In praise of ambition

October 18, 2022
Estimated reading time:
5 minutes

At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind.

It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.

This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.

Tyler Cowen, “The high-return activity of raising others’ aspirations”

For historical reasons, do not do this on or shortly before 11th November in the UK unless you want to get the ‘Holly and Phil’ treatment.

There are many things I love about the UK. Test match cricket. Real ale. Crisp, clear autumn days. Premier League football. Oasis. Harry Potter. The NHS.

But there’s one thing in particular that I can’t stand.

Tall poppy syndrome.

Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is defined as:

a cultural phenomenon in which people hold back, criticise or sabotage those who have or are believed to have achieved notable success in one or more aspects of life, particularly intellectual or cultural wealth; "cutting down the tall poppy".

The best illustration of TPS, and the cultural differences in perceptions of success, is to imagine someone driving past you in a Lamborghini.

In the US, people are more likely to say, “Gee, I’d love to have a car like that some day.”

In the UK, people are more likely to say, “What a twat.”

I believe this is one of the most harmful mentalities that pervades the UK psyche.

Why does this matter?

As Tyler Cowen pointed out, one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and your life is to raise the ambitions of others. Merely by provoking others to think at a larger and grander scale, you can unlock an energy and ambition that might otherwise have stayed dormant.

The opposite is therefore also true: one of the most value-destructive things you can do with your time and your life is quash the ambitions of others.

The stories we tell ourselves, and the examples we see in those around us, have a dramatic impact on our lives. We’ve all heard the adage that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. That’s probably true — and if I had to guess the mechanism behind it, it’s because you start to tell yourself a story. I am like these people, and people like us do things like this.

A NYT article from 2017 showed how likely sons and daughters were to follow their parents into a given profession. The results are fairly striking.

For men, if your father was a fisherman, you are 275x more likely to be a fisherman. If your father installed drywall, you are 136x more likely to also install drywall for a living. If your mother was a paralegal, you are 191x more likely to also be a paralegal. And so on.

People like us, do jobs like these.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is a way of quashing ambition. Of singling out anyone who dares to have ambition (or as we sometimes put it, “ideas above their station”), and cutting them back down to our level. Who does she think she is? Does she think she’s better than me? We cheer for failure, and seethe with envy at success.

That story, heard over and over again by anyone raised in the UK, becomes a story we all tell ourselves. People like me don’t do things like that. We’re happy just plodding along. Can’t complain. Mustn’t grumble. We settle for less.

The TPS mentality in business

I had a discussion recently with someone who’s been involved in the startup scenes in the UK and the US. This person was amazed at the cultural differences between the two.

In this person’s words:

[British founders and investors], and I blame the investors far more than the founders, lack ambition. Series A exit to some American startup was the typical response I would hear…

Imagine thinking that the best you should be shooting for is to get a little traction, prove out the business model and identify a path to scale, and then exit stage left and let someone else take it from there.

This lack of ambition is a killer. Is it any wonder VCs overwhelmingly invest in US companies? The US has a population around 5x the size of the UK, yet received 9x more in funding in 2020-21.

Per capita VC funding is also wildly low in China and India. Strongly suspect this will change in the coming years.

I would bet a lot of money that there are large numbers of people in the UK with latent entrepreneurial energy and ambition that never gets activated. Because you’re afraid to stand out. Because you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. Because ambition is such a brash, American traint. Us Brits are far more modest. People like us don’t do things like that.

Fuck that.

What can I do about it?

Firstly, we should boldly and loudly celebrate any British entrepeneurial successes. We should call out any examples of TPS. We should seek to raise the level of ambition of those around us, wherever we can.

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Steve Jobs

Most importantly, we should question the stories we tell ourselves.

We should observe our own thinking, and question the rationale and assumptions behind statements. More often that not, we find deeply held beliefs such as “I could never start a company” that are built on foundations of shaky branches and twigs, and can be dismantled with a strong gust of introspection.

For example, any time anyone says “I can’t do [thing]” or “[thing] is impossible”, I like to following up by asking “why is that?”

I want to get to the root of the assumptions behind that statement.

Often the rationale is no deeper than “I can’t do [thing] because then [consequences].”

And of course every action has consequences. But are those consequences reasonable, survivable, or in fact irrelevant? Then you can absolutely do the thing.

In fact there are a surprising amount of things you are allowed to do. You have an amazing amount of agency if you want.

It’s up to you to use it. And it’s up to everyone else to stop cutting down the tall poppies.

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