Forget the Tall Poppy Syndrome: Let Your Light Shine

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Let your Light Shine
Let your Light Shine

Answering questions for a friend’s diversity assignment the other day, I found myself explaining Australia’s unhealthy love for the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome.’ It’s the thing I dislike about my culture the most, and it only became apparent to me after living in the US, where views of success lie on the opposite end of the spectrum; the spectrum end which says that success is a great thing, and if you are successful then I want to be like you. If not for travel I probably would never have discovered this truth.

The tall poppy syndrome is synonymous with jealousy and revenge. In Australia, a tall poppy is a successful person or achiever, who as a result, is the target of jealousy and grudging remarks. The syndrome makes you want to tear down the person who is standing out from the crowd to make them the same as you. The effect being then, that no one lives up to their potential, progress is limited, and change rarely occurs.

The story of its origination is fascinating, and I first heard it told by Rick Otton, an Australian real estate investor who was giving a talk on lease optioning. He was discussing the opportunities that abound in real estate investing in America compared to Oz and he then mentioned the Tall Poppy Syndrome and how it came about. Whether it is true or not I am yet to discover but it makes for a great story and a very believable explanation.

Back when our country was being born off the blood and sweat of the convicts, convicted for petty crimes and misdemeanors and sentenced to years of hard road work in the

Tall poppy syndrome
Don't Stand Out From The Crowd

harsh Australian environment, the prisoners worked in gangs, outnumbering the red coats quite sizeably. This was a dangerous ratio, and so the government had to do something to control the masses. Their solution was to pit the members of the gang against one another. If anyone in the group made themselves stand out, through wisecracks or insubordination, instead of punishing them the soldiers punished the whole work gang. The stand out wise guy? Well he got to take a vacation on the beaches of Sydney, returning after a week looking as red as a poppy. The story goes then that whenever anyone in the gang stood up to make themselves stand out, the rest of the group would then shout out “Sit down, Stop trying to be a tall poppy.”

I’ve researched online to see if this story is true, but I can’t really find anything of its origin. What I do know is that the syndrome is true. I know that this kind of thinking does indeed exist everywhere; you cannot escape the jealousy that comes with other’s success. It just seems to be more of a cultural norm in Australia, and it limits us in many ways. I hope this changes and we learn to break the shackles that bind us once and for all.

For now here is my favorite poem by Marianne Williamson to remind us that it is our natural inclination to let our own light shine. Somewhere, from babe to adult, we forget that and let others try to tell us different. That is not the truth, this is:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure
It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine,
we consciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

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18 thoughts on “Forget the Tall Poppy Syndrome: Let Your Light Shine”

  1. I have seen so many of these stories here in New Zealand, which is still kind of difficult for me to understand…

    I think that Brazilians are more similar to North-Americans (as you described them), I’ve always learnt that we should try our best to achieve success. Not because we should then put ourselves in a position of power or arrogance, but because success is good for everyone.
    I learnt to look up at successful people, so I wanted to be like them or better (and I’m not talking about money or power here, being successful can have many meanings, right?).
    I think this is good for the whole society, it’s not about jealousy, but about pushing people so they can improve too.

    In New Zealand I have seen friends being lectured because they wanted to show they could do better in their jobs. Maybe better than the others…. But wasn’t this supposed to be good? Specially for the employer?
    I still struggle to understand this.. your post has helped a lot, thanks! =)

  2. This is a new perspective for me. I find it interesting, first of all, that it has the opposite appeal in Australia but also that it’s a problem at all. When I was in Oz (and not in the working world) from an outsiders view I saw this happy, “every one is equal at the end of the day, let’s all go have a beer” attitude.

    I have always known of the Tall Poppy Syndrome but what I learned is that the “tall poppy” is the problem. This person thinks they are better than everyone else, they are constantly standing over the others to show off their achievements, they stand out a head taller.

    It seems that this is where the Australian attitude for the syndrome comes from but it’s interesting to hear it discussed from the others point of view and not that of the “tall poppy”.

    We should all be like the Danes, equal, happy, and satisfied. Jealously is an ugly thing!

    1. Isn’t it always so interesting to hear others perspective? I never thought about that side before, until you wrote this Annie. The side of “everyone is equal, let’s have a beer” is something about Australia that I really love. And I didn’t think about that good side of the ‘tall poppy’ while writing this. But there is that other side that is present – the darker side of insecurity at someone who maybe achieving more than you, through their own hard efforts, where they are just torn to shreds. Like you, I wish it could be that no matter what your successes in life you could still go and sit in a bar and have a drink with anyone. If only we could raise each other up as well and understand we are all inherently the same no matter where we stand on the success totem pole- if that makes sense?

  3. I think that syndrome exists in most parts of the world, though called in different ways. At least in the United States and Latin America it is very noticeable. You can clearly see the jealousy in many people when they see someone else succeed. They start saying “why him and not me?”.

    And as Cris pointed before, you see it a lot in the work force because fellow workers/supervisors/boss can see you as a “threat” if you stand out – instead of seeing you as a benefit for the company.

  4. The Tall Poppy Syndrome definitely exists all around the world. Growing up in the US, even just going to school, there is an intensive competition to be better than the next person. I experienced this first hand in college when I won a major award at graduation. It wasn’t a big deal to me, but many stopped talking to me, the whole de-friend on facebook occurred, etc. It was my classmates thought I was undeserving or like I paid someone for the award. I have no idea why there is that jealous in the human condition. It would be nice to just have people happy for your successes and you happy for theirs.

    1. That’s horrible Suzy. It is so shocking to me to hear when people behave like this. I say good on ya! and when I see others success, after first praising them, I want to know how they did it so I can do the same. I want to learn from them not tear them down. My next thought then is well if they can do it, so can I. There is no reason to fear others success. Btw, I felt quite old reading that you had facebook when you were at college. Definitely no facebook when I went!

  5. Well, even though I’ve encountered this (and sometimes feel it myself), I rather much like the term The Tall Poppy instead of just “crazy, jealous bitch”! I, too, wish this wasn’t apart of the human condition and that we could all just be happy for eachother. Some people I know actually work harder because of other people’s successes, but most just beat them down.
    Thanks for explaining the term though, and now I’m going to use it!

    1. No worries Jade. I agree. I wish we could all just celebrate each other’s strengths and successes and encourage each of us to be the best. It’s only insecurities that makes people jealous.

  6. Great post, Caz. I was always vaguely aware of a condition but an American friend living in Melbourne really opened my eyes to the seriousness of it. I didn’t think we were all THAT different, but it used to drive him crazy. Say what you will about Americans, their drive for individual success is an excellent trait.

    1. Yes. I never realized how serious it was either. I love how we believe everyone should be treated equally, but I don’t think that should come at the expense of celebrating others talents and successes. I wish we could have both. Possible? or is that just my Utopian thinking again?

  7. Interesting post. I’m from Australia too and I hadn’t heard the story of where it came from before but I suppose it makes sense. I often wondered where it came from. I never thought about it as being a way to stop people from standing out from the crowd. I can be a little critical of society in Sweden, where I am living now because there is such a drive to conform… nobody wants to stand up and say something, people strive for unanimous decisions (which is defintiely good sometimes) and I sometimes feel like I stand out like a sore thumb (with my overflowing fountain of personal information that I seem to be unable to stop :). But I never tried to apply that to Australia and I think you are right. In a way we are encouraging people not to stand out.

    I guess there is a happy medium somewhere. Australian’s tend to downplay their successes to avoid seeming immodest (and the choppiness of tall poppy syndrome) while I think Americans are encouraged to talk about the things they are good at (which I find extremely uncomfortable… I don’t really know what to say when someone is telling me how great they are because I have been brought up in a culture where that is considered sort of rude). In Sweden nobody talks about anything (hehe… just kidding). I wonder where the ideal place is with the happy balance. Any ideas?

    1. Gosh, I can’t think of anywhere that does have a happy medium. I know Thai people accept everyone and are so kind but I’m not sure if that they would talk about their successes so much, but would be very happy for those who are. I know what you mean about people not willing to say things, I’ve been caught out by that even in America. There is such a reverence for authority, that nobody feels like they can say what they think or disagree with those in higher positions. A lot of this comes from fear of losing their job. I use to find this absurd, but then I could see more where they were coming from, that things like that did happen. I like how we feel everyone is equal in Australia, so you never worry about this. I do like how no one is put on a pedestal and anyone will have a drink or talk to anyone but I do wish we celebrate and encouraged other’s success more and didn’t feel so fearful of it.

  8. Yeah, I agree with everyone’s idea to be able to “improving oneself” without “looking down unto others”. Born in Asia, living in both US & OZ, I was juggling to put myself right into the society. In US, I had a similar experience to Suz’s, but got that treatment only from few people who do not see / or don’t want to see that my achievement was based on alot of effort and sacrifices. I would like to improve myself by learning from someone who’s more knowledgeable, smarter, or luckier than me. No matter what their attitudes are (some could be humble, others could be arrogant), I try to see to the positive traits of their attributes instead of trying to cut them off (glass as 1/2 full or 1/2 empty?). If I were to just to cut off whoever “taller” than me, from whom I can learn or look up to?

    In OZ, it seems that’s difficult to prove oneself without being seen as a tall poppy. I was struggling to find a job for some time due to lack of skills and knowledge that the employer were looking for (my bachelor was in IT background). So, I decided to dug up my savings to pursue another degree to expand my knowledge, and hopefully job opportunities as well. However, after finishing the school, I went back to the same employer, told them that now I had the qualifications that they’re looking for, they responded as if “Hey, don’t brag because you have another degree”. I was confused because: 1) if you don’t have the qualification, they don’t hire you, saying you’re not qualified….but 2) once you have the qualification, they treated you as: “Don’t think once you have the qualification, you’re better than the rest of me/us”. Ironic, isn’t ? 😛

    How do I say/show that it is not my intention to “brag” but merely stating that I was working hard to be qualified and hopefully can work together with you?

    I know only when it comes to pub time, everyone can drink and spend time together whether they’re staff, manager or CEO/Owner….


    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences Kazu. That is horrible that the employer said that to you. He should have been admiring how hard you worked to qualify yourself. A hireable (is that a word?) trait I hate how you have to feel afraid of speaking about your accomplishments in Australia. Everyone just needs to stop feeling so insecure then you have no reason to try to bring others down. Pub time is the only time it has a positive spin on it.

      1. Hi Caz,

        Thanks for your response. I was wondering whether my story-telling came a little bit too late 🙂
        I may need to clarify my statement. When I came back to the prospective employer after graduation, they didn’t really say about the bragging literally. What they really said was: “Well, seem you have the background, but we don’t really need someone with the master degree.” (To get that position, they mentioned you need at least have a bachelor degree in accounting/finance. and master degree can be completed 1 – 1.5 years (full-time) compare to another 3 years of bachelor degree). Save me time and money.

        I hope I don’t offend anyone by sharing this story. The employer might have a valid reason for saying as such because they don’t want to pay someone who has the knowledge “on paper” but not the hands-on experience. I could be a little too sensitive and end up misinterpret the whole message when they said “We need the people who are qualified for the job.”

        Note: apart from job hunting, I love living in OZ. The weather is always nice (at least in Sydney), perfect for barbie. Lots of food, beers, and wines. Love the pub session (after class, Thu – Sun), and love the diverse culture there. Met lots of people and make lots of friends from different countries: OZ, UK, China, NZ, Poland, German, Korean, Latin America, Russia, Indonesian, & Thai.

  9. Hey guys!

    I’m from Adelaide, South Australia. We don’t have the strongest corporate presence in the career spectrums in young adults. Especially not compared to Sydney and Melbourne. I think it’s because of this that we don’t see as much of the Tall Poppy Syndrome.

    That being said, I completely agree that it is very prevalent in Australian culture. I even remember this mentality being strong in High School (public high school).

    A great read, will stick around and check out some more posts. 😀

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