Don’t be scared to stand out from the crowd. But fight the urge to constantly present yourself as more successful than you are.
You say you want diamonds and rings of gold.
You say you want your story to remain untold.
I say make your bloody mind up!
One of the traits we berate ourselves about in New Zealand is our Tall Poppy Syndrome.
By this we usually mean our tendency to cut successful people down, when they get ahead, bringing them back down to earth with the rest of us.1
But, do we though?
I’m fortunate to know a few people who have been very successful in different fields, who are widly celebrated and respected and admired. I don’t have to look too hard to find many more just like them.
So how did they all escape this treatment?
Perhaps we need to be more specific in describing the behaviour we actually try to weed out.
This is what I see…
We put a lot of weight on how success is celebrated. We prefer those who, after scoring an amazing try, put their head down and jog back to halfway ready to receive the next kick-off. We don’t rate or tolerate those who need to pump their fists and dance about taunting the opposition in those moments, for example.
We talk down those who talk themselves up. We use a complicated code. Things that are great are “pretty good”. Things that are terrible are “pretty average”. We’re generally suspicious of those who stray outside of that limited range.2
But, we reserve our harshest judgement for those who celebrate extravagantly before they’ve even scored the try. We don’t have much tolerance at all for showboating ahead of actual achievement.
And, I’ll be honest: I find it difficult to be upset that these are our preferences, given the alternatives.
However, it does create some particular difficulties for some young entrepreneurs, who are constantly encouraged to “fake it ’till you make it”. Many people continue to give this unhealthy advice to founders, especially to those who are inexperienced and looking for initial investment, even though saying “this is how you could help” is a significantly more engaging pitch to potential investors than “I already know all of the answers” (which of course you don’t, none of us do).
Maybe some investors will be attracted to the bravado of a founder who is full of unearned confidence. If you’re using that approach, and attracting those kind of investors, my advice is to pause and consider how those same investors might respond if (more likely when) your glitter has worn off. In my experience the same people who are most attracted to the glamour of an exciting sounding startup are also the first to go AWOL when things get hard.
No doubt, there are also some founders who have employed this approach very successfully and survived for years with a significant gap between their public image and their internal reality. Sadly, these are often the folks we choose to highlight and hold up as role models. That’s distorting.
I’ve bumped up against several people like this over the years. And I’ve always come away bruised. My observation is that taking this approach increases their average outcome, but also massively increases the variability of outcome. So that’s the choice those who go down this road make.
When we consider the people that we recognise and respect, what do we base that on?
How they identify? What they have done? Or what they could do?
Think about the labels we give ourselves and others. To pick some random examples…
There are endless similar examples.
We apply labels like this constantly, but the behaviours that should underpin them are far less common.
When I observe my kids and compare their experience to mine, one of the things I think has become much more prominent is the role of identity. How they define themselves and how they define others has become much more granular and also, I think, much more important to them. Even fundamental things like gender (which expands to much more nuance than it used to), sexual preference, ethnicity etc. They seem to be in much more of a rush to define themselves in specific detail than I was at the same age.
I think this reflects a trend in the world, and overall it’s a huge net positive. We no longer expect everybody to confirm to a homogeneous “normal”. There is room for people to be different, and that diversity makes us better.
But don’t read that previous sentence as a “Mission Accomplished”. There is still a lot more room to make. At the moment we still often pick fifteen loose forwards and I think it’s going to surprise us how much better we play when we add some props, halfbacks and wingers to the mix.
That trend is fine, and probably not something I could change even if I wanted to. The beauty of identity, especially when you’re still young and so don’t have much evidence to point at yet, is the rewards are immediate.
One of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever got was:
When you see kids doing something you like, say “you’re working hard” not “you’re clever”.
The latter is using a “fixed mindset”. It’s really just noting something we believe to be an intrinsic fact.
The former is using a “growth mindset”, recognising and encouraging behaviour. As a result it is motivating over time. When we get feedback like this it teaches us that we can improve, even if we can’t do something yet.3
Why do we so often reach for labels we haven’t earned, or more accurately, haven’t earned yet?
And why do those entrepreneurs who most often capture our attention predominantly come from the end of the spectrum that I’ll politely describe as “Dodgy Real Estate Agent / Second-Hand Car Dealer”? And nearly always from the early-stage rather than growth-stage.
These folks are easy to spot because they all have the same tell: the fake corporate persona.
They talk the way they think a serious business person should talk. And they dress the way they think a serious business person should dress. But there is always an uncanny valley. When they describe their business or their team it’s always in terms that attempt to make it sound bigger and more impressive than it actually is yet. They love winning awards. And sharing news of how busy they are on social media.
The recognition that comes with all of that seems to be catnip for them.
Often the last we hear of an aspirant growth-stage company in the media is on the day they announce their capital raise. Sometimes with a follow-up when they crash and burn, but not always. But raising capital is literally the start of when things get interesting for a startup. I’d love to see a journalist follow up on every funding story 6-months or 12-months after it was announced and find out what actually happened. There is gold in them hills! I also realise this is probably impossible, since people are generally happy to tell their story in those moments where they have just raised new capital, when their potential is all ahead of them, than later when they would be judged much more on actual results.
It’s tempting to just dismiss this reality, and think: it doesn’t matter, let those folks who feed on attention be distracted by chasing media coverage, focus on the things we believe are actaully important, build a great business from a solid foundation, etc.
To quote Steve Martin: “be so good they can’t ignore you.“
I’ve been banging that drum for many years.
But, I worry that I’m wrong about this.
Maybe it does matter more who gets amplified (and vice versa who doesn’t).
I’ve only recently put my finger on why: whether intended or not, the recognition we all give to these folks in those moments attaches credibility.
That crowds out others. If you don’t have that recognition then you need to start from the very beginning in every new conversation you have - others are always thinking: who are you, why are you interesting, how come I’ve never heard of you, why should I even take the meeting? From experience, that’s exhausting.
But, worse, this amplification can easily turn into a feedback loop that, in the end, creates a big gap between perception and reality, which inevitably causes pain when it eventually snaps shut.
I’m not sure we’ll ever solve for this.
Those who are good at marketing themselves are always going to hog the headlines, because they make more interesting stories. And so the temptation to fake it is huge. It’s much easier to claim a label than to earn it.
The link between attention and credibility feels like a strong chain to break too. Which means those who can are always going to be tempted to chase coverage and recognition.
But maybe we can collectively get better at stopping the feedback loops before they grow and cause problems: by looking further through the façade to try and find the substance; by celebrating and rewarding achievement rather than identity; by applauding the pilot for landing the plane rather than for re-fuelling the plane; etc.
Until then, perhaps we could start by being a little less surprised each time gravity re-asserts its dominance.
This is my alternative advice, for what it’s worth:
Be humble. Fight the urge to constantly present yourself as more successful than you are. This only unnecessarily increases the pressure you’re putting on yourself.
Be honest about the lessons you’ve learned so far. Choose to work with people who can teach you and lift you up rather than people who expect you to already have all of the answers.
Be authentic. Don’t put all of your energy into pretending to be something you’re not. Equally, don’t work too hard trying to fit in - the goal is not to be the same as most people
Be envious rather than jealous. But, be careful: Try not to compare how you feel on the inside with the misleading representation of how others look on the outside (always remember many of them are faking it).
And, if you do eventually achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself, be proud of what you’ve done but stay humble even then. It’s very unlikely that you achieved anything entirely on your own, so try not to get too distracted by how much credit or recognition you personally get. On the other hand, be liberal with the credit and recognition that you give to everybody who helped along the way.
Remember, those who are really crushing it rarely need to talk too much about it.
This approach probably won’t make you famous, but it’s a much healthier path.
This is very different from the original meaning of Tall Poppy Syndrome, which described a technique used by a powerful leader to cut down any other influential people before they were able to challenge their authority.
See: Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. ↩︎
Let’s not pretend this is a trait unique to New Zealand and Australia:
See: Law of Jante ↩︎
To learn more about the science behind the idea of the “growth mindset”, I recommend you start with the research done by Carol Dweck:
Lie, cheat or spin, and we allow a gap to develop between perception and reality.
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