All That Glitters

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 until 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 “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).3

No doubt, there are 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.

Don’t be dyed purple

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.

  1. 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 ↩︎

  2. Let’s not pretend this is a trait unique to New Zealand and Australia:

    See: Law of Jante ↩︎

  3. There are definitely some investors who are 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 those investors who are most attracted to the glamour of an exciting sounding startup are also the first to go AWOL when things get hard. ↩︎

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