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Sorry, but Brits need to stop apologising and love success

The UK may love self-deprecation but there's a risk we miss out on vital business opportunities and fail to inspire the entrepreneurs of tomorrow

Szu Ping Chan stop apologising illustration

No bragging please, we’re British. Self-deprecation is in our DNA, but our inherent discomfort with lauding achievement is holding back the economy. There’s a danger that a nation which prefers reluctance to enthusiasm is actually missing out on vital opportunities.

Some attribute this to tall poppy syndrome; successful entrepreneurs are an easy target for the jealous and the cynical. Others believe it’s a more fundamental trait of how we do business here in the UK.

I believe it’s a bit of both. For one thing, as a nation we just can’t stop apologising. A 2015 YouGov poll of more than 2,500 people in the UK and US suggested that Brits are 50 per cent more likely than Americans to say sorry for things that aren’t their fault, for example when they sneeze or someone else bumps into them. This isn’t so much of a problem in day-to-day life, but it can be detrimental in business.

“[Self-deprecation] is an endearing quality, don’t get me wrong, but when it comes to doing business there’s a danger it might be taken at face value,” says one US executive.

A 2023 Ipsos Mori poll found that Britain is a nation of ‘satisficers’ rather than ‘strivers’, with one in two (51 per cent) of us satisfied with our lot. Less than a third (30 per cent) said they wanted to achieve more. Brits also favour ‘quiet luxury’ and ‘discreet consumption’, preferring not to own or do things that might display their wealth.

This does not mean Brits are not confident about their ideas. But Adam Marshall, the former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, says too many of us are not shouting about our achievements.

Marshall, who describes himself as “American as apple pie” despite spending his whole professional life here, says there are clear differences between the two countries. In the US, he suggests, success is celebrated and failure is understood, whereas in the UK success is kept quiet and failure is something that should be avoided.

“My concern about celebrating success in Britain is that you see two varieties: the ‘brash businessman’ who doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, or the ‘tall poppy’ who ends up getting cut down by others,” adds Marshall.

The feeling that it could all go wrong is something even the best of us can’t shake.
A decade ago, the actress Olivia Colman admitted she found it hard to deal with new-found adulation. “It’s slightly scary, that tall poppy syndrome,” she said in an interview with The Guardian. “It could all go wrong. I don’t know. It’s weird.”

Colman’s acting talents went on to earn her multiple Oscars. “It’s genuinely quite stressful. This is hilarious, I got an Oscar!” were the first words she uttered after taking the stage to collect her award. True to form, “sorry” came seconds later.

There’s a broader point here. Britons love an underdog but all too often we expect them to stay that way. Even our sporting heroes are expected to remain humble. It means those who break the mould are left worrying they will be seen as arrogant.

Don’t get me wrong, being self-aware has its bonuses and we can’t change what’s in our DNA. However, we must do more to highlight success or other people in the business world won’t even attempt to achieve what Colman has in the arts sector. Our poppies won’t have a chance to grow at all.

Why is this? Perhaps fear of failure plays a role. A study published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed budding British entrepreneurs were twice as likely to avoid starting a business compared with their US counterparts because they feared they would not succeed.

Americans, on the other hand, have turned failure into an enterprise. Elon Musk, who
co-founded Tesla and owns the social media site X, was once the world’s richest man. He also holds the Guinness World Record for the largest loss of personal fortune in history after shares in the electric carmaker plunged in 2022.

Speaking about his rollercoaster journey, Musk insisted: “Anything which is significantly innovative is going to come with a significant risk of failure. You’ve got to take big chances in order for the potential for a big positive outcome. If the outcome is exciting enough, then taking a big risk is worthwhile.”

It’s worth remembering that some of the world’s biggest companies stemmed from failure. YouTube, which is now owned by Google, began life as an online dating site. Users were encouraged to ‘Tune in, Hook up’ and women were even offered $20 to upload videos of themselves. Nobody did and the owners pivoted to a video-sharing strategy.

Today, there is a whole industry in America that celebrates failure through conferences, as well as dozens of books on the subject. There’s even a name for it: failure porn.

Social media doesn’t help. The constant comparisons with others on Instagram and TikTok living what looks like their best lives can trigger social anxiety driven by the fear
of missing out, all of which can breed anger and resentment.

I know what you’re thinking: the media also plays its part. You have a point, but there
is an element of supply and demand. I’ve written about economics for more than 15 years and recession stories have always done better than tales about the booming economy.

Some of the most high-performing stories are about job losses. We celebrate success but are always looking for failure. Isn’t it time we all stopped looking over our shoulders and ask what’s next rather than what could go wrong?

There’s another risk to our constant fear of failure and denigration of success. Marshall believes the consequences of constantly diminishing the very people we should look
up to is that young people and entrepreneurs are left without role models.

“There’s sometimes a lack of attention from financiers when it comes to potential deals and opportunities,” he says. “If success is celebrated, then more money can flow to businesses because they become visible, they become known. We miss out by not celebrating success.”

After all, the next generation can’t be what it can’t see.

Szu Ping Chan is economics editor of The Telegraph

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