The Tall Poppy Syndrome
Most of us have a governor on our capacity for full authentic self-expression. A governor is device that “automatically regulates the supply of fuel, steam, or water to a machine, ensuring uniform motion or limiting speed.” The governor we have inside us automatically regulates the supply of shakti, life force, in order to limit our ability to speak truthfully, to disturb the universe with our primal presence and cosmic roar. In Australia, this governing device is called “tall poppy syndrome.”
My first direct experience of this tall poppy notion came one morning in a workshop I was leading, shortly after I moved to Australia in 2005. I wondered aloud why a few of the participants danced so delicately around an issue they wanted to discuss. They did everything but speak plainly. I encouraged them to speak more boldly and directly. In our subsequent conversation, they said they had learned to not be bold or direct. They said that it wasn’t right to speak out too loudly. They didn’t want to stick out, or stand above others. They told me about the tall poppy syndrome, which I’ve come to understand as a kind of cultural suppression of creative self-expression.
The tall poppy syndrome is a topic that showed up in every one of my workshops in Australia, over the course of almost six years. It is a fire-walk that many have to take in order to break the hold of this socialization, their learned reticence to stand up, stick out, and speak brilliantly, powerfully, passionately, authentically!
When I asked one of my Australian friends to give me her definition of the tall poppy syndrome, she said, “Let’s not get too high and mighty, let’s not get too carried away with ourself. We don’t want anyone getting too full of their own talent or accomplishment. If they do, why we’ll just cut them down to size. We’ll have no tall poppies in our fields!”
Another said, “Australians are carrying a national consciousness of unworthiness, stemming from our roots as a convict colony. When one of us tries to move into the bigger world, to dream a bigger vision, we briefly project all of our personal unmet ambitions onto him. When it turns out he is human and experiences a moment of failure, or is in our eyes somehow not good enough or undeserving, we pull him down justifying our own choice not to have at least tried to expand our horizons. Just like the elephants tied to the chains who don’t realise they are bigger than the chains, we are re-creating our convict history via our tall poppy syndrome, believing ourselves to be prisoners simultaneously worshipping, fearing, and resenting the ones who break free.”
And another friend talked about the “cultural cringe, a peculiarly Aussie malaise, a leveling attitude that seeks to keep people chained to mediocrity: in thinking and doing and dreaming big dreams — but most of all, in speaking. We’re just not supposed to speak up. That would be big-noting and arrogant. That’s for the Americans.”
What a tragedy! To own our innate right to express our voice and vision, to exercise our intrinsic right to fully express our own aliveness and beauty and genius and creativity and wildness as only we can, is not arrogant or self-centered, but natural.
I think of how natural it is for children throughout the world to exult in discovering their creative and expressive powers! Once we can make a sound, we start gurgling, hummming, singing, crying, wailing — wow, look, we can make sounds! Once we can crawl, and then walk and skip, you can’t keep us penned in! And then, we can draw! We can create with color, with pencils, pens, crayons, paint — on everything! And then, to the dismay of all grown-ups, we realize we can make music by banging with this on that! The poet Derek Walcott surely wrote this line for children, and anyone, in the throes of discovery: Feast on your life!
Expressing our self in uniquely creative ways is natural. It is the feast prepared for us at the moment we were created. And it is also natural to want to be appreciated and recognized for our creative expressions, for they represent our very essence of being! Look at the gleam and glow of any child as they rush to show a parent or teacher their picture — all excitement, joy, and pride! The only, I repeat: the only, appropriate response is overwhelming appreciation and encouragement. If we in any way ignore, disparage, or dismiss their work, we do the same to them, we will have hurt and wounded, perhaps fatally, their self-image and self-esteem, their enthusiasm and joy, their confidence and courage.
Since I have always been interested in the transformative power and inspirational potential of public speaking, I began to extrapolate this tendency to underachieve. If people were guarding against authentic self-expression and self-censoring heartfelt sentiments, if people were aiming for the lowest common denominator, if people were afraid to be vulnerable and transparent, to connect intimately with others … what happens to people’s soul? How would this cultural leveling mechanism restrict and repress a person’s urge to rise above mediocrity?
What happens … ?
What happens when you begin to speak in unauthorized, powerful, poetic, passionate ways? What happens when your speaking sets you apart, because you are clear, confident, compelling? What happens when you begin to speak the unspeakable, which rocks the status quo, or which gives shape and texture to new possibilities, new freedoms, new solutions? What happens when you speak dreams and visions from other levels of consciousness, from other dimensions of being? What happens if you question a public official’s rhetoric? … Hey, that’s enough!!
Stop right there! Who do you think you are to say such things? You have gone far enough. Now be quiet, mister, or you are going to find yourself in a world of trouble.
In a Sydney workshop, one woman told of standing in front of her class, I guess she was about seven years old, to show her picture. Everyone had been told to draw snowflakes. This woman proudly showed a picture of multi-colored snowflakes, not a single one was white! How original! How imaginative! How colorful!
Oops, no. The teacher had apparently lost too many important brain cells. What happened was that the teacher raced forward, grabbed the picture, held it aloft and began almost screaming: “Look at this! Children, look at this! This is wrong! Snowflakes are white. Everyone knows that! Have you ever seen colored snowflakes?! No! Now go back to your seat and do this over, and do it right.”
In the midst of this public shaming, this poor little girl just then and there decided for all time: I am not good enough. I can not draw. I am stupid. I will never again dream, imagine, or do anything different.
These self-limiting decisions in the face of life events are the beginning of what I call diminished capacity, which is the major, if not singular, cause underlying our inability to lead truly authentic, happy, creative lives of intimacy and originality. Once we shut down and close off, we are cut off from the very life-force we need to be whole, to be powerful, to be passionate, to be productive, to be successful in whatever way we want.
The tall poppy syndrome, especially as it pertains to speaking, is not proprietary to Australia. It is universal. Every society and each culture has sought to regulate speaking with bribes and intimidations. The antidote? Confidence. Confidence is a choice to accept, own, and fully use our intrinsic, inborn, factory-installed right to fully express ourself in whatever way we want, any time, any place, no matter what. We all have to learn to speak our truth from the depths of our being, heart to heart and eye to eye. We all have to transform diminished capacity into ferocious and fearless speaking and truth-telling. This is where and how we connect with our life-force, how we inspire ourselves to dream big dreams, to take on unimaginable projects, to bring forth fire, and to learn to love the Earth. This is how we fulfill the promise of our life, how we share our true heart and seed the world with soul-seeds of beauty.