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Tall Poppy Syndrome

Photo by Kris Atomic on Unsplash

I’ve been reading about Tall Poppy Syndrome, since hearing SOMEONE mention it in a podcast interview.  I’m embarrassed that I can’t source that podcast - too much travel recently, too many amazing podcast interviews.  I have no idea who drew it to my attention.  

Basically, though, it’s the concept that anyone who seems to be getting above their station needs to be cut back down.  Someone who presents as better than other people should be brought down to size, because everyone ought to be equal. Don’t be sticking your neck out, don’t draw attention to yourself. 

This shows up in orchestras a lot. An orchestra is rigidly hierarchical, and there’s only one principal flute, only one concertmaster.  No one is surprised that a concertmaster gets to play a solo.  But when a section player stands out in any way - starts a chamber music series, gives a recital, speaks at an event - that person begins to get the side-eye.  Who does she think she is, right?

I don’t buy it. 

It advances everyone if a member of the group is showcased. If someone gets to stand up and play a solo, it’s because she a. worked very hard to be at the top of her game, b. pitched that solo to someone, and c. was willing to put herself out there in that way.  If someone gets to go to afterparties with donors, it’s because she has volunteered to serve on numerous board committees, and because she is GOOD at socializing and being an advocate for the orchestra.  She’s an asset and she’s made herself that. 

There are definitely a lot of musicians who come to work to play their parts, and then go home again afterwards.  These musicians are perfectly entitled to do ONLY this much - that is what they are being paid for.  But putting extra energy in IS what creates opportunities for others.  

I’m so proud of my colleagues when they do great work. I admire the different strengths that all of them have - some are expert socializers, easily making friends in the audience and on the board.  Some are exquisite orchestral musicians, effortlessly fitting in to the group and enhancing it with their attention to detail.  Some are soloists, happy to present their interpretations OUT FRONT all the time. 

My strengths enhance the group.  Other people’s strengths enhance it in different ways.  Why would I be jealous of someone else’s earned opportunities? 

One musician's success is everyone’s success

But here’s a thing.  I’m working hard right now on audience building, and on self-promotion.  I have some really clear plans about things I want to offer and do: a recital I’m going to tour, a book I want to release, and a program I want to launch. And the thing that makes me hesitate - and I actually had thought I was immune to this - is WHAT will my colleagues think of me? Will they think I’m getting above my station?  Will they give me the side-eye for wanting more creative outlets, more money, more visibility? 

Is that a thing?  Because it feels like a thing.  I can simultaneously call out Tall Poppy Syndrome when I see it applied to my great colleagues, and feel EXTREMELY tentative about raising my head and announcing my plans myself.  As much as I pep-talk myself, it’s still there. Can I get rid of this feeling? Or do I just have to move THROUGH it? 

How have you seen this manifest in your life? How have you dealt with it?  What advice do you have for me? 


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