Discover more from Top Three, by Rowan Simpson
5th December, 2021
Moroccan Peacock, by me
Here’s to the quiet ones.
The co-founders, the assistants, the collaborators.
The round pegs in the round holes.
The ones who see things as they are.
They work behind the scenes, helping the crazy ones with their rough edges.
You can overlook them, disregard them, trivialise or underestimate them.
But as you ignore them they quietly get on and change things.
They push the human race forward.
And while some may see them as the quiet ones,
We see genius.
Because they are the people that know that what matters most is what you achieve,
Not who gets the credit.
One of the traits we sometimes berate ourselves about is Tall Poppy Syndrome.
By this we usually mean our tendency to cut successful people down, bringing them back down to earth with the rest of us.1
But, do we though?
I’m fortunate to know a few people who have been very successful in different fields, who are celebrated and respected and admired. I don’t have to look too hard to find many more like them.
So how did all of them escape this treatment?
Perhaps we need to be more specific in describing the behaviour we actually try to weed out.
This is what I see...
We put a lot of weight on how success is celebrated. We prefer those who, after scoring an amazing try, put their head down and jog back to halfway ready to receive the next kick-off. We don’t rate or tolerate those who need to pump their fists and dance about taunting the opposition in those moments, for example. We talk down those who talk themselves up. We use a complicated code. Things that are great are "pretty good". Things that are terrible are "pretty average". We're generally suspicious of those who stray outside of that limited range.2
But, we reserve our harshest judgement for those who celebrate extravagantly before they’ve even scored the try. We don’t have much tolerance at all for showboating ahead of actual achievement.
And, I'll be honest: I find it difficult to be upset that these are our preferences, given the alternatives.
However, it does create some particular difficulties for many young entrepreneurs, who are constantly encouraged to “fake it until you make it”. Many people continue to give this unhealthy advice to founders, especially to those who are inexperienced and looking for initial investment, even though “this is how you could help” is a significantly more engaging pitch to potential investors than “I already know all of the answers” (which of course you don't, none of us do).3
No doubt, there are some founders who have employed this approach very successfully and survived for years with a significant gap between their public image and their internal reality. Sadly, these are often the folks we choose to highlight and hold up as role models. That’s distorting.
I’ve bumped up against several people like this over the years. And I’ve always come away bruised.
My observation is that taking this approach increases their average outcome, but also massively increases the variability of outcome. So that's the choice those who go down this road make.
My alternative advice, for what it's worth:
Be humble. Fight the urge to constantly present yourself as more successful than you are. This only unnecessarily increases the pressure you're putting on yourself. Be ambitious, and be honest about the lessons you’ve learned so far. Choose to work with people who can help you rather than people who expect you to already have all of the answers. Put your energy into being authentic, rather than acting or pretending to be something you're not. Be envious rather than jealous. But, be careful: Try not to compare how you feel on the inside with the misleading representation of how others look on the outside (always remember many of them are faking it).
And, if you do eventually achieve the goals you've set for yourself, be proud of what you’ve done but stay humble even then. It's very unlikely that you achieved anything entirely on your own, so try not to get too distracted by how much credit or recognition you personally get. On the other hand, be liberal with the credit and recognition that you give to everybody who helped along the way. Remember, those who are really crushing it rarely need to talk too much about it.
This probably won't make you famous, but it's a much healthier path.
If you had to choose, which would you rather be?
Rich, but unknown; or
Famous, but actually poor.
The two words are bundled together so often we treat them as atomic, but they are not synonyms.
It seems like an easy choice to me.
But, then why do so many people prefer option two? 4
I think that they maybe assume that “famous” is a stepping stone.
Although, I think that underestimates how difficult is it to go from “poor and famous” to “rich and famous”. There are actually very few who make that transition.
And in the meantime, how crappy it must be to be recognised by everybody, but not actually have the income that they will all probably assume you have to go with the famous face?
On the other hand, going from “rich and unknown” to “rich and famous” would be much easier, if famous was your ultimate goal.
I like Bill Murray's advice:
I always want to say to people who want to be rich and famous: "try being rich first." See if that doesn’t cover most of it.
The downsides of being “famous but poor” are not often discussed.5 Likewise, the benefits of being "rich and unknown" are under-reported. By definition, I suppose. But also because social media amplifies noise just as effectively as it does signal.
Maybe we need to be more specific when we describe these two options.
How do we decide what’s actually important?
One technique, often recommended in self help books, is to think backwards from the end: What inscription do we want on our tomb stone? What do we want people to say about us in our eulogy? How do we want to be remembered?
Those are all hard questions. And coming up with answers forces us to go deeper - to look beyond our immediate skill set, job and status to our underlying values, relationships and the impact we have on others.6
That's definitely a big improvement, but it's not a complete answer, because it's still relying on an external perspective. What do other people think of us?
Is it enough just to do something great. Or is it also important that we are seen?
What role does the audience play? How much does the recognition matter?
Ultimately we can’t control what other people think or say or feel. So if we rely on that as our definition of success then the outcomes are going to be more chaotic. The bigger the group of people whose opinions matter to us the harder it gets. It seems better to shrink that number as much as possible.
This becomes critical when we consider how we cope with failure. I think most people are not so scared of failure, they are really scared of other people knowing about their failures. As a result we all go to great lengths to pretend we’re constantly smashing it.
It’s very easy to say we shouldn’t worry at all about what others think, and at the same time more or less impossible to actually not worry about what others think. Of course we care. It is, “one of the most human things we do”.7
However, if we can't reconcile our own assessment of ourselves, I'm not sure that there is enough external praise that can compensate for that.
On the other hand…
The Pixar movie “Coco” has some interesting lessons about legacy.
This review from Letterboxd sums it up well:
A story about death, murder, loss, grief, ageing, dementia, living skeletons, and deadbeat dads. Y’know, a kids movie.
My theory for a long time has been that the opposite of “famous” is something like “blissfully anonymous”. But it’s a small nudge from anonymous to generally unrecognised, overlooked, and (in the Coco sense) forgotten. So that’s something to weigh up. It’s a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.8
I’m critical of those who put their names on other peoples buildings, for example. But, then I’m not sure my name is even on many of the things that I’ve helped to build at all, which … doesn’t seem ideal either.
Kevin Kelly talks about only really needing 1000 True Fans.
Perhaps the optimum balance is something like: Micro Famous, Macro Rich.
Of course, there are lots of different ways to define a "rich" life too.
We might assume it's monetary, and that is certainly the most common measure. But it doesn't have to be, if you have a different aspiration which doesn’t require money to unlock it, then run with that. I think the logic still works either way.
Not having to worry about money is great. It gives you much more time to worry about everything else. However, more money by itself doesn’t make you a better person, or solve any fundamental flaws. I’ve been fortunate to know some people who are now extremely rich before they had much money. And in just about every case having more money just made them more of what they already were before (both positive traits and negative traits are amplified). No doubt the same is true of me.
I’ve also learned that removing cash as the constraint just highlights that the thing that’s universally scarce is time. Having a big net worth might mean you can do anything. But you still can’t do everything.
The other problem is that we all quickly normalise our achievements, however big or small they are. Happiness has a half life. There is nothing so amazing that we can’t get used to it. We quickly refocus on the next level up.9
There is always another level.
Having what you want vs. Wanting what you have
The question we started with is intentionally contrived and a little bit academic. In reality, achievement and recognition are self-reinforcing. And neither is entirely discretionary. But unpicking these elements does help us tease out our priorities.
We are all victims of our own definition of success.
If we can honestly define what's really important to us10, then not only are we more likely to actually get it, but also much more likely to be satisfied when we do.
The draft I shared last week, about the airbrushed stories of Trade Me, Xero, Vend and Timely, was the most read post of the year. So I’ve fast tracked that:
Here are half-a-dozen more completed essays, first shared in draft form in this newsletter, that have been published recently:
Enjoy! And please share these with anybody who you think might be interested.
Top Three is a weekly collection of things I notice in 2021. I’m writing it for myself, and will include a lot of half-formed work-in-progress, but please feel free to follow along and share it if it’s interesting to you.
This is very different from the original meaning, which described a technique used by a powerful leader to cut down any other influential people before they were able to challenge their authority.
There are definitely some investors who are attracted to the bravado of a founder who is full of unearned confidence. If you’re using that approach, and attracting those kind of investors, my advice is to pause and consider how those same investors might respond if (more likely when) your glitter has worn off. In my experience those investors who are most attracted to the glamour of an exciting sounding startup are also the first to go AWOL when things get hard.
In 2012, a study found that a desire for fame solely for the sake of being famous was the most popular future goal among a group of 10-12 year olds, overshadowing hopes for financial success, achievement, and a sense of community.
Note: those kids are all now 18-20 year olds. 😳
See: Reasons Not To Become Famous by Tim Ferris.
And, keep in mind, in this post Tim is describing the downsides of fame in the context of also being successful. Imagine having to deal with all of those issues without the resources he had. It’s a much more difficult equation!
See: David Brooks, on résumé virtues vs. eulogy virtues
Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too — the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.