Tall Poppy Syndrome

As I conclude my PTO, this post is an update to one of my more popular columns from past years. Enjoy.

Our incoming first year students have all graduated from high school by now. And their frame of reference is that they are at the pinnacle of their K-12 success. They knew who they were within their school. They had their well-established friend group. They had whatever skill or talent they are known for – whether they were an amazing writer or the star of the school play or had built an amazing robot or whatever. They felt secure in who they were as a high school senior.

But when college begins in August, they will have to start anew: make new friends, find a niche, figure out who they are. And in this time of great (and normal!) transition, students can be tempted to do a lot of compare-and contrast: who is better/smarter/luckier/more attractive/more advantaged than I am? Who has more friends? etc. etc.

Tall Poppy SyndromeLongtime readers of the Daily Deac know that I am a huge fan of the quote “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When we spend our time thinking about someone else’s success – be it in the classroom or how many friends they have on social media or how many likes they got – we tend to feel worse about ourselves. Comparison can make us turn inward and fill us with self doubt or anxiety about who we are. And sometimes that comparison leads to Tall Poppy Syndrome.

What is Tall Poppy Syndrome, you ask? It has been attributed to a number of English speaking countries, particularly Australia. Think of a field of poppies. Part of what makes it so beautiful is that the flowers are all pretty uniform. They grow to the same height. When you get a poppy that stands way above the others, it ruins the sight line, begs for its own attention instead of blending into the group.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is when people who have achieved too much success or acclaim [or insert your measure here] are cut down by others. They may genuinely deserve their success, but it makes other people feel like they have overachieved, so they try to cut the tall poppy down. They disparage the person for their success/good fortune/good looks/whatever.

I bring this up over the summer because there may be times in the upcoming academic year where your Deacs think there is a Tall Poppy among them and the temptation might be to try and cut them down to size. The truth is, every student at Wake is exceptional in one way or other. Some excel in this academic subject or that. Some excel at sports, or at making friends, or getting amazing internships, or they get into this or that Greek group or gain a leadership role. But with every student I have met – no matter how seemingly Tall Poppy they may be – they all have their own insecurities and faults and need for acceptance.

No one’s life is perfect, no matter how perfect it seems, so a good rule is to be kind to everyone.

To the degree you can plant the seed with your Deacs of not comparing themselves to others, not thinking they are less if someone else seems more, you will be doing them a great favor. And you can also remind them that if you cut a Tall Poppy down, it doesn’t make you any taller. In fact, it may make you look smaller 🙂


— by Betsy Chapman, Ph.D. (’92, MA ’94)

Categories: campus lifethe daily deac

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