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November 21st, 2019
The Father of History, a man called Herodotus once reported a story which has gone down in history as a parable about how to govern. The story goes as follows:
A king known as Periander sends a messenger to another king named Thrasybulus with a question about how best to govern his city. Thrasybulus, upon hearing the request does not respond but instead leads the messenger outside of the city and into a field of wheat. Without saying a word he walks along and cuts off the tallest ears of wheat, throwing them away, continuing until he has destroyed all of the tallest poppies. The messenger then returns to Periander and reports that he received no advice. When pressed the messenger tells him about his experience with Thrasybulus in the field of wheat and Periander interprets this as a metaphorical directive to destroy the leading citizens of outstanding influence or ability in his city.
Now, as a metaphor shared between tyrants, this interpretation makes sense, and a thinker like George Orwell would be quick to agree that this is how dictatorships often operate. The parable has given rise to something called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ which describes aspects of a culture where people of high status are resented, attacked, cut down, and criticized because of their superior status. And it’s perhaps part of the reason why many people do not work as hard as possible to realize every last ounce of their potential: it simply seems and feels safer to coast along invisibly in a sea of normal, never causing a ruckus.
However, there remains an alternative interpretation of Thrasybulus’ actions to be mined - an ecological one that offers a fresh spin on an old and insidious idea.
Cutting off the tops of wheat plants would not kill the crop. If anything, this pruning will make the individual plant stronger. It’s a fundamental feature of biological systems that organisms of all types grow more robust when stressed in like ways.
But beyond this, the pruned pieces fall to the ground where they can be reincorporated into the soil, making it richer, and the diminished height of the plant frees up sunlight for surrounding plants.
And after all, what is the point of a plant producing fruit and seed if not to spread that back to the ground where it can stimulate growth once more?
Far from killing leading citizens, this parable makes more sense as a story about reinvesting profits. Even if that’s not what the tyrant Thrasybulus intended. One might go so far as to see a lesson about taxes and wealth redistribution which has become a topic of increasing discussion as we see individual parts of society grow far taller above the rest, whether that be Jeff Bezos and his fortune, or the monopolies of Google and Facebook when it comes to data and influence. The growing Presidential candidate for the U.S., Andrew Yang, perhaps embodies this fresh interpretation with his introduction of the Freedom Dividend.
On a smaller scale we can apply this fresh interpretation to a single company - any innovative one that reinvests its profits into research and development and thereby furthers it’s ability to grow through the use of its invention. Tesla is a good example of this despite the wide variety of opinion about the company.
On an individual level, we all have tall poppies growing in our life. Whether that be a great idea left undeveloped, time wasted watching reruns, or relationships we don’t nurture. Many of us simply complain about the morass of normalcy we find ourselves while remaining blind to the tiny asymmetries that surround us and offer opportunities to level-up.
Zooming out, we can see a larger mechanism at play here regarding unintended consequences. As a tyrant, Thrasybulus undoubtedly thought he knew what he was doing when he offered his silent advice. Meanwhile never realizing the flaw of his metaphorical action and the benefit he was providing to his wheat field, including the individual plants he was cutting. But actions ultimately speak louder than our interpretations of those actions. And in the case of this parable from Herodotus, it may be that it’s taken thousands of years for the unintended message to arise through a fresh interpretation.
Some fruit simply takes a longer time to hit the ground.
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