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Tall Poppy Syndrome; Is there a positive flip side?

First of all, I was voted biggest spock, which was a word for geek in the early 2000’s, at least in my Aussie high school. I was also voted biggest overachiever in the Year 10 slam book (like a real life Burn Book in Mean Girls). My fifteen-year-old self CANNOT BELIEVE I would suggest Tall Poppy Syndrome would be good FOR ANYTHING!

But hear me out, on how I came to ask myself this question…

I recently came across the viral speech of Kara Lawson, the Duke Basketball coach, aptly named on YouTube “Handle Hard Better”. If you need a wonderful dose of inspiration, watch this now!

I watched the speech so many times Lawson was practically my own personal coach, and somehow that morphed my social media algorithms into thinking I wanted information about high school athletics. To be clear, Duke is college level basketball, but social media algorithms are of course not precise, and for some reason I was bombarded with information about the pressure of high school sports, and what it takes to perform at an elite level in high school.

Admittedly I wasn’t a sporty kid, but no one was getting scouted for college or pro or anyone’s teams at our Wednesday afternoon inter-school competitions. Getting into a team consisted of picking the sport you wanted to do on a Wednesday afternoon. I know this because they let me into the touch football team. I think we may have trained occasionally during lunchtime, but I have no strong memories of this. It really was all about just “having a go”.

While I’d seen the pressure of high school sports in US pop culture (Friday Night Lights, anyone?), I quickly learned, thanks to the unknown workings of social media algorithms, about the reality of sport in at least some American high schools. From intense training schedules, summer programs, to burnout (burnout in high school?!), it was clear high performing American student athletes are under a lot of pressure. Pressure which isn’t hidden or is even celebrated, like in the existence of “Hell Week”. 

What is Hell Week, you ask? It’s two-a-day training at the beginning of a season, most commonly used in football. If you want to use it in a sentence, you could apparently say “your hell week is our training” when boasting to another school.

This pressure was far more than I remember any student being subjected to while at school, for sport or anything else. Obviously every school, and every student’s experience is very different. But I remember the motto of one of my high school’s year advisors (shout out to Mr. Atkins!) was “It’s cool to achieve”. At least in my school in Australia, you literally had to tell kids that it was cool to achieve. Tall Poppy Syndrome, for the blessedly uninitiated, is when people are criticized or brought down for their achievements. Mr. Atkins was trying to battle Tall Poppy Syndrome using the most literal of terms. 

A New Perspective on Tall Poppy Syndrome

Comparing my dated, limited knowledge of high school in both countries, I was struck with the question: could there be a positive flip side of Tall Poppy Syndrome? Could there be benefits from not taking anything too seriously? Afterall, if looking like you are trying makes you uncool, there is low risk of burnout. Could looking down on success somehow be saving Aussie kids from Hell Week?

Of course the impacts of Tall Poppy Syndrome go far beyond high school and in fact bullying. In America Josh’s recent appearance on Grace Lewis’ podcast “Tall Poppy Talk”, they discuss how Tall Poppy Syndrome leads to Aussies / Kiwis downplaying one’s achievements, and not taking ownership of your successes. I’ve written about this as well, in how when you arrive in New York, other Aussies may give you a little induction on how to overcome your ingrained Tall Poppy Syndrome. I think the different attitudes to success are best captured in a story an Aussie dancer told me. She said in Australia, 

“if a dancer is excelling in a class, the other dancers will tend to ignore them or fault find, but in the US, the dancers cheer and applaud them.”

But if you’re thinking, wait a minute… “I’ve been in an American dance class and that didn’t happen.” Or “rack off, Aussie dancers are nice”. It’s true. To complicate matters further, if you spend enough time in either country, you’ll see the exact opposite of Tall Poppy Syndrome / celebration of success play out. Unfortunately bullying and the root cause of Tall Poppy Syndrome, jealousy, exist everywhere, including the US. In Australia, once you’ve made friends with other tall poppies, they can be immensely supportive, perhaps to make up for all the Tall Poppy Syndrome you’ve had to endure to reach your level of success.

A hybrid super culture

So rather than Tall Poppy Syndrome having a positive flip side, we can perhaps just take the best aspects of both Aussie and American attitudes to success, and blend them together to create a kind of hybrid super culture. 

Let’s end the social isolation, criticism, and bullying that cuts down the metaphorical tallness of tall poppies. I would suggest ending the notion of Hell Week, but some students have fond memories of their Hell Weeks, and I could be taking the “hell” in Hell Week more seriously than it’s intended. 

So let’s just end any real life hells and any practices that lead to burnout. Let’s celebrate success, while keeping perspective on what is truly important. 

I present to you… “Orchid Culture”!

I’m going to go ahead and give this hybrid culture the guaranteed-to-go-viral name “Orchid Culture”. 

I know, naming something after a plant is super catchy, but I needed to respond to the poppy in Tall Poppy Syndrome. Orchids are native in the US, Australia and New Zealand, with a huge number of unique different species. 

If you’ve ever grown an orchid, you’ll know they only grow with consistent care and support. And when they succeed i.e. flower, they really, really know to celebrate.

Micharne Cloughley

Micharne Cloughley

Micharne is a writer for TV and theatre. She hails from the Blue Mountains NSW, and currently lives in Jersey City NJ. Her favourite Aussie words are daggy and mate. Her favorite American words are y’all and Kansas City BBQ.View Author posts

2 thoughts on “Tall Poppy Syndrome; Is there a positive flip side?”

  1. Orchid culture!! That is something worth jumping on board with 100%! Wow – I loved reading this, and Kara’s speech… so many things for me to ponder (add it to the ongoing dialogue I have on the subject). Really appreciate your writing style too, felt like you’re chatting through this with the reader. Nga mihi, Grace 🙂

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