Why we need tall poppies

Sir Ray Avery, Scientist, Inventor and Philanthropist

23 April 2023, 14.8k views*

It seems increasingly that New Zealand doesn’t like tall poppies and cuts down people who stand out from the crowd and breach our societal egalitarian code of practices. So how can we support and encourage the next generation to dream big without fear of online bullying or failure?

There was once an ambitious Kiwi who loved to invent things that helped people. One of his technologies helped millions of the poorest of the poor see again on a global scale. The President of a small country wrote appreciatively, thanking him for eliminating bilateral cataracts in his country. The world’s foremost expert in this field expressed his deep admiration. And the Executive Director of the world’s leading sight restoration charity praised his leadership.

Back home, however, it was a different story. A prominent news editor claimed his contribution to global prevention of blindness was grossly exaggerated. And then the other media piled on.

That inventor was me, and what happened to me is pretty common in this country.

New Zealand doesn’t like tall poppies and cuts down people who stand out from the crowd and breach our societal egalitarian code of practices. It’s not the done thing around here to be ambitious and successful.

KJ Apa, the actor, said our tall poppy syndrome was the reason he couldn’t wait to leave New Zealand to be himself in Hollywood. Lani Fogelberg experienced it for talking about her success and owning a Ferrari. And Israel Adesanya took a jab at our tall poppy syndrome by calling it out on stage at an awards ceremony.

In post-war England, every terraced house had white net curtains facing the street, and if Mrs Smith at number nine, put up blue net curtains, she was “up herself”, a tall poppy. Thankfully in the sixties, the UK embraced pop culture, and it was OK to be a tall poppy, be a rock star and to show off. Eventually, tall poppies became the norm in the UK, and today pioneers and entrepreneurs like Richard Branson are celebrated by the British public.

Our media encultures and reinforces our tall poppy syndrome waiting for the next icon to fall or fail. The All Blacks coach, Ian Foster, was savaged by the media following a couple of match losses.

So why does it matter?

  • Research shows us Tall Poppy Syndrome has led to self-doubt, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts in kiwi entrepreneurs. The tragic death of Jake Millar exemplifies how brutal we can be in punishing our tall poppies.
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome stifles innovation and creativity. It hinders ambitions and potential. The people we want in New Zealand, go overseas, where they are championed, and their success is celebrated.

Here are three things we can do to change the tall poppy culture:

  1. As a country, let’s embrace and celebrate tall poppies because whether they win, lose or draw, they represent the best of the human condition. As Israel Adesanya said, ‘pump them up, embrace them, because if they win, we win. If I win, you win.’
  2. Let’s call out the media for cancelling tall poppies because this is just the worst form of online bullying that you can get. Give Kiwis a chance to dream.
  3. Let’s work together cultivating a healthy environment of support, constructive feedback, and encouragement for the next generation to dream big without fear of failure or criticism by their peers or the media.

You know, I was a street kid who managed to overcome my circumstances to become a scientist and inventor, and a ‘Sir’. And while not all achievers started where I did, I can guarantee most have had to overcome overwhelming odds to get to be where they are. So let’s support them and celebrate them.

After all, like me, they are the crazy ones. Because the people that are crazy enough to believe that they can change the world are the ones that do.

I’m Sir Avery, scientist, inventor and philanthropist for The Common Room.

*Aggregated views across platforms


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