in when you decide not to fake it does make you better. It prepares you for new opportunities, opens new doors, and allows you to step up to the plate without anxiety and fear because you know you have prepared for the moment. And if you don’t  get the promotion, if you stumble with the presentation, or if the company goes under, you can move forward with less stress because you didn’t purchase a car you can’t afford to show people you don’t really like how successful you have become.

 

Delaying gratification never feels good, and it doesn’t necessarily make your future indulgence feel any better, but it does create a more even path as you move forward. Instant gratification can lead to greater volatility which you may traverse just fine, but taking things slower and making more investments in yourself than in your ego and material goods will create a more smooth path with bigger guard rails that you can lean on when the seas become choppy. Remembering that hard work will take you where you want to go, and that each small investment will build to your future can help you keep the right attitude to put real effort forward and combat the desire to fake it.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart when the researchers gave each group a follow-up test of equivalent difficulty. The group told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test while the group told they had worked hard performed either just as well or slightly better. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for working hard, learning, and being good students did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse, and were more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. The ego does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans are. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on implementing the things we say we want to do. If we remember that the  hard work is what is important, and focus on that instead of focusing on talking about our goals then we can address the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.

Blind Spots From Pride

“The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?”  This quote comes from Ryan Holiday and his book Ego is the Enemy. In the quote, Holiday is encouraging us to have enough self awareness to recognize the times when we are acting out of pride and when we are thinking so highly of ourselves that we do not clearly see our own shortcomings and the areas where we need to improve. Developing an awareness of our pride and being able to look at ourselves clearly is a powerful skill to cultivate to better connect with others and to learn and grow as we work toward our goals.

Feeling proud of ourselves is comfortable. After a good workout, when we receive praise at work, and when we buy that shiny new thing we had our eye on for a while, our pride steps in and tells us how amazing, hard working, and smart we are. People applaud our good outcome on a project, give our gym post a like, or turn heads as we drive down the street, and these reactions make us feel validated as though we are doing all the right things. Unfortunately, none of this truly matters and if we start to believe that all of these things define us and are what make us a great person, then we are building a false foundation to stand on. Our pride takes over and we begin to tell ourselves how amazing we are because of the praise and attention we have received which can be divorced from the actual value and positive impact we bring to the planet.

The danger here is that we become blind to what really matters. Focused on ourselves, we likely allow our relationships with others to wither, we likely miss the new market trends and opportunities, and we likely fail to recognize other areas in our life where we can improve ourselves to prepare for future challenges. Believing we are great sets us up to fail by making us overconfident in our own abilities. It takes away the focus on improvement and growth that tells us that we must put in extra effort on the small details and must cultivate strong habits that help us grow each day.

As Holiday writes in his book, being more humble about our successes, our abilities, and who we are will allow us to better engage in the important things in the world. When we recognize that we don’t know everything, don’t have all the skills necessary to stay at the top of the mountain in a changing landscape, and don’t have innate abilities that will never fail, we are more likely to treat those around us with more kindness and compassion and we are more likely to be comfortable with the daily work that helps us overcome the obstacles we face. Humility builds a self-awareness and an accurate sense of our strengths. Through this humble self-awareness, we can take a more measured approach to ourselves, our goals, and the actions we take each day. Learning to turn the ego off can also help us think about what truly matters and is important in our lives and in the lives of others. When you limit the ego, a new car is less appealing (or at least an overly expensive and luxurious new car is less appealing) and the possible uses of the money that you would direct toward the car are expanded. Without ego we can use our time, attention, money, and other resources to make a greater impact than we would if we allowed the ego to pursue its own hedonistic goals.

Pride and Ego

Ryan Holiday describes pride in his book Ego is the Enemy as a force that “takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one.” It is the piece of us that ascribes our success to some essential character of our selves and hyper-inflates that piece around us. It is the sense that we are inherently something special because of our qualities and accomplishments.

 

The problem with pride Holiday explains by writing, “Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the process-when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do  you realize that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.”

 

Some days I am proud of my writing. Some days I am proud that I just ate a simple and healthy lunch or that I did at least some type of exercise at the gym. These are minor accomplishments that build on each other over time to lead to positive lifestyles, and that is something I can find very comforting and take pride in. To me, it seems that the problem with pride is when we take these small things, and begin to boast and brag about them as though they set us apart from the rest of humanity. When we intentionally post a picture of us snacking on apple slices with peanut butter because we know we have friends who are currently at a bar. When we use seven hashtags in our gym post about how a fit life is somehow morally superior than sleeping in and having waffles. And when we fake-complain about how hard it was for us to publish a blog post 7 days in a row, we are taking the small things that can make life meaningful and elevating them (along with our ego and pride) to a level they don’t deserve.

 

Holiday presents pride to us as something that distorts reality, in the same way that many other elements of our ego do. It creates situations where your actions become the most important thing about you and about the category of people you belong to. Other people can only fit in with you if they also do these small and meaningless things that you take pride in. Pride says that someone can’t really be a baker if they don’t use specific cookware, that someone can’t really be a runner if they don’t have a new GPS watch and post to Strava, someone can’t really be smart unless they have graduated from college or gotten an advanced degree. Pride is a way of creating barriers between us and other people that don’t really exist. It gives us a reason to believe we are more special than others, and that as a result we can self-segregate into groups of people similar to ourselves and distance ourselves from the undeserving others.

 

None of these outcomes of pride are healthy, which is why there are so many warnings to avoid pride and remain humble. We can be proud of the small actions that drive our life in the right direction, but we should be aware of when we are bragging about those small actions and when we are trying to use those as justification to suggest that we deserve more than what we have or more than another person. We must do our best to include other people and remember that we can only do what we do and be who we are with the support of an entire society, so our pride must also include a sense of community and belonging with all people in our lives.

Most Trouble is Temporary

One thing I have been working on recently is better seeing and understanding the opportunities around me in my life. Often times when I have made a decision to do something, my choice has felt as though it is final, as if there is no going back. In reality, most of our choices are never really final. We can start over, go back, or try something different as if we had put on an outfit, walked outside, and decided t hat the weather wasn’t going to fit what we had grabbed.

 

This same idea of more opportunities than we realize also applies to how we think about success and failure. Things for me have often felt like an ultimatum, either I succeed at this thing in front of me, or I will never be successful in life. This is my only shot and if I don’t get it right this time, then I will never have another chance in the future. However, most of the time a failure is either a temporary set back or an opportunity for us to change course. Unless we are competing in the Olympics or are at the end of a college sports career, we will have more opportunities to find success. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy, “Only ego thinks embarrassment or failure are more than what they are. History is full of people who suffered abject humiliations yet recovered to have long and impressive careers.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about the ways that our work has become tied with our identity. As part of our identity, a workplace failure takes on new meaning, and almost grows to represent some type of moral failure of us as a human being. However, this pressure is just a story created by our ego. In reality we will have more avenues for success in the future and our failure is only permanent if we allow it to drag us down. We can experience terrible failure and grave mistakes and still take steps forward. We may need to be creative and find new avenues to move forward toward success, but we never need to live with failure in a way that prevents us from ever having goals and dreams in the future. Our Ego prefers to avoid potential failure altogether by never trying or by continually deflecting any criticism to others, so that we never have to accept any blame or reveal any flaw in our own skills and abilities. By failing to accept failure and by failing to move forward from failure, we stop ourselves from learning and probably put ourselves in situations where we make bad decisions and drive ourselves toward the failure we fear.