Thursday, August 05, 2010

Off With My Head

"It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail."
– Gore Vidal
Australians don't like success.
We're proud of our tall poppy syndrome, "a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers." Which is to say those who make it big can expect no plaudits. Compliments and congratulations will always be conditional: "Don't get too big for your boots," high achievers are warned. And if they show any satisfaction about their accomplishments, they're reprimanded: "So you think you're too good for us now, do ya?".

It's argued that the lopping of tall poppies is an expression of egalitarianism: it promotes a classless society, one in which everyone has the same opportunities and a right to a "fair go". Anything that's seen as being unfair – though by whom is always a little muddy – is deemed un-Australian. Our sense of entitlement to what politicians refer to as
the-same-amount-of-fairness-for-everyone is accompanied by a distrust of excellence. Excellence isn't fair. It is seen as "taking advantage".
Ironically, the origin of the tall poppy metaphor, found in pre-Christian Roman history, is entirely about ensuring advantage. According to Livy, lopping tall poppies expressed a fundamental strategy of war. Remove or undermine an enemies' political and cultural leaders and they would be demoralised and weakened, their capacity for achievement diminished.
Trust Australians to get it wrong.
If there's one thing Australians dislike more than success, it's to see someone recover from failure. It is, again, an affront to their somewhat twisted take on what's fair: it's not done to refuse to stay down and take what's coming to you – for getting "above yourself", for wanting to be more or better.
In other parts of the world, the experience of failure – and overcoming it – is seen as essential to growth.
More than a decade ago, during an Australian trade mission to northern California's Silicon Valley, Australia's deputy prime minister, Richard Alston, asked the Indian-American venture capitalist (and co-founder of Sun Microsystems), Vinod Khosla, what he looked for in the tech' entrepreneurs in whom he chose to invest. "Failure," Khosla replied. "If he or she has crashed and burned, lost millions of dollar, and still has the guts to get back on their feet, they're likely to have gained the attributes needed to make a success of it a second time around."
My recent bankruptcy was a significant failure. I could blame it on a lot of problems – from a badly managed studio and work having to be re-done, sometimes more than once, to long-trusted suppliers delivering sub-standard materials. But the fatal flaw was in how I dealt with them.
I paid for work that wasn't good enough; I paid too much for work that was barely adequate. I paid for materials that suppliers had ordered wrongly rather than making them order the right ones. I persisted in business relationships from which I should have just walked away. In trying to be understanding and tolerant, I undermined my first attempt at managing a business.
I paid a high price. I ended up owing more than I had. I owed my bank. I owed tax. I owed work. But in turn, I was owed – and not just money. I took responsibility for other people's mistakes and covered their losses. I supported them when they really didn't deserve it.
Bankruptcy put an end to that. Those who had gotten used to me paying them, no matter what, had their accounts disputed, not just by me but by a state-appointed trustee. Of all my creditors, they were the most spiteful and angry.
Today, I stumbled across a blog entry with a bitter tirade about me by a former art materials supplier. She accuses me of being self-indulgent, flippant and "pretending to be a tormented artist living abroad". She tenders a pseudo-maternal "genuine hope" that I will "get well and find some path through life" – but expresses her doubts that I will. She admonishes me to "pull my socks up and get on with it". Oh, and "pay me". Of course, nowhere is there any indication that our brief brief relationship was unsatisfactory from the start.
A couple of months after I began ordering art materials from her, this woman used our new acquaintance to get coverage of her business in a major 'glossy' magazine. The high-profile, front-of-book plug relied heavily on my name but I wasn't asked or told about it – let alone thanked. I found out via the magazine's features editor, who called to say they'd done "that friend of yours a favour".
And what did I get in return? Over the next few months, large orders were filled incorrectly. I had to accept delivery of – and pay for – the wrong materials because she was unable or, rather, unwilling to acknowledge her mistakes. My mistake was to keep doing business with her. Instead I took responsibility for her mistakes and allowed her to continue serving me badly – in effect, to transfer not only financial and but also some kind of weird moral responsibility for this to me.
I have learned from my failure. Moreover, I'm paying for it within the prolonged, restrictive terms of personal bankruptcy. Those terms do not include putting up with shit from people who are pissed that I'm no longer their meal ticket: under the law, I don't have to.
I'm not letting the bastards keep me down. I have dragged myself to my knees and now I'm intent on standing up and walking tall again. I'm not going to apologise for pursuing success again. My breakdown and bankruptcy provoked delicious schadenfreude among many in the art world and provided an opportunity for others outside it to blame me for their own incompetence and bad faith.
From here on, I'm taking a more classical view of tall poppy syndrome: try lopping me again and I'll regard it as an act of war.


Walt Pascoe said...

"...try lopping me again and I'll regard it as an act of war."
good on ya. seriously. (((respect))) Hazel. Thnx for all you share.

Rowlsey said...

You go girl!!!!

Elizabeth said...

The poppy-syndrome is a wide-spread act, unfortunately. Have every confidence that you will tackle the obstacles on your way through life.

Karen Martin Sampson said...

We have the "poppy-syndrome" to some extent here in Canada too but now with more influx of peoples from across the world living here that seems to be a dying outlook. My family had the same attitude, "do well but not so well you stand out too much - and for heaven's sake don't embarrass us!" That has changed too. (Is it a "British" thing do you think?) My family is now quite supportive but I was a sort of "black sheep" for a long time. You just keep on doing what you're doing, Hazel, and I am rooting for you!

Martin said...

Great post. And yes, even in Holland we have the 'poppy-syndrome'. I think it's human nature.....