A cretin who shall remain nameless recently accused me of “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. It supposedly refers (particularly in Australia) to an attitude that discourages achievement, much like the old “nail that sticks out gets hammered down” maxim. What’s amusing to me is that the person using the term didn’t seem aware of the term’s real origin. In that parable, the “poppies” did not have their heads cut off merely because they had grown but because they had overreached or overstated their success. Perhaps a couple of examples will illustrate what I mean.

  • Do I resent everyone who’s richer than me? Certainly not. I know a bunch of people richer than me. Most of them became richer through old-fashioned talent, hard work, and savings. A few became that way because of dumb luck. No problem. However, do I resent the person who became richer than me through nepotism and corruption, and then claims to be a great businessman (like George W. Bush)? I certainly do.
  • Do I resent everyone whose technical achievements are better known than mine? Nope. I’ve met a few Turing Award winners, and a bunch of open-source luminaries, and the only envy I feel is of the sort that encourages me to follow their example. I have no desire to tear them down. However, if someone throws together a bunch of other people’s ideas in a not-particularly-innovative way, gets other people to complete their severely deficient implementation, then takes credit for being some technical genius whose ideas are saving the world…yeah, that annoys me.

In both cases the problem is not that the poppies are tall. It’s that they’re presented as being taller than they really are, like the unripe tomato that’s reddened artificially and then sold at a premium. It annoys me partly because people tend to trade on these inflated reputations, and harm others. What happens when either of the “Fake Poppies” in the above examples use their reputation to start a company which flops, screwing investors and (more importantly) coworkers or employees whose livelihoods are threatened by having believed the lie? What about the other people who have made achievements, who deserve their own moment in the limelight but never get it because the Fake Poppies hog the stage? No, I don’t crave the limelight myself; I’m talking about other people.

Perhaps the person who mentioned Tall Poppy Syndrome will read this and realize it’s not about envy. Truth be told, I see nothing to envy in his case. What it’s about is honesty, about presenting one’s accomplishments (whether great or small) in a fair light, and giving credit where credit is due. Tall poppies are fine, but imitation poppies are not.