Tall Puppies

My husband is Canadian. His family will tell you that he now has an Australian accent. Strangers often tell him he has an Irish accent. Communication isn't really a problem between us. But every now and then we find a word or a phrase that is comically misunderstood. Macramé and aluminium/aluminum foil have become popular riffs among our group of Aussie/Canadian/English friends (I mean, how does macramé even come up in conversation?). Bowl/ball has led to a prolonged and confused conversation more than once. And "tall puppy syndrome" had him thinking that Australians were kind of a bit cruel by nature.

I don't think I realised just how much the tall poppy syndrome was ingrained into my being until I met Chris and I started to realise how uncomfortable I was with pursuing success in a way that may be recognised by others. Americans and Canadians seem much more comfortable with owning their successes. For a long time I have been self-deprecating to the core. And while I'm not advocating to take the Liam Gallagher route of self-appreciation, I do think my avoidance of being seen as a tall poppy has resulted in me selling myself short at times.

Seth Godin talks about this in The Icarus Deception, which I'm listening to at the moment. (side note, as audiobooks go I find it enjoyable, but I still want to see the words on the page to allow it to really sink in and process. I don't find audiobooks fulfilling in the same way as reading it). The premise of the book is that the commonly told myth of Icarus only tells one part of the story, the don't fly too close to the sun or you'll get burnt bit. Apparently there's another, equally important bit about not flying too low because the sea water would ruin the lift in his wings. Godin argues that flying too low is even more dangerous than flying high because it is deceptively safe.

We need people to self-actualise if we want to tackle some of the societal problems that continue to be placed in the too hard basket. If we want to encourage this then I think we not only have to accept within ourselves that it's ok to pursue quality, but we need to recognise how much we reinforce the opposite within our culture.

What do I mean by this? I'll use myself as an example, because I've got plenty of material to work with. Now my upbringing instilled in me some pretty strong values about being an active citizen and caring for others etc, but it didn't exactly teach me to celebrate the success of others. To say I'm critical by nature is probably a gross understatement. For a very long time it's been my natural tendency to poke holes in things first, and if they continue to remain then maybe there's something of value there. I am very sceptical. I convinced myself that this was ok because I gave myself the same treatment. I was treating others as I was being treated, it didn't clash with my values.  But I've come to realise recently that while that may be true, it doesn't help me to get the best out of things. In fact, I think sometimes it means that I miss out on realising the value that is on offer.

I'm not saying that we should lower our standards to the lowest common denominator (I think that's my most hated phrase in the world!). I think what I'm saying is if you go into something looking for the holes, the weaknesses, then you are going to find them and then you may get stuck on them. There are always holes. But if we focus on them first then we may be less receptive to the rest of the offering, and there might be some real value in there.

I'm trying to retrain myself to do things the other way round. First look at things assuming the best, see where the value might be. Only then do I think about assessing the validity of it, and only in relation to what it means to me. How does it fit with the purpose of the interaction. Because half of the time, if I'm honest, my criticisms say more about me than they do about the recipient.

I think this is one of the things I find challenging about my literature review at the moment. It's really easy to look at these small studies and rip them to shreds with critique. Design flaws, poorly written up, not generalisable. But what value does that add, really? Doing literature reviews like that are kind of a zero sum game. I make the authors look bad, I try to make myself look smart, but in the end there isn't any new knowledge produced that is of any value. And isn't the whole purpose of a literature review, of any research to contribute new knowledge?

It makes me think about when Brené Brown talks about choosing to make the assumption that people are doing the best with the tools they have. And her favourite quote from Theodore Roosevelt

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

If we want to build a culture of innovation and risk taking, then we need to keep our tendency to immediately cut people down and criticise in check. This is going to mean different things for different people. And for people like me it is hard work! I have to actively train myself to try and see the good before the bad. And to value those who are out there and giving it a go, even when I can think of ten ways they could've done it better. Because they're out there doing it and that's a start.